What Does it Mean to Be a Jew? READ THIS TO FIND OUT!
Two weeks ago I wrote to you with a link to a poem written and recited by Andrew Lustig entitled “What it Means to be a Jew.” I was impressed by Lustig’s work and perceived it as an invitation to respond. So did many of you! Below are selections of poetry and prose written by Beth David congregants about what being Jewish means to them. I was truly moved by the responses I received, and they helped me focus my own thoughts.
There are commonalities in much of what our fellow Beth David members wrote about what it means to be a Jew: shared values, mutual obligation, common tradition, cohesive community, interconnectedness, culture, struggle, history, memory, Israel, and Hebrew. These similarities reflect the underlying purpose of belonging to a group people, sharing an ethnicity, and adopting a particular religion as a way of life. Fundamentally, Jews share in a covenantal relationship with God exemplified through the performance of mitzvot. We all feel an obligation to Jewish community and also understand the necessity of our role as Jews in the larger world. However, being Jewish is also a quite personal experience. We each live out the hallmark features of Jewish existence differently. Just as no moment can be experienced by two people in exactly the same way, being Jewish cannot be experienced by two Jews in the same way. (As we all know, two Jews experience Judaism in three ways!) This is an obvious fact of life and reality. However, the panoply of ways Jews define what it means to be Jewish reflects another facet of Jewishness worth sharing.
In his epic work, Man is Not Alone, Heschel writes: “Judaism is a theology of the common deed…dealing not so much with the training for the exceptional, as with the management of the trivial. The predominant feature in the Jewish pattern of life is unassuming, inconspicuous, piety…Thus, the purpose seems to be to ennoble the common, to endow worldly things with hieratic beauty; to attune the comparative to the absolute, to associate the detail with the whole, to adapt our own being with its plurality, conflicts, and contradictions to the all-transcending unity, to the holy (p. 271).”
In essence, being Jewish is dramatically different for each of us because Judaism’s predominant focus is on the quotidian moments in our lives. The essence of Judaism is not about liminal moments in lifecycle events or awe-inspiring Yom Kippur experiences or even about the rockin’ Passover seder you have every year. Rather, our Jewishness is best observed in how we approach the normal, unremarkable moments in life. Being Jewish is about how we eat and sleep, how we spend our free time, how we interact with our friends and family. Being Jewish is about how we think about war and peace, justice and freedom, love, friendship, sexuality, and history. Being Jewish is about acting Jewishly in every moment of every day in every situation.
This is why being Jewish is a different experience for every Jewish person. Each of us lives a different life from one another. Furthermore, we all let Judaism into our lives to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, our experience of what it means to be Jewish varies. However, the tie that binds us together as a people is the perspective through which we approach our varying daily routines. Being a Jew is about elevating each moment, interaction, word, and deed from the sublunary to the holy. Being a Jew is about imbuing the quotidian with meaning and purpose. Being a Jew is about enacting God’s will and bringing God’s presence more fully into our world to the greatest extent possible. For me, this is the central element of what it means to be a Jew.
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
What it Means to be a Jew—Gary Nankin
Being a Jew means being part of a story that tests everyone’s imagination. Is it rational that such a small People survived more than three millennia while other much larger and more physically domineering civilizations have become extinct? How can we explain our existence in the face of incredible adversity with so many powerful enemies who have aggressively sought to destroy us? The fact that Jews have not only survived, but also thrived to impact the world so disproportionately to our numbers raises countless questions about our secret sauce.
The answers lie in our strong foundation. Notwithstanding our challenges, being Jewish is far more of a gift than a burden. Our identity goes hand in hand with the ideal and most important values that we have contributed to civilized society: family, social justice, compassion, charity, education, etc. The legacy of the Jewish experience is our treasure, but carries with it a special obligation for each of us to play our part to make the world a better place.
Our continuity has depended and will depend upon our ability and willingness to live up to our responsibility to teach and inspire our children and next generations about the richness of our history and our heritage. Only by perpetuating our tradition to retell our story can we continue to thrive as a People, enabling Jews, individually and collectively, to follow the path of our ancestors who moved from slavery to freedom. We are all still enslaved in our own ways, so this is an ongoing mission.
The kinship that we have with each other, as Jews, is enhanced because of our common destinies. We are guided by the central theme that we are created in the image of God; the more we live our lives accordingly, the greater will be our sense of fulfillment, as Jews and as human beings, and our contribution to the world. In the Torah, it is written: “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life”; our tradition sends a clear message that every action we take from birth to death matters, as we strive for tikkun olam.
Today, particularly in America, internal threats to Jewish continuity are more dangerous than external ones. Jews here can affirm or ignore their identity, so we must consistently answer the question “Why be Jewish” to current and future generations. The Jewish world has changed so quickly in many of our lifetimes as we have seen the renaissance of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel and the re-awakening of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. As Israel is so central to our continuity and sense of connection and purpose, and its future existence is not assured, we can take nothing for granted, so we must “Stand With Israel”, regardless of our individual political views.
Finally, Judaism thrives by creating a sense of connectedness like having an enormous extended family. In our individual ways, we can ideally use our incredible history, tradition, and teachings to infuse spirituality into our daily lives. By doing so, we can not only strive for personal redemption, but we can also uplift humankind with the moral and ethical principles that are at the core of our being. This is the essence of our Covenant, providing all of the valuable tools we need to deal with the complexity and hectic nature of modern life.
Judaism is—Aaron Nankin
Judaism is the space between God and humanity where we strive to be
teetering back and forth as if each Jewish life was a drawn out Kedushah
Judaism is a framework that shapes extraordinary lives
breathing godliness into lungs
forging selfless fingers and hands onto arms
and molding holy language that can inspire nations
Judaism is patience, and understanding that long term gain is all about evolution not just creation
Judaism is gold, not the color but the value, a precious stone which needs to be discovered, mined, melted down, and delicately carved into an intricate masterpiece
Judaism is more than a stale bagel left to harden after Sunday brunch
It is the cream cheese, spread with ease, like an ancient breeze on the Dead Sea
It is the porcelain god, just kidding, it is that herring and cod, mashed together into an abhorrent ball to create an ancient staple we call Gefilte Fish
Judaism are the principles, on which a people so mighty and resilient, holy and brilliant have been built
It is loving thy self, thy mother, thy father, thy wealth, not money but health, not honey alone, but milk as well
Judaism is community glue
it is me
it is you
it is that child in the Alum Rock School District who is beaten by his father and is reading 3 grade levels below average
it is the brilliant Biomechanical Engineer studying robotic arm design to save lives in East Africa
It is the professor whose paper on Alzheimers will shake the foundation of societal mental decay
It is the mental wrestling match I experience each time I make a difficult decision on how to conduct a holy life
a decision which sometimes has me pinned on the mat for days, months, even years
struggling with all my might to roll over, praying the referee won’t blow his whistle
It is Broken Glass on KristalNacht, and Broken Glass of joyous marriages
It is a clumpy alphabet soup containing acronyms like BBYO, JDC, ADL, YAD, AEPI, AIPAC and USY
It is Amare Stodamire’s appearance on Shalom Sesame,
Jon Stewarts wit pointing out truth using comedy
Rick Recht’s lyrics uniting a thousand Campers in song
it is Adam Sandler from Don’t Mess with the Zohan
It is this poem, it is all poems, and it lies within the absence of poetry
Where unlikely beauty is hidden
What It Means to Be Jewish—Jeanette Lerner
What is means to be Jewish is having an identity, a core set of values, a feeling of belonging and sense of pride. A rich history giving me the basis for the above. I love being Jewish.
What It Means to Me to Be Jewish—Len Jacobson
To feel pride when something good happens to or because of a Jewish person (or because I perceive the person is Jewish)
To feel sadness or shame when something bad happens to or because of a Jewish person
To feel the warm, nostalgic feelings I feel when I remember the holidays with my grandfather, hoping he would call on me to read part of the Hagaddah , sitting in shul on Yom Kippur when he would daven the Mincha service, and remembering the huge smile on his face on the day of my Bar Mitzvah when I looked down at him from the bimah
To feel enormous pride when they talk about the proportion of Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to Jews around the world
To be struck incredulous at the unfair, illogical treatment that Israel receives in the world community
To be outraged when the world demands that Israel return one inch of land that it won in war, when the entire span of recorded history shows no other case of a victorious nation having the same demand placed upon it
And to not even know the words to use to explain my complete outrage when some will declare that Israel has no right to exist
To feel pain when I listen to the words of a song, written and performed by a young Israeli girl, Yedidah Freilach – she says:
רק לישראל אין זכות להגן,
כי מדם יהודי העולם מתעלם.
Only Israel has no right to defend itself,
Because the world ignores the blood of the Jew.
To love the idea that our children speak Hebrew
To feel enormous pride that our younger son, David, is the president of his shul, that he and his wife keep a kosher home (even though we do not), that he goes twice a month to the maximum security federal penitentiary in their town to lead Jewish services for the Jewish inmates, that his children know beyond a doubt that they are Jewish
To feel joy that our older son, Danny, and his wife light candles every Friday night (even when we are not with them!!), that the first word I ever heard their younger daughter say was מוצץ (pacifier) and the second word she said to me was סבא (Grandpa). (Not to exaggerate this – the rest of the words were all in English.)
To brag to anyone within earshot about the Hadassah Medical Organization and how my wife was the President of the Northern California region and how she devotes so much time to Hadassah.
To realize that I have a need to let people know that I am Jewish in the most subtle or unsubtle ways within minutes of meeting them.
Andrew Lustig’s poem: