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Jew“ish”

I have been involved in Jewish education for nearly four decades in many different forms and formats. I have taught Jews of all ages, nationalities and streams of Judaism. I have heard and seen a lot of “types” of Jews, and yet there is still something that really puzzles me: What does it mean to be Jewish without Judaism? I have met thousands of Jews from around the world who identify as Jewish, but know nothing about Judaism. What makes one Jewish if one has no Judaism? Geneology can only take one so far, and the lox and bagel joke just isn’t funny anymore, particularly in light of how many millions of Jews we have lost in the last century, both physically and spiritually. There must be something deeper than food and genetics that binds us to our heritage and to each other…

Recently, someone dumped a book called “Postville” by Stephen Bloom, into the recycling bin near my home. My husband thought I’d be interested in it – I am always looking for good books to read, so he brought it home. As I read this book, I was struck by the tone of disdain, suspicion, repulsion, generalization and condescendence that Stephen, a Jewish journalist and Professor, felt toward his fellow Jews in Iowa. While it is true that he is a thoroughly assimilated Jew and the Jews that he writes about are Ultra-Orthodox, one would have thought that they would have had some kind of connection. As I read his description of a fellow Jew “coming at him” with Tefillin (he makes it sound like they were attacking him); or how he laughs at the irony of finishing a ham and cheese sandwich just before entering the kosher slaughter house, I was reminded of the famous quote by the British and Jewish theater director, Jonathan Miller: “I’m not really a Jew; just Jew-ish, not the whole hog.”

It also reminded me of a piece I once read in The Guardian, written by a Jewish journalist, Jonathan Margolis. After he rips into Jewish rituals, such as keeping Kosher, he states: “The point is that in our own way, we Jew-ish people are actually proud of being Jews… But the thing I love best about being part of this culture is that when this piece appears, there’ll be uproar. The Jewish Jews will say I’m a typical self-hating Jew. The Jews who deny being Jews will say I’m a typical self-obsessed Jew. The antisemites will say I’m just a typical bloody Jew. And yet the amazing thing is, I won’t be excommunicated or fatwa-ed by frum Jews. There’s no mechanism for it…The worst that might happen is I won’t be invited to a couple of Passover suppers next year. And if I die tomorrow, my people will still bury me like a proper Jew – in the prayer shawl I got for my barmitzvah. I’ll be given a traditional farewell by my friend the rabbi, whom I’ve asked in advance to fly over from New York to officiate at my funeral. My friend will doubtless say: ‘He may not have been the most observant Jew, in fact, he was a very naughty boy. But at least he was Jew-ish’.”

And of course, the concept of being Jew“ish” exists in every Jewish community around the world, and in very large numbers at that. But I must admit that I am at a loss to explain this concept. It is terribly confusing to read Stephen Bloom’s disdain for Jewish rituals while he insists that his son be connected to his Jewish roots. Or reading Margolis’ rant against Jewish laws such as keeping kosher, while assuring himself, and us, that he will not be excommunicated; he’ll still be able to go to a Passover Seder, and to have a proper Jewish burial. While he assures us in his article that he can have his cake and eat it too, I have to wonder what cake he is even eating.

And again I wonder: What does it mean to be Jewish without Judaism? What is this form of Jewishness based on? In Israel, several years ago, they began an institution called a “Secular Yeshiva”. In it, they study all kinds of texts – Jewish and secular – with the same reverence, and with no reference to God or belief therein. They do not have a kosher kitchen nor do they keep Shabbat. There was much discussion in an article in the Jerualem Post – “Not in search of God” – about whether or not this new genre of learning was a good or bad thing. Some Rabbis believe the whole concept is flawed, while others believe that all learning is good and will eventually lead to growth. The funny thing is that when they interviewed the students, many of them admitted to taking on some Mitzvot after or while learning there.

There were also discussions as to whether or not the concept of “being Jewish” is a cultural, national or religious idea. In Israel in general, there is a split between the concept of being Israeli (cultural and nationalistic) versus that of being a Jew (involved and learned in Judaism). However, the vast majority of the Israeli population is still traditional and they still follow many rituals, which is certainly not the case around the world. A traditional/non-Orthodox CUNY professor wrote a comment about the piece: “I found the sub-title – ‘The founders of Tel Aviv’s Secular Yeshiva envision Judaism as a culture and not a religion’ – rather disturbing, reminiscent of the thesis of the late Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. One cannot eliminate culture, history, language and religion from Judaism. They must be included in any serious academic approach, without necessarily demanding agreement or loyalty from those who study it. I cannot agree with Tal Shaked that “You can be a Jew without doing mitzvot.” Without a modicum of religious observance one can be a good humanist, but not necessarily a good Jew.”

After Bloom’s book, I just happened to read an interesting book about the Heritage House in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the spiritual seekers from all over the world who come through there. Two of the common threads running through this eclectic mix of stories of thousands of Jews – from every background and country – were: 1) They were all keenly aware that they were Jewish and always answered as much when asked; 2) Many of them searched elsewhere to find spirituality (especially India), since they felt that Judaism had nothing to offer them in that realm. I found it fascinating to see the contrast between those who were looking for Judaism and those who had no interest; some were even running away from it. It prompted me to ask another question that has always intrigued me: Why do some Jews feel such a closeness to Judaism and others feel nothing or are even repulsed?

And so dear reader, I leave the question up to you: What does it mean to be Jew“ish”?

About the Author
Teacher of Jewish Philosophy, Family Purity, and the Jewish take on dating and marriage; Mikveh Tour Guide; proud mother of 6 AMAZING kids; Rebbetzin; American Israeli who is in love with the Jewish People, Torah and Eretz Yisrael!
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