The JEWel in the crown; thoughts on “duel” identity

The JEWel in the crown.

A few months after the Hamas attack in the south of Israel on 7/10/2023, Omer Barak, a well-known writer from Tel Aviv, wrote a post in which he said that while he had always refrained from calling himself a Jew, he now felt the need to identify himself as a Jew and not only as an Israeli or as a “Tel Avivi” or as left wing. Omer’s post generated a lot of response and comments; I would like to put Omer’s post into some sort of historical perspective.

In October 1958, David Ben-Gurion, then prime minister of the state of Israel which he proclaimed in 1948, sent a letter to 50 Jewish intellectuals – rabbis, writers, scientists and lawyers – from the Diaspora and Israel. These intellectuals represented the principal streams of contemporary Jewish thought. Ben Gurion asked them for their thoughts on the deeper meaning of “Jewish identity” (or what does it mean to be a Jew when we now have an independent state, i.e. Israel?).

Fast forward to the 1960s and onwards in South Africa, when many of us grappled with the question if we were Jewish South Africans, or South African Jews, i.e., did we identify ourselves primarily as Jews who happened to be also South African, or vice versa, or were we both Jews and South Africans to the same extent and could therefore be considered as having “dual identities”?. This question of dual identity surfaced also in other countries in the diaspora, e.g., the USA, especially during the espionage trial of Jonathan Pollard.

Fast forward again, this time to 2022 (and onwards), when it has become common for many people to see themselves as having “multiple identities”. I am not referring to the clinical condition of multiple “personalities”; rather, to people whose being is composed of several “components”.

Avraham Infeld, a prominent Israeli educator from SA, writes as follows:
“I too live in a perpetual tension between my universal and particular tendencies. I am both Avraham Infeld the Jew and Avraham Infeld the human being. Sometimes one of these identities is primary; sometimes the other takes over. However, I aspire to live with both simultaneously and to make them whole. There is never a time when I am only one or the other. I am always both, even when they are in conflict and there is tension between them. To be a member of the extended Jewish family in the twenty-first century is to be universally human and distinctly Jewish at the same time. It is also to connect through shared memories with other Jews, even those who appear to be distant relatives, and to turn that belonging into behaviors that will contribute both to the continued significant renaissance of the Jewish people and the improving of the world”.

Prof. Louis Herman, an ex-South African now living in Hawaii, wrote as follows when he tasted biltong (like beef jerky) again on a trip to SA:

“Savoring the tough strips of flesh fills me with a nostalgia so strong it’s a kind of communion. For a moment I feel like I am an African back in Africa. At other times I also feel myself to be a Jew, an Englishman, an Israeli, and a kama‘aina, a dweller in the land of Hawaii.”

Back to Avraham Infeld:
“I was once giving a lecture in Los Angeles, and it was arranged that before the lecture I would go to the house of some local people for dinner. They were a Conservative Jewish family with a kosher home. They were vegetarian and had adopted two children whom they had converted to Judaism.

While we were having dinner, the children were playing in the garden with some friends. At one point, the six-year-old ran into the house and asked, “Abba, I don’t remember why we don’t turn on lights on Shabbat.” Is it because we are vegetarian, because we are converted or because we are adopted? Identity is, as we know, a serious and complicated business”.

(end of quote from Avraham Infeld).

On Pesach night, we ask “the four questions”; in these times, I “identify” the following three questions:

1: If someone were to wake you up at 2.00 am and ask you to intuitively define your core identity (not profession or gender) in one or two words, what would you say? Jewish or Israeli or South African or Australian or American or New Zealander or kibbutznik or New Yorker or French, etc.

2: Do you think that your children will define themselves in the same way as you did?

3: If you define yourself as “Jewish” and as secular, how do you give expression to your Jewishness or put it into practice?

About the Author
Asher Kassel studied law at UCT (University of Cape Town) in the late 1960's and made aliyah from South Africa in 1974. After living on a kibbutz for about 7 years, he worked for the South African Zionist Federation, first in Haifa and then in Tel Aviv; thereafter he worked in hi-tech (regulatory approvals for medical devices) for about 20 years, and then retired.