Jews have been living in America for 360 years, first arriving from Recife, Brazil to what was then called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule.
Over the centuries Jews have prospered in America more than they had in any other country in the world.
Why, then, are they hyphenated? Some call themselves American Jews and others refer to themselves as Jewish Americans? Is there a significant difference or is it just a matter of phrase choice?
From my point of view, I believe that it is how American Jews (or Jewish Americans) think of themselves.
An American Jew is one who places nationality before religion whereas a Jewish American places religion before nationality.
Liberal (non-Orthodox) Jews tend to think of themselves as Americans observant of the Jewish faith.
Traditional Jews think of themselves as Jews who were either born in America or immigrated to it. They Are Jews first but are loyal American citizens.
It is reminiscent of the old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg?
When I am asked occasionally what kind of a Jew I am (Orthodox or non-Orthodox), I reply simply that I am a Jew without labels. Hitler didn’t ask the Jews if they were observant of Shabbat and kashrut. For him and his ilk, a Jew was a Jew to be detested.
Aderaba, on the contrary, I am a Jew who is proud of being a Jew, a descendant of priests and prophets, judges and kings, sages and scholars for whom Judaism was not simply a religion but also a way of life.
An American rabbi in the 1920’s, Mordechai Kaplan, published a book called JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION. The book was burned and banned by Orthodox rabbis but Kaplan’s thoughts were accepted universally by Conservative and Reform Jews and by the group which he founded as the Reconstructionists.
Kaplan’s thoughts were based upon Jewish history. We have a language of our own, a culture of our own, a religion of our own. He claimed that the Jews were united by a common history rather than by a common belief in God, since there were multitudes of Jews who did not believe in God and yet shared the same Jewish history.
Judaism for me is a total way of life based upon wise teachings handed down centuries ago. New interpretations have been given to old and often out-dated laws, but following those interpretations does not exclude a Jew from klal Yisrael.
The Dutch-Portugese philosopher Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza was excommunicated at the age of 24 by the rabbis of Amsterdam because he dared to question and to express doubts. That was a great tragedy.
Judaism has always welcomed questions and is tolerant of doubters who are in need of answers.
We should strive to be more like Hillel than Shammai, more patient and more tolerant. His historic reply “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you” is the Golden Rule of our faith.
V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha… love thy neighbor as thyself.
So being a hyphenated Jew is not so bad. As long as one chooses to remain a Jew.