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Why Be Anything? Why Be Jewish?

Adam Chalom
December 11, 2017


by Adam Chalom

from the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

ONE HUNDRED and thirty years ago, a new language was born. It had regular rules and simple grammar, and could be learned in one tenth the time it takes to learn English. The inventor of Esperanto was a Polish Jewish doctor named Ludwik Zamenhof. In his words:

In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town, a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division . . . the most influential basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.

I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. . . . so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.

Over the last two centuries, Jews have often been attracted to movements and ideas that promise to solve anti-Jewish hostility and the dilemma of Jewish separatism. Maybe the solution to difference and conflict is not to convert and join the majority; maybe the solution to the problem of difference is to eliminate it. Imagine life before the mythical Tower of Babel, when “Everyone had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Recorded history has never seen such a unified circumstance, but many have been imagined.

Zamenhof himself was a complete universalist. He even refused to join an organization of Jewish Esperantists! He did not want to be a Jew or a Pole or a Russian, only a member of the human family, period. Yet he is buried in the main Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, near the first chief rabbi of Warsaw and thousands of other Jews. As the Jewish American sociologist Horace Kallen put it in the same era (in gendered language): “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers.”

EVERY PERSON lives out many identities: human, ethnic, family, philosophy, citizenship, gender, political persuasion, individuality. We see this in the context of intermarriage, if we take the example of a non-Jewish bride. Does she change her identity if she signs a ketubah? When we get married, who we are changes, at least ideally, by addition, not subtraction: She will still be who she was before, and now she will also be part of her partner’s family (no matter how crazy she thinks her new in-laws are). Her home will be connected to their family culture as well as to hers.

Who we are is not only a function of our individual choices. David Daniel Kaminsky can change to Danny Kaye, but we cannot change the people and culture that came before us. The memories of our parents or grandparents lighting Khanike candles or leading Passover seders will be a part of us until a science fiction future arrives in which we can erase memories at whim. I actually have no personal memory of either of my grandfathers, but I know the stories, and I have the pictures that look vaguely like me and a lot like my parents. I am an heir.

Sometimes, there are limits to our choices; sometimes others choose for us. Communism long had great appeal for Jews because it promised to end ethnic hatred through international worker solidarity. In the United States in 1947, the Communist-oriented International Workers Order (IWO) had fifteen language sections, but the Yiddish language section held 40 percent of IWO members, at a time when Jews were only 4 percent of the American population! All that internationalism didn’t come easily, however. Leon Trotsky was born Lev Bronstein, and he left being Jewish for international socialism, but that didn’t stop antisemites from using Trotsky’s Jewish origins to criticize communism, nor did it stop Joseph Stalin from using Trotsky’s Jewishness to expel and murder him. “Trotsky makes the revolution,” the chief rabbi of Moscow supposedly said, “and Bronstein pays the bills.”

Indeed, there have been times in Jewish history when one could not leave Jewishness behind, even by assimilation or conversion. The Spanish Inquisition did not persecute self-identified Jews; it pursued the so-called “New Christians” who had been Jewish and converted but were still suspect. And Nazism’s hatred did not pause to ask what a Jew believed or which identity box he or she marked: one Jewish grandparent was enough to define you as a target for extermination.

Even in America, where most Jews gradually became accepted as “white,” we would have to be crazy not to draw the lesson that being anything different, minority, or alien is dangerous, and that difference is itself a source of conflict.

OF COURSE, there are positive reasons beyond self-protection to identify with humanity as a whole. As Shakespeare’s Shylock said, we are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” Science, philosophy, art can all educate and inspire any human of any background.

On some level, it is indeed crazy to divide the entire world’s population into “Jews” and “non-Jews,” 0.2 percent vs. 99.8 percent. As a part of a small people like the Jews, it can be tempting to expand our group identity beyond that 0.2 percent. How about the international proletariat? Pioneers of a global language? Still, we do not have absolute freedom to choose who we are: We cannot choose our grandparents, and we cannot fully determine how others see us.

Here our individuality may rebel: Who are they, and who are you, to tell me what I cannot do, whom I can and cannot be? Our inner rebel sees a slippery slope from group identity to group-think, group responsibility, and group limitations. How can I assert my autonomy, my individuality, if people think of me as a label first and a unique individual second? If I am Jewish, am I implicated in anything any other Jew does? If I am part of a group, will they speak for me differently than I would have spoken for myself? Will the group expel me if I think for myself, if I challenge group consensus? Forget it, the rebel says, no groups, no labels for me.

In the end, if we say that people are in charge of their own lives, we had better mean it: If they choose to resign from Jewish identity, we cannot stand in their way. But group identity is deeply rooted in the human psyche, reflected in everything from family and neighborhood to sports teams to cultural and philosophic communities, and the benefits of being together can be worth the challenges and limitations of getting along. If we want the strength of mutual support, if we want a voice in the larger Jewish and human conversation, if we seek inspiration from both our roots and our shared commitments, then a label it may be.

Let’s look at this differently. Do you love your family? Is there anything wrong with loving your family? Is there anything about loving your family that makes you unable to be good and decent to the other 99.999 percent of humanity?

I love my connections with Humanistic Judaism more than ever, but I still love my family more. You can be part of more than one family at once — yours by birth, your partner’s by marriage, your ethnicity, even the human family. We all are many things; some we choose, some we inherit. In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” That may be the anthem for the future of Jewish community, of Jewish identity, and individuals: Each of us, and all of us together, are large, containing multitudes.

One Jewish ex-communist, the long-time editor of this magazine, Morris U. Schappes, put it very simply:

No one lives in The Universe. There is no address that reads 175 Fairview Boulevard, The Universe. Even the Universal Postal Union could not deliver mail to such an address. You live in a country, a state, a nation. There is no history of The Universe. Universal history is the sum total of group histories (tribe, people, nationality…), seen in their interconnections. Similarly, there is no simply “human” experience that can give rise simply to “human values.” For all these thousands of years, all human experience has been cast in the form of the limited group. An “internationalist,” thus, is not one who lives in an “internation” in outer space, far far out. He is an American internationalist, a Polish internationalist, a Ghanaian or an Indian internationalist. They may converge, but they converge from different points. We here may be American Jewish internationalists. But to omit the American or the Jewish is to strip the “internationalist” of vital, concrete meaning.

The irony is that the more we understand where we live, the more we accept who we are, the more we learn who our grandfathers and our grandmothers were, the better we understand everyone else. Everyone comes from somewhere; if we drop difference for universalism, we won’t understand and appreciate the vast majority of humanity that persists in being who they are. The more I connect with my own culture, the more I appreciate the distinctiveness of Korean culture or Lebanese culture. “Yes, we have something like that” is a much better basis for dialogue than “Why are you so different from what I want you to be?”

In that Warsaw Jewish cemetery, not that far from Ludwik Zamenhof, lies Y.L. Peretz, a giant of early 20th- century Yiddish literature. Peretz also welcomed the wider world, but he appreciated the universal from a particular perspective when he wrote:

I am not proposing that we lock ourselves in a spiritual ghetto. We must leave it — but with our own soul, our own spiritual wealth. We must make exchanges. Give and take. Not beg .

Ghetto means impotence. Interchange of culture is the only hope for human growth . . .To take yet continue to be oneself — that is the important thing. It is also difficult, especially for nations that are weak and not independent. That is why we must be more demanding with the Yiddish writer. He has something that is unique. . . . He should not do what others have done. Leave the ghetto, see the world — yes, but with Jewish eyes.

The sociologist Horace Kallen, one of America’s original cultural pluralists, envisioned not a melting pot that dissolves difference, but “a chorus of many voices each singing a rather different tune. . . . What must, what shall this cacophony become — a unison or a harmony?” Everyone singing the same note, or many notes coming together to sing a fuller anthem? To my ear, harmony is far richer than everyone singing the same tune.

IF I’VE SOLD YOU on the possibility, even the desirability, of being something and belonging somewhere, we still have to answer: Why be Jewish? Or at least Jew-ish. As the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s executive director Paul Golin has put it, previous generations were “Jewish before they knew it”: Jewish by birth, language, neighborhood, by immigrant and ethnic culture. They wondered how to balance being Jewish and becoming American. Today, the question has shifted: With all of my possible identities, connections, opportunities, why should being Jewish be important to me? Why should being Jewish even be on the list?

When I was graduating from college with a degree in Judaic studies, I was offered an ownership-track position with a family business. I already had decided to be a Humanistic rabbi, so I declined, saying something like, “I’m not that interested in sales.” But what do I do as a Humanistic rabbi? I create brochures, websites, marketing, messaging, promotional offers, advertising — I’m selling all the time. I am selling our community, to some extent I’m selling myself. And selling is really the art of persuasion. This is worth it! You should bother. What I’m selling is the value to you of being with us. We live in a new free market — a free market for ideas and inspiration. When people choose for themselves where they live, what they eat, what they wear, and even what they believe, the old answers and selling approach won’t work.

Imagine you worked for a Jewish ad agency; call it “Mad Mentshn.” Fifty-plus years ago, in 1964, what were the top Jewish sellers for “Why be Jewish?”

1) “Be Jewish because we made a covenant with God at Mount Sinai —when we follow the Torah things go well; when we break the rules, we ourselves are broken until we repent.”

Why was the Covenant a big seller? It provided a clear bargain, a strong incentive program with the weight of tradition and cosmic authority behind it. Why doesn’t the Covenant pitch work anymore? Because real life never worked that way: human suffering does not correspond to religiosity or to righteous behavior. To paraphrase the Yiddish poem by Jacob Glatstein, “Dead Men Don’t Praise God”: “at Sinai we received the Torah, and in the Holocaust we gave it back.”

2) Another old pitch: “Be Jewish because we are the Chosen People. We are the favorite children of a cosmic Father, we created ethics, we are the most brilliant scientists, the funniest comedians, with the best families and the richest traditions. And, though you shouldn’t say it too loudly, the rest of the world is somewhat lesser than we.”

Why a big seller? The Chosen People appeals to our ego, it justifies self-pride, and why would you bother being anything else, or marrying anyone else, when you can be the best? But the Chosen People pitch doesn’t work any more, either. At a certain point in our personal development, most of us outgrow the sense that everything revolves around us. Does it really make sense that the one God of an entire universe of billions of stars would choose one tiny group of one species on one planet as the most important beings anywhere, the only ones to receive the true story of how everything came to be and what all humanity needs to do, in a language that’s hard to learn and very few people speak? As history progressed, as freedom rang, we got to know our non-Jewish neighbors, and we learned that they, too, have wisdom and insight and humor to inform and inspire us. In some cases, they came to love us and we loved them back. Every group is wonderful in its own distinct way, but our group better than everyone else? Just too convenient and self-serving, not to mention rude; morality and reality reject it. Being Jewish can be special without being Chosen.

3) Here’s another past winner: “Be Jewish because Hitler would have killed you.” For a generation or more, remembering the Holocaust and staying Jewish to deny Hitler’s victory was a powerful motivation. But World War II ended more than seventy years ago, and the fact that our people were hated and killed in the past does not give us a positive reason to stay connected. No one is motivated to stay Jewish today because of the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine in 1648. You cannot build a healthy, vibrant, living identity exclusively on fear and trauma and anger.

I sometimes define history as “What happened before you were paying attention.” The bar and bas mitsve students I’m tutoring today were born after 9/11. For a child born today, 9/11 might as well be Pearl Harbor — they can learn from it, but they cannot live in it or live for it. Yes, some products sell out of fear, but for Jewish identity to be a positive part of our lives, we need reasons to be Jewish.

4) The absolute closer, the pitch that worked better than all the rest combined: “Your ancestors survived Inquisition, pogroms, persecution, migration, Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and now you’re giving up? Have you no loyalty? Don’t you love your grandmother? At long last, have you no sense of decency? How could you be the one to break the golden chain of Jewish tradition, four thousand years of pain and tears and joy and Judaism?”

You can feel the power of guilt, the pull on the heartstrings, the weight of years and expectations and emotions, the manipulation. But guilt doesn’t work well in the free market; people in 1964 who refused to buy cars from the Germans or Japanese now have grandchildren with Toyota Priuses. Guilt has its uses, but being Jewish because you feel guilty means that you’re living your life as someone else wants you to, taking on someone else’s values and making someone else’s choices. The clear truth of Jewish identity and community today is that it is far easier for people to tune out the guilt trip and do something that makes them feel good about themselves. Guilty Jewishness does not improve your life or motivate you to deepen your connection. You may endure it once or twice a year like a dentist appointment, but you’ll probably run from it as soon as you can.

SO WE NEED new ideas about why be Jewish, why stay Jewish, why become Jewish, why connect with things Jewish. Let me share three reasons that have been compelling to me.

First: Jewish is as Jewish does. Judaism is a rich and varied and long tradition that has seen everything from rational philosophy to animal sacrifice to mystical exploration, hereditary kings and priests giving way to rabbis and religious law, multiple languages sharing the same alphabet, and art and creativity celebrated in one corner of the Jewish world while condemned in another. At times we are inspired by our legacy; at times we are alienated. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Secular Humanistic Jews are both Jewish — if each of us contains multitudes, so, too, does Judaism. There is something for everyone, every learning style, every intelligence, every aptitude and interest. This is the beauty of celebrating Judaism as a culture: no matter what you believe, there’s always something for you. We can even find a defense of our own challenges to tradition from within our tradition, as in the Jewish tradition of integrity, exemplified by those Jews during Inquisition and pogrom who would not say words they did not believe.

Even Jewish martyrdom has its inspirations. In the Y. L. Peretz story, “Three Gifts,” a soul ascends to heaven, but its deeds are found to be exactly in balance. It returns to find three gifts to tip the scale. The soul witnesses a man killed protecting a small bag of earth around his neck, soil from the land of Israel, to be buried with him; the soul picks up the bag. Then it sees a Jewish woman, about to be dragged to her death in a pogrom, jabbing pins into her legs to make sure her dress will stay closed and her modesty preserved; the soul takes a bloody pin. Finally, the soul witnesses a Jewish man being beaten by a gauntlet of clubs; when his yarmulke is struck off, he faces the choice of going back to get it and face more pain or to go on with his head uncovered. The man returns and is beaten to death, and the soul takes the bloody yarmulke. When these three gifts are presented to the heavenly tribunal, they exclaim, “These three gifts are absolutely beautiful. Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.”

On one level, this martyrdom is a waste — they died for something that wasn’t true. At the same time, it shows courage and conviction and the strength of identity. “Totally worthless, but absolutely beautiful.” Jewish is as Jewish does.

Second: Be a Jew, be a mentsh. The Yiddish word mentsh means simply a person, but the best kind of person. I am not saying that every Jew is automatically a mentsh, nor that deep study of Judaism will automatically make you one; rabbis are arrested for crimes, too. I do not believe that Jews invented or have a monopoly on ethics. Nevertheless, there are values articulated in Jewish culture that we celebrate: an emphasis on literacy and learning that we have broadened to include both men and women, and secularized beyond the Talmud; an ethic of community responsibility and mutual support, combined with a work ethic of individual success. Jews have often celebrated brains over brawn, a welcome respite from today’s athlete worship and sometimes violent militarism. We have found humor as an antidote to the dashed promises of faith: when life doesn’t turn out as you expect, you can laugh or cry, and we have done both. We have our failings, but that makes us human. An example: traditionally the High Holidays were not only about divine forgiveness, but also human forgiveness — not just asking for forgiveness from someone else, but being willing to offer forgiveness when a sincere apology is made. This means making yourself available to someone who has wronged you to give them the opportunity to make it right. Is that easy? Not at all. But how wonderful that our tradition explored how hard it can be to repair relationships through human atonement. Other traditions have their lessons. So too, does Judaism. Be a Jew, be a mentsh.

Third: Be a Jewish citizen of the world. In the last few centuries, Jews have become a prototype of the globalized identity — living within and fluent in other cultures, but still distinct and separate in some ways. Jews are a world people speaking different languages, but possessing a common identity beyond that of their city or country. Sometimes that gives us an outsider’s perspective and lets us challenge conventions, like Freud’s theories on sex or Einstein’s on relativity. At all times it gives us the ability to think beyond our personal identity, since we have always had more than one.

Because of this dual identity, Jews have been accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” citizens of the world, with no allegiance to the people among whom they lived. The more that people circulate in a global economy, the more the world will need rooted cosmopolitans, people who have a global perspective and awareness, but still know who they are and where they come from. If you are Jewish, if you’ve become Jewish, that rootedness can find deep origins in the Jewish experience, and so can that universal perspective.

IN THE END, I suspect that I am still Jewish because I am stubborn, and that is definitely a Jewish tradition. We have called ourselves a stiff-necked people, and we can be a pain in the neck. Being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do not get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish. I am still here and I am still Jewish because I am going to fight for the right to be who I am, on my own terms. If you won’t accept me, if you don’t think that I am Jewish or you don’t think what I do is Judaism, that’s your problem, not mine. Even those Jewish teachings I reject — chauvinism, anti-feminism, insularity — they are skeletons in my closet, knots on my family tree. It’s good to be passionate about things in life; why not this?

Am I only selling to myself? I have to start there. Remember Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men: “I’m not only the president of the Hair Club for Men,” he said, “I’m also a client.” I’m not only someone who’s paid to be Jewish; I am a Jew, and that identity provides meaning and inspiration to my life. So if the best sales pitch for “Why be anything? Why be Jewish?” is a personal testimonial, here it is:

My first trip to Israel, in the mid-1990s, I went to visit the Western Wall, the last surviving wall of the Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed in 70 CE. On my way, I knew there were some barriers to a positive experience. I knew that it stands on a mountain that is claimed as holy by both Jews and Muslims, and the Dome of the Rock, right over the Western Wall, is a source of conflict to this day. I knew that the site is gender-segregated. I knew that the beautiful plaza in front of the Wall didn’t hadn’t always been there ­— an entire Palestinian neighborhood, some 130 houses, was knocked down in 1967 to create that plaza. I also knew that I had forgotten my baseball cap in my dorm room and had to wear a silly paper yarmulke that kept blowing off my head. And I knew that I had not brought a piece of paper on which to write a hope for the future to place in the Wall.

I knew all that. But when I touched those stones, and felt how smooth they were because generations of my people had come to this space and touched them, it was electric. I didn’t need the supernatural, I didn’t need a revelation. It was a connection with my past, in my present.

That moment deepened my life, and it continues to — I can still feel those stones. If you feel it too, you know why it’s good to be something, to be somebody, to know who you are and to live it well. We are large, we contain multitudes, in all of our contradictions and complexity. And yet it is the wisdom of America’s founding motto that still applies: e pluribus unum, from many, one.

Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D., is dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism for North America and rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, Illinois. This article originally appeared in a slightly different version in Humanistic Judaism, Vol. 46, No. 1.