Note: I was inspired to write this essay after reading Nina Badzin’s thoughtful piece, I Am Jewish for Me, Not for My Kids, recently published on Kveller, one of my favorite blogs. While my approach diverges from Ms. Badzin’s, I appreciate her perspective and am grateful to have come across her essay.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? — Hillel
I am not Jewish for myself. I am Jewish for my child. And for my grandmother, and her grandmother, who fled the pogroms of Poland and came to this country alone, in search of a new world while holding onto the traditions of the prior one. I am Jewish for everyone who died in the Shoah, for all the Jews airlifted out of Yemen in 1949 during Operation On Wings of Eagles. For those who support the State of Israel in her quest for peace, for those who support BDS, for those who believe in a two-state solution and those who believe that Zionism is a myth. I’m Jewish for those bubbelehs who did what they were told, the vilde chayes whose very breath is an act of resistance. I’m Jewish for Malka Zdrojewicz, the Polish resistance fighter who by some miracle of fate survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Majdanek death cam I’m Jewish for those Haredim who might not consider me a Jew at all. I’m Jewish for Golda Meir, with whom I most vehemently disagreed, and for Susan Sontag, with whom I agreed on virtually everything. I’m Jewish for those whose destiny was to live and those who did not make it out alive, for Hadassah grandmothers and Jews for Racial Justice, of which I am one. Because I am. Because others had to hide or fight, flee or resist, and while identity politics are problematic, they are real. I am because we are, and because they were.
In a manner of speaking, continuity is a myth. We rely on this fiction because it gives us order. The Judaism I practice, the Jewish life I lead, differs markedly from that of my grandmother. Hers departs radically from that of her grandmother, who migrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, in the hope of finding a newer world. The Judaism a Yemenite Israeli immigrant to the United States might practice in 2016 differs significantly from that of his grandmother in Israel in the 1970s, or his grandmother’s grandmother in Yemen, some 50 years before. Still, history, and the memory that emerges from that history, resonates. We existed then, and we exist now, through and in spite of ruptures, and in some sense this is the essence of what it means to be Jewish.
So there is a connection, whether I like it or not–when I daven or cook for my family or observe the Shabbos– between the past and the present, between history and memory, between those who came before and those, I hope, who’ll come after. For me, continuity is a choice, freely undertaken, founded not in guilt or shame or fear, but in dignity and courage and love. It is an aspiration and a testimony and a gift, offered in respect for those who came before me and in prayer for those who may come after. Continuity is a love proposition, rooted in a recognition of our history as Jews, whether in Poland or in Yemen or the United States—in Ethiopia, Russia, or Israel.
Ours is a history of exile and return, of continuity and change, of survival in the face of unlikely odds. My life, I hope, is many things, but one of these is a living testament to the strength and resilience of our people. So for me, honoring this legacy, our shared history, carries value and meaning. It represents a fundamental aspect of who I am and what I hope to impart to my children. It serves as a reminder of why we practice Judaism and who we are, as a people.
Now, I am an American, which means many things, not the least of which that I have a strong sense of myself as a lone ranger, a solitary sou, first and foremost an individual. But in spite of that, or perhaps in recognition of it, to say that I am Jewish for myself alone would miss the point of what it means to be a Jew—really, of what it means to be human. It is impossible for me to think of Judaism as for myself, per se, because I am not, and have never been, alone. Judaism occurs in a social context, and Jewish identity is communal. We make a home, and grow a community, and this becomes our world. The present depends on the past, and the future depends on what we build. And so I embrace the traditions that have been handed down to me, and those that I have chosen. You can call it continuity; I call it a love proposition. To honor the forebears who made my life possible, out of devotion to those in my home and community in the here and now, with a heart full of hope for the future.