Cookie Schwaeber-Issan

You Mean Jews Are Different?

One of the great benefits of the Jewish holidays, here in Israel, is that many tourist attractions are free to the public for the entire week. Wanting to take advantage of “such a deal,” my husband and I decided to pay, yet, another visit to the Museum of the Jewish People, formerly known as the Diaspora Museum.

Although we were there just about a year ago, we took our time, not wanting to miss things we hadn’t seen before (you can easily spend a good four hours or more there).

The one thing I caught, this time around, was something that apparently evaded me on my last visit. Starting off on the third-floor and working our way down, as we were told to do, the first exhibit begins with giant life-size depictions of Jewish families, albeit extremely varied. For example, one wall-mounted visual contained a multi-racial family, clearly showing the wife was Jewish while the husband was not.

Alongside that picture was one of another couple, both being the same sex. Those two portraits immediately sent the message that in the year 2022, the Jewish people no longer are a monochromatic group which displays the once typical family unit of a Jewish mother, Jewish father, sometimes with a large brood of kids (usually all dressed in identifiable Jewish garb) or just the usual 2.3 kids that is more representative of a non-religious Jewish family.

This particular exhibition endeavored to be just about as inclusive as possible, almost to the point of relaying the clear message that Jews, specifically their family units, are about as diversified as an assortment of teas at Tel Aviv’s Palais des Thes in the Sarona Market.

It struck me that this museum, which seeks to present the most comprehensive portrayal of the Jewish people, from the time of Abraham to the present day, has successfully chronicled and cataloged the many passages and evolutions throughout the ages. Ironically, we have not ceased to end that process of defining ourselves as a distinct but also extremely varied people.

That third-floor exhibition hall went on to record many well-known figures, within Jewish history, who converted to other faiths, abandoned their upbringing in favor of another way of life and, of course, those who assimilated in the New World, turning their Judaism on and off whenever it suited them.

It’s, of course, a familiar story that being too overtly Jewish has been known to hold one back from achieving high positions or places of power, and one such account was that of the British Prime Minister during the 1800s, Benjamin Disraeli who, although born to Jewish parents, was, as his father, baptized and held himself out to be an observant Christian. The short film which we all viewed at the museum went on to say that his conversion, nonetheless, did not prevent other fellow countrymen from hurling antisemitic slurs against him and being repulsed by the fact that their leader was, in fact, part of a tribe which they held in contempt.

Another eye-opener was the prominent Jewish mystic and rabbi Shabbetai Zvi of the 1600s, claimed, by some, to be the promised Jewish Messiah, but who, eventually, converted to Islam, resulting in many of his followers doing the same.

In short, the very complex story of the collective Jewish people is one of an intricately woven fabric of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, lifestyles and non-conforming choices which have led us to the endless variety of diversification that embodies the people who have survived 2,000 years of dispersion, not to mention countless attempts to eradicate them.

Consequently, this bold and courageous display, housed within the property of Tel Aviv University, actually defies the Israeli State’s own Interior Ministry definition of “Who is a Jew.” Mind you, their definition does not comport with the one which was adopted into law in 1950 and then amended in 1970 to include gentile converts to Judaism as well as the grandchild of a Jew.

To hear it from those who have seized control of the Interior Ministry, arbitrarily determining who gets in and who doesn’t, a qualified Jew, who is able to be granted such a privilege, must be one who is, in some significant way, connected and functioning within their local Jewish community, whether that represents synagogue affiliation or a similar membership to a Jewish organization which can be verified by an acting rabbi or prominent leader of the Jewish community.

Anything short of those bona fides will result in the prospective immigrant being looked upon with great suspicion or doubt as to whether or not their family pedigree is authentic enough to gain them entrance into what they always considered to be their ancestral homeland. This writer is personally acquainted with individuals who have endured such misgivings and reservations, designed to wear them down and give up on ever making the grade.

For these Jews, many who do not fit the type of religious stereotype which is desirable to the deciding bureaucratic workers who have hijacked the system and gone rogue, choosing not to follow the law as outlined and instituted more than 70 years ago, the process of immigration has ended up being a humiliating and punitive attempt at making them pay for their life choices which didn’t include a robust membership into the Jewish club.

Perhaps, that is why this particular visit to the Museum of the Jewish People was so illuminating, because it put everything into perspective and gave context to our history, both past and present, which, again, cannot be neatly packaged into a one-size-fits-all box.

As much as the religious community in Israel would like to unify all of us under one umbrella, they might do well to remember that even among their own ranks, there are so many differing opinions, viewpoints and practices which are not respected or adopted by their own, let alone the rest of us who are not from that world, so how do they hope to achieve total conformity of the secular?

For now, it might be worthwhile for Interior Ministry workers to pay a visit to this unique museum in order to gain a realistic and comprehensive picture of all Jewish people in today’s modern world. Maybe once that’s done, they can have a better understanding and appreciation that Jews are different in so many ways, and while it might not be the same religious viewpoint which unites us, it is still our distinct bloodline which does! That must not be forgotten, because to do so is to reduce a significant percentage of today’s Jews to those who are not part of our nation, and hasn’t that been the goal of those who hated us and tried to destroy us?

Jewish blood is what remains the acid test of “Who is a Jew!”

About the Author
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.
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