Lately I’ve been giving a bit of thought to who we are as a people, that is, to what Jewish peoplehood is, what binds am Yisrael, the people of Israel, together as am echad, one people.
While some might answer religion, we know that those who are not observant, or have even repudiated Judaism, are still considered Jewish. So while our teachings, our customs, our holidays might be common, religion alone is not the answer.
Others might cite culture, naming certain foods, but New Yorkers enjoying bagels and lox Sunday morning or going out for Chinese food on Christmas are certainly not culturally connected to Yemenite Jews eating jachnun on Shabbat morning.
Still, some might think of Israel itself as a connector, and while our ancestors were exiled out of Canaan and every Jew today can opt for citizenship in the modern state of Israel, the far-ranging political positions Jews take vis-à-vis Israel and its politics reveal rifts, not ties that bind.
So, how are we connected? All these differences exist for a common reason. We have travelled far and wide throughout history, often due to persecution, but no matter where we have landed, no matter which place am Yisrael has sojourned, we’ve experienced life both similarly and differently. As a minority wherever we are, our holidays, foods, customs, religion all provide us communal connections – while differentiating us from the rest. And the different countries where we live shape those same elements in different ways.
In addition to our teachings, our holidays, our prayer book, we also take this shared history with us no matter where we go. When Jews from a myriad of places and life experiences come together, we see what characterizes each community separately and what unifies us all. Whether we prepare latkes or sfenj or any other Hannukah treat, we are all lighting candles for eight days. No matter what language accompanies the Hebrew in our Haggadah or what style the illustrations are in, we are all retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt.
And so lately, my thoughts have been about our collective history and our identity, how we are am echad.
Merriam-Webster defines peoplehood as (1) the quality or state of constituting a people; and (2) the awareness of the underlying unity that makes the individual a part of a people. How much are we aware? How much do we know of what our own people have experienced? I myself don’t know what I don’t know, and so I’ve begun collecting books which speak to aspects of who we are.
I’ve started with history. The eighth edition of Martin Gilbert’s The Routledge Atlas of Jewish History (2010) tells our story in maps. Covering migrations and societies, politics and prejudice, we see how the world’s reaction to the Jewish people in its midst has shaped us. Similarly, A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present by Elie Barnavi, Miriam Eilav-Feldon, Michel Opatowsky and Denis Carbit (2002) offers photographs and chronologies alongside its maps to depict where we have been and what we have experienced. The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia: A Year-by-Year History from Creation to the Present by Mattis Kantor (1992) develops the chronology even further, showing thousands of years of history in a way that allows us to see simultaneously what was taking place in multiple locations. Another addition, A Celebration of Judaism in Art (2006) by Irene Korn, offers a sampling of the functional art found in synagogues and homes, all across the globe. Styles may differ, but every havdallah spice box has the same purpose. Right now, I am expecting a copy of Abraham Z. Idelsohn’s Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (2011) to arrive any day. This book looks at how synagogue melodies and folk music alike have evolved wherever across the globe our people have been.
Each of these books covers specific angles of Jewish peoplehood; none of them is new.
So, it was with a bit of excitement that I learned about the soon-to-be-released The Book of Jewish Knowledge, edited by Rabbi Yanki Tauber. The peek I’ve seen incorporates timelines and maps. But they are also complemented by photographs and graphically engaging diagrams which explain not only Jewish history, but also its practice, holidays and lifecycle events, as well as what Judaism teaches. Each element is part and parcel of our peoplehood.
There is a saying that there are 70 faces to the Torah, that is, many ways to interpret. The Book of Jewish Knowledge offers 1,200 voices, acting together like a chorus, jointly telling the story of what makes the Jewish people am Yisrael. It’s a beautiful book.
Part of my goal in building my collection is to inject a finer level of detail into my own broad understanding of who we are. My thought is that if we can flesh out the breadth and depth of where we have taken what we, am Yisrael, know, we can see the larger picture of how it all fits together. Because as am echad, one people, we are all connected.