Being a Jew in the street

Modernity allowed individual Jews to engage in professions and occupations that until then where closed to Jews, and the political systems that emerged from that new reality allowed individual Jews to participate in the political life of the societies in which they lived. But there was a price...

Moses Mendelssohn came up with a workable formula for making being Jewish and being a citizen compatible...Jewish history call it the Haskalah (Jewish iluminism). It was build on concepts that were circulating freely in Europe. After centuries of religious wars, Europe was looking for a formula to allow the different versions of Christianity to coexist, and that led to understand religious life as a personal, individual, private choice - as oposed to citizenship, a public proclamation of commonality. In that context, differences between the various Christian denominations took second row to the primacy of Nationality and Citizenship. In that maelstrom of redefinitions, Mendelssohn translated those ideas into a Jewish context - one had to be a Jew at home (private life) but a gentile (citizen of society) in the streets (public domain). Jewish identity was relegated to a private function rather than an open public proclamation of belonging. As a community with a National-religious identity, Jews were still relegated to the backstage - as individuals, however, Jews gain unparalleled acceptance in the general European society; at least for a while.

The establishment in the formelry English colonies of North America of a new political system opened new doors. Jews in America gained acceptance to an even wider extent than in Europe, but still mostly as individuals. The idea of Jews as a collective being accepted was alien - as alien as the acceptance of Catholics or some other religious minorities, because Americans were still infected by the old European virus of believing that Jews were a religious fosile that was destined to dissappear in the end times. In the meantime, they were allowed to continue their religious practices in freedom - but the idea of a Jewish identity beyond religion was alien to the American mind, and was becoming increasingly alien to American Jews. This concept was not seen as problematic until all those Polish "unpolished" Jews started pooring into America in the XIX Century, redefining Jewish communal life.

Yet over time, Eastern European Jews and their descendants adapted as well to the new environment, most of them making their Jewish cultural and national identity also marginal to their lives and confined to the walls of the community. Two hundred years after Modernity blasted the walls of the Ghetto which kept Jews separated from society, Jews were apparently building new walls for a Ghetto to contain not the Jews, but Jewish identity. Expressing openly one's Jewishness in the public domain was uncommon, consider untasteful and certainly counterproductive for one's advancement in society.

1948 began to change all that. The existence of a Jewish State gave Jews all over the world pride in their National-Cultural identity, and many started revising their attitude about public expression of Jewish identity. The change was even more pronounced after the 1967 war. Yet for many American Jews, the idea of openly expressing Jewish identity in the Public square was still at best an awkward proposition, and a no-no at worst. Yet things never remain the same, as the great Jewish scientist of the XX Century once said : "The only constant of the Universe is change itself".

Over the years, public expressions of Jewish identity by the Jewish community as a whole and by Jewish individuals, grew in both, number as well as depth. One of those manifestations is the public celebration of Jewish culture as distinct of others. This is many times done in block parties that we call "Festivals". In the 1950s a Jewish Festival was unthinkable; today is common. It represents the triumph of Jewish integration in American society while mantaining a distinct identity. We are not just Americans...we are American Jews.

On Sunday, September 18, our community celebrates Jewish culture and Identity at the JCC on Grand Avenue. Shalom on Grand is a celebration of freedom to be who we are as a people and share who we are with our non Jewish neighbors. Join in the celebration - 11 to 4 at the JCC; 110 S Grand Avenue in Poughkeepsie.



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