For much of my life, my Jewish identity has felt… complicated. A family heirloom I appreciate, sometimes cherishing, sometimes burdened by, the value and responsibility it holds. Sacred and heavy, like the parchment and its intricate case that rest in the ark before me.
This week, for the first time since my earliest childhood memories, being Jewish feels very straightforward. Inextricably intertwined from my belonging in this world. The most important fact of my existence and the precursor to all that follows.
In the last ten days, the world has witnessed firsthand, physically or virtually — either way all too vividly — pure brutality, bloodshed, and evil. The monochrome grainy photos of just under a century ago — human beings stripped of their dignity, security, status, and right to live, solely because Jewish blood pulsed through their veins — jump to life, visceral, in a sickening flashback to the past that was hoped to be long buried alongside the millions of our brothers and sisters torn from our history pages.
To be Jewish is to be hunted, haunted, a wanted prisoner, even by one’s own neighbor, or cousin, or perfect stranger. To write and recite psalms in a cave, under cover of night. To keep our commandments in secret or in plain sight: dunking in holy water, braiding loaves of bread, basking in candlelight.
To be Jewish is to be scapegoated, framed, maimed. Criticized, minimized, ostracized, dehumanized. To be a largely unprotected underdog, despite standing up for other minorities’ rights. To work as hard and as dedicated as others, become successful, and somehow still get the short end of the stick, envied or distrusted.
To be Jewish is to pack a bag and bolt at a moment’s notice, to kiss memories and relatives goodbye, to flee one’s homeland and run to our Homeland, while still feeling that nowhere is truly safe. Not the fields, not one’s bed. Not in a cage or dumpster or car, above or underground.
To be Jewish is to be a moving target.
And yet, we are an ancient people, remarkably still alive despite those who rise to destroy us in every generation, each time with revolutionized weapons and refashioned propaganda. They plot to kill us, and they succeed, and they fail, and we fast, and we feast, forever rotating between mourning and festive clothes.
We are perpetually on the run, literally or figuratively — and yet, many of us born Jewish still cling to our faith despite our suffering, and some of us born not Jewish elect to become one of us, flaws and disclaimers and all, souls thirsting for knowledge of God, of His book, His people.
We are a nation that excels.
We excel at being exiled and at being redeemed. Being loved and hated.
We are paralleled by none in our grit, our stubbornness, our will to fight and to live. To stand up for what’s right. To hold faith, conjuring it out of seemingly thin air, steady like a defiant fire in a damp and endless winter night, thick with rage and despair.
We are a people proud of our heritage and customs, strange and beautiful both.
We are passionate, and introspective, and sharp, and layered.
To be Jewish is to be a skilled arguer, a nuanced writer, a patient reader. Armed with charm and wit, stories and songs thousands of years old, bristling with pain and rippling with hope, shimmering like a national memory of our forefathers and mothers, crystal clear in our minds as though experienced by our own bodies, although our tongues utter new words; our modern worlds mostly foreign yet threaded with the same core themes of the tales we’ve heard every day since first grade. Sibling rivalry, power struggles, battles for justice, enemies real and imagined, angels human and divine. Narratives that bring tears of ecstatic joy and of unfathomable loss to one’s eyes.
To be a Jew is to dream of receiving the Torah and wake with it in our hands. To revere it and reject it, to absorb its lines and their subtext, to ignore its whispered blessings and warnings.
To be a Jew is to hold disbelief and surety simultaneously, to doubt and to know, to wonder and to wander. To get lost, get caught up in our differences, to remember, and to forget.
We forget, sometimes, who we were, who we are, what led us to this moment — the sacrifices and miracles, national and personal, that transpired, against all odds, for us to arrive at this threshold where we now tremble.
We speak of Mashiach with a faint fairy tale tinge of legends and lullabies, yearning for a future we can’t quite picture, unsure what it will require and how it will unfold and when it will come.
In our storied hands, we hold: the flame, the land, the water, the whirlwind. The roaring silence and the deafening sounds.
We trudge through our tired days, weary, worried. Huddled close with some of our brothers, our backs turned to some of the others. In our fierce desire to maintain our identity, our hardwired instinct for survival, we grip so tightly onto how our religion and heritage resonate with us, to the extent that sometimes, through the gaps we push away those who differ: our very own brothers and sisters.
At times this rejection is harmless, unfelt, its scale small and irrelevant. At others, our opposing views — political, spiritual, existential — drive a wedge deeper between us, so that conversation is impossible, the crevice between us gaping to a widening abyss, each of us the twenty-first century Yosef in the pit, or those who pushed him in, or both.
But: to be Jewish is to unite.
To fight discordance with solidarity.
In the face of cruelty, we spread kindness. We offer a hint of humor and a whole lot of food, eager to help — giving with our hearts, our minds, our skills and our time. We open our doors wide, sitting together under one tent, and remember precisely what we have forgotten: we are family.
In the throes of grief, we band together, hand in hand, and empathize and eulogize and harmonize and rise, rise, up we rise. We survive and celebrate life even as the world around us crumbles, because how can we give up now, and what choice do we have?
In the turbulence of uncertainty we turn to the only thing we are certain of: God.
We wrap black leather around our arms and colorful scarves upon our heads, and close our burning eyes and let words tumble from our lips with urgency.
We hold loves ones close and raise eyes heavenward, blow dust from our abandoned prayer books, and pray for sisters and brothers by blood and by name and by story.
We ask, and apologize, and change, and chant. Like children lost, we cry, and we come home.
To be a Jew is to be resilient, to be soulful, varied and vibrant, shoulder to shoulder, hands clasped and held high.
To be a Jew is the greatest responsibility and privilege a soul could hold.
To be one nation, alive: am Yisrael chai.