One hundred and eighty degrees or three hundred and sixty?

By Daniel Chejfec

My four grandparents were born in little villages (shtetls) in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia. When I was growing up I often asked them about life in what I saw as a mythical land lost in the fogs of years past. One of the areas that interested me the most was how did Jews remain Jewish in those days, given that many of them where non observant.

Their answers were somehow different, but they all boiled down to one central idea: Jews were Jews because it was what Jews did. What they meant was that if you were born a Jew, you were a Jew. In their days, the idea of breaking with one's group was a difficult one to accept (although many did). In their days, if you wanted to break with the Jewish community you needed to be proactive in doing it. You needed to convert or at the very least abandon the shtetl and leave your Jewish “baggage” behind. Things have changed.

In our world today, it is easier to melt away in the crowd of anonymous faces. While doing nothing proactive might have kept you a Jew living among Jews in the days of my grandparents, doing nothing proactive to assert one's Jewish identity today in the Diaspora is not only easier, but a ticket to leave Jewish identity behind. Today, it is remaining a Jew that requires active engagement while passively moving away provides an exit from the Jewish baggage.

Nowhere is this more true than in American society. Jews have achieved in America a level of acceptance not seen in the Diaspora since the days of the “Golden Century” in Spain. For a Jew to forsake his/her Jewish identity it is no longer necessary to convert; it is just necessary to be able to ignore the connection. Being Jewish, which in my grandparents' day was central to the way they defined themselves, is today marginal. Jewish identity has become in America just one more competing part of a multi layered individual identity. It is not perceived so much as an Heritage; it has become a personal choice. Embracing Jewish culture is no longer seen as a duty for Jews; it is an individual right to claim the culture of our ancestors.

To pro actively engage our Jewish identity means today to become active in the Jewish community, and in the XXI Century it also means to connect with the reborn Jewish State in our ancestral land. What makes our Jewish lives even more interesting is that the very existence of Israel allows Jews to be more assertive and exercise the right of dissent without feeling they are breaking ranks with the rest of the community – and this is good.

On the other hand, the marginality of Jewish identity in modern American life means also that most American Jews do not invest much of their time to learn about Jewish History and Tradition or even about Zionism, Israel and other Jewish communities around the world. The result is that, as they scan pieces of information here and there, they accept them without questioning and develop very partial perceptions of what it means to be a Jew or a supporter of Israel. Depending of other aspects of their individual identity such as political views, religious preferences, etc, that partial perception can be very different from one individual to the next. This leads to internal confrontations in which each side is absolutely convinced they hold the truth and “the other” is wrong. This all-or-nothing approach is the consequence of lack of perspective on what it means to be a Jew.

A number of years ago, I remember reading on a Bar Mitzvah program at a synagogue the Bar Mitzvah boy's explanation of why it was important for him to be a Jew...he said that it was because “Jewish Tradition does not chain me but allows me to fly”.

The recent Portrait of Jewish Americans released by the Pew Research Center shows that most American Jews have very partial understanding of their Jewish Identity, and support for Israel is not exactly at the top of the list...the irony being that without the existence of Israel Jews would not be so assertive in displaying their Jewish identity as they are today. The fate of the Jewish people and the fate of the Jewish State are one and the same. Zionism and the modern State of Israel are the culmination of an historical process that began the day after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 and includes the experience of Jews across time and geography. We ignore this fact at our own risk.

Having said that, expecting support for Israel to be expressed only in terms of blind support is myopic. The State of Israel is a collective enterprise of the Jewish people – in my view the most important one since the Talmud – and “collective” demands incorporating the different points of view into a common canvas.

Our tradition teaches that it takes many Jews to read the Torah. This means that different Jews will find different meanings in our collective heritage, but only by bringing those different meanings into a dialog can we really perceive the true richness of being a Jew. 


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