“Once, when I was in prayer, I saw, for a very brief time and without any distinctness of form, but with perfect clarity, how all things are seen in God and how within Himself He contains them all.”
– St. Teresa of Avila, one of my favorite religious poets of all time, and… half-Jewish
Jewish identity has been on my mind lately.I wonder why 😉 I’ve just finished a course in Tikkun Olam Jewish Peoplehood, a class that often had me feeling ill at ease, confused, and even– at times– angry. The biggest culture shock for me thus far in Israel has been the transparency with which Israeli Jews speak about preserving Jewish-ness as an ultimate priority over just about anything else. Being Jewish and preserving Jewish majority, to many of my Israeli friends and teachers, is an unfaltering and “given” necessity– oftentimes equated with the survival of the Jewish culture and peoplehood as a whole.
It doesn’t sound half-crazy. In a century that has been host to a number of colossal threats to the Jewish people worldwide (need I spell them out? okay: Pogroms, Holocaust, Intifada… somebody please educate me and share others from outside Europe and the Middle East!), I can understand why we might be concerned with our own survival. Speaking as the daughter of a psychotherapist, I am well versed in the language of trauma and self-preservation. I completely see the rationale behind a “me and mine first” mentality, and the promise “never again.” Though Jewry worldwide has expressed these survivalist instincts in different ways according to societal pressures and situations (Israelis have built physical walls and established a vigilant army to stand guard, while American Jews have hidden behind bagels, yoga, and Hollywood actors in order to charm the others into thinking we’re just like them and thus not be hated), none of us can deny the enormous influence of fear in our public relations strategy.
But when we look inward, and consider what it means to be Jewish today, we may find a big question mark staring back at us. In a globalized 21st century world, we may no longer be able to fall back on religion and tribalism to define who we are. How can we in good conscience put a Jewish agenda “first” when we now share communities, culture, and even genes with non-Jews? Though we might deny it, no-place in the world (not even Israel) is (or ever has been, if we’re being honest here) entirely Jewish! How can we live our lives according to outdated interpretations of Biblical traditions and stories when they fail not only to make sense to us in the practical day-to-day, but also cease to be cognitively viable in combination with a modernizing world that has given us new concepts of morality through social movements for civil rights, environmentalism, and economic justice? We have new prophets, born from Feminism, Critical Race Theory, and Occupy Wall Street! How can we stay true to our innermost desires to love the other and embrace intelligent growth, and simultaneously preserve those traditions, laws, and prayers which our Jewish ancestors fought so hard to give us the freedom to practice?
To me, the clear answer is Jewish Renewal– reinterpretation of texts paired with return to the Jewish spiritual connection with the Divine.But that’s not enough for some people. Some of us are concerned with numbers, and I have to tip my hat to that because having seen charts, I know that the numbers of those identifying as Jewish and educating themselves in Jewish law, texts, and traditions are steadily decreasing. To be clear, I happen to be a big fan of the Jewish-Other combo (yours truly is a proudly unique blend of Jewish/Korean/Buddhist/Yoga/Suburbs/City/East Coast/West Coast/SF Giants, daughter of a nature-loving Russian-speaking acupuncturist and a Palestinian-loving Dead-Head psychologist), and a big believer in the idea that being mixed does not make you any less of one or the other. But I also appreciate the concern on the part of those who worry that we Jews need to stick together and keep our guards up to avoid being caught unawares, or suddenly we’re in concentration camps again, or speaking English and decorating our Christmas trees during Hanukkah– oops, wait, that might have already happened…)
I’d like to believe that with intention and inclusivity, we Jews can have it both ways. Inter-marry, give equal rights to all, and still make sure we protect ourselves and our history. That we can create a beautiful mish-mash patchwork of all the different values and symbols we attach to being Jewish– baseballs, matzaballs, yarmulkes, kibbutzim, synagogues, hummus, swords, guns, minyans, candles, and Torah, with a little bit of kim chee, Jesus, and vinyasa thrown in. But I know that for the most part, Israel is still set on the Zionist mission of creating a Jewish state– by Jews and for Jews– so that there will be one corner of the world that we can just call Jewish and not have to ask what that means. And likewise, America still asks us to check just one box and wonders aloud “Is Jewish really an ethnicity, or is it just a religion?” while American Jews wonder if our future grandchildren will have any reason to call themselves “the chosen ones.”
I guess I don’t have a clear answer to all this. (For someone else’s great answer, see: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-problem-with-worrying-about-jewish-continuity-1.395277) But for now, I’m going to wave my little Berkeley Jewish-Korean peacenik flag high, and hope that it gives hope to those who wonder where all the Jews have gone, and courage to those who– like me– owe their existence to the bravery of mixed-marriage and march forward in the name of Jewish-based social justice and ultimate loyalty to humanity, even if humanity at times takes the form of “the other.” Because I like to think that G-d would smile favorably on this kind of parade.