Showing posts with label peoplehood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label peoplehood. Show all posts

Friday, August 12, 2022

Chai, Chai, Pizza Pie!

It was the end of a wonderful and weird adventure in Italy this past July. (Lost luggage, stolen passport, dishonest cabbies mixed with beautiful sights, delicious flavors and lovely people.) We had a long drive in from Florence to the Rome airport where we would return our rental car and stay one night in Fiumicino before flying home. My wife Audrey found an old Conde Nast Traveler article which described six places you MUST stop on the way from Florence to Rome. The town of Orte was just the right distance for a lunch break, if a bit late in the day. The article recommended Trattoria Saviglia so after some delicate negotiating of mountaintop streets designed for pack animals, we parked and found the restaurant.  

It was a hot day, like the the entire summer had been, and there was one diner on the patio, just getting ready to leave. And it was late in the afternoon. But the teenager waiting tables shouted inside and was told to seat us. By the time we were served, other tables had filled. A family of five sat near us. We could hear them well enough to tell they were from our part of the world, but close enough to hear their conversation. The mother and daughter left the table, and after a few minutes the two boys - both seemed to be pre-teens - began singing loudly "Da-vid melekh Yis-ra-el.." To which Audrey and I reflexively joined in with "chai, chai, pizza pie!"

The patio at Trattoria Saviglia
The father slapped his hand on the table and shouted "I knew it! My Jew-dar is never wrong!"

I don't know what cause the dad's "Jewdar" to ping. I imagine the way we look had a lot do with it. Perhaps we said something to one another about the synagogue we had visited in Florence, speculated that if we had lived near Orte 500 years ago, we would have been serfs, as we often were in Europe. Ping it did.

The boys were day school students in their hometown of Vancouver. The family was on a six week driving vacation through Italy. Orte is roughly the size of a large neighborhood on a hilltop overlooking the highway and the Tiber River. (We learned it is pronounced tee-bear in Italian - who knew?) How two carloads of North American Jews, one from the west coast and one from the east, managed to find themselves on the patio of a restaurant in Orte on a hot Friday afternoon is... what we should have expected.

My Eisner camp bunkmate, Larry Milder, famously wrote the song "Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish." So many campers, youth groupers and adults have enjoyed this cute tune. I think we like it because it is cute and engaging. The real magic of this song is that it speaks a truth.

The view from Orte
We will never hear from this family again - unless they reach out in response to someone telling them about this post. We did not exchange numbers or email addresses. I don't recall if we even shared our last names. What we share was a moment and a little conversation. We shared a sense of connection and peoplehood. We talked briefly about day school and summer camp and about each our trips so far. Ours was ending and theirs still had weeks to go. We were heading south and they were heading north.

In that moment of shared recognition and song, we shared something special. After 10 days of churches, medieval and renaissance art, museums and synagogues that told the Jewish story of Italy, we found our people. We had met Jews. These were North American Jews, who shared so many characteristics with us - language, local references, Jewish summer camp - that we felt a deeper connection.

There is something deeper here. I am not sure I can put a finger on it. It felt good though, and left us with bigger smiles on our faces than we had before lunch. And yes, it was a delicious lunch. If you find yourself near Orte, do stop in.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Dissatisfied Nation

Another cross post from This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 - The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education. It is written by Shimon Peres. Yes, that Shimon Peres.

Readers of this blog know that I have been very interested in promoting Peoplehood as what may be our last opportunity to connect (or reconnect) Jews, Judaism and Israel to one another. This Sunday, the Westchester/Fairfield Association of Temple Educators (WATE) is hosting a Kallah for teachers in our synagogue schools on Peoplehood. Dr. Evie Rotstein is the Keynote speaker. She was one of the principal organizers of the Peoplehood conference at Oranim College this past February. I am looking forward to it.

The Dissatisfied Nation
by Shimon Peres

The Jewish People feels very much at home in the 21st century. It is a century of constant renewal, innovation and evolution. And it is my definite belief that what characterizes Jews above all is dissatisfaction. If I ever saw a totally satisfied Jew, I would be very surprised. From our early days, we rejected ignorance and postponed satisfaction. Jewish children are taught to question everything and the habit is never lost. It is that ongoing quest for betterment which has made us a people of research, a people of demand, a people of questions, a people of Tikkun Olam, never content with the world as it is and always believing and striving to improve it.

This aspiration for betterment resides today in the State of Israel, homeland of the Jews. It was a long road indeed until the Jewish People had a land and law of their own. The promised land was not exactly a promising land from a material point of view. As we settled into the land, planting seeds and building roads, we also undertook to create a just society of freedom and democracy. And until today, our people, leaders and friends around the world are devoted to supporting Israel’s progress in security, prosperity and democracy.

One of the ongoing struggles we are faced with is maintaining the balance between two core values: Israel as a Jewish State and Israel as a democratic one. While upholding Israel’s status as the homeland for the Jewish People, we must never forget to ensure that the minorities within Israel feel at home, making the State of Israel a homeland not only to the Jewish People, but to freedom and democracy. In this delicate balancing act, we attempt to harmonize between the particular and the universal.

This challenge is worthy of our undivided strength and efforts. We must strive to convey its urgency and its significance to the real protagonists of the story of the Jewish People – our children. The future of Zionism depends on Israel’s success in appealing to young Jews around the world.

The traditional paradigm, which bases our collective Jewish identity on a common history and shared threats, has become obsolete. Most young Jews across the world do not define their Jewish identity through fear and antisemitism.

Zionism envisions a confident Jew, building a homeland of light, justice, liberty and peace. The intention was to leave our national traumas behind and replace them with hope.

Over the years, many Israelis expected the Diaspora mainly to contribute funds to Israel without taking any interest in the challenges these communities faced. That is not the way to build a profound, long-lasting relationship. The connection between Israel and world Jewry, stemming from historic values and facing modern demands, must be based on dialogues between people. Our relationship should be that of a family. The State of Israel should unite us, not divide us.

We must formulate a vision for the future, which will unite us. A vision for the future of the Jewish people in the new age, in a modern and global world. A vision which stems from our heritage and carries us into the future, as old as the Ten Commandments and as daring as modern technology.

I believe that the distinction of the Jewish People is not only its existence against all odds. It is rather what our people make of their existence. Our choice out of all the temptations was to select the most difficult one, the most uncommon one, the moral choice.

In Egypt our people began their Exodus towards freedom. At Mount Sinai they became a nation. There at the top of the mountain Moses became the greatest lawmaker of the time. In ten basic commandments, he handed humanity guidelines for a just society. His laws were and still are a revolt against the conventions of his time – against slavery, against discrimination, against murder, against lying.

As I wonder what Judaism’s most significant contribution to the world has been, I am convinced that the global and ethical justification for Jewish continuity goes far beyond our fight for survival. In my eyes, the answer lies in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – bettering the world.

Jewish culture and philosophy are known for their endless quests, never satisfied with what has been learned and achieved. This quality has made Judaism one of the greatest contributors to the betterment of the world throughout the ages.

Tikkun Olam encompasses the three foundations of our vision – morality, knowledge and peace. These three components constitute the firm basis upon which the Jewish People has stood and endured throughout history

Morality – Jews have always been exceptionally involved in idealistic movements aspiring to right the wrongs of the world. We have to continue to provide the moral call in our daily lives as a nation and as a state, understanding that acting with morality is not only the right thing to do but also the highest level of wisdom.

Knowledge – The Jewish People, with a positively disproportional number of Nobel Prize winners, built a modern state which has become an endless source of start-up companies and approved patents, must continue striving to better the world through science and technology.

Peace – Peace is mentioned more in Jewish scripture than any other concept. God himself is described as “He who makes peace in his high places and shall make peace for us”. Peace is not merely a practical or diplomatic solution to guarantee the security and prosperity of the Jewish people; it is a Jewish and universal moral obligation. Peace in the eyes of the Jewish tradition is not just a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of moral life and immoral life. As one strives not only to live but to live well, it is our duty to try not just to exist but to live rightly, morally. The difference between war and peace in our tradition is not just a physical difference but a spiritual one, as it is said “not by power nor by strength but by spirit.”

Our legacy – morality, knowledge and peace – should be our agenda for today. This vision shall guide us, encourage us in difficult times, so that we may never despair in the trials which we will encounter. And so, with an eye on the horizon, let us join forces to tackle today’s demands – building a just society, ensuring the safety of our citizens, encouraging scientific research and development. We have overcome obstacles many a time. With courage and determination, we shall not lose hope and will face these challenges head on. Dissatisfaction has led us thus far and I am fully confident that it will carry us to new heights in the never-ending quest for Tikkun Olam.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion

by Avraham Infeld

I’ll begin with a story. A few weeks ago, eJewish Philanthropy ran on its front page a quote: “Being Jewish is defined by membership in the People and not by religion.”

It was attributed to me.

I confess: Guilty, as charged. I said that and I stand by it.
Soon afterwards my phone rang. It was a well-known charedi rabbi who was less than pleased. “How dare you wear a kippa and say something like that? Who do you think you are making a statement like that?” he blasted me.

I told the rabbi that I would be happy to meet with him and talk it over in person, but since we were on the phone anyway, I had a halachic question for him.

You see, every morning I daven on my porch and my next door neighbor, who happens to not be Jewish, sees me praying and it got him thinking. One day he came to me with an unusual request. He wondered whether I would go with him to buy tfillin and help him wrap his arm so that he could pray in the morning, too.

“So, rabbi,” I asked, “what should I tell him?”

“You’re not allowed to, of course!” the rabbi responded.

“Why not?” I asked, innocently.

“Why not?” he repeated my question. “Because he is not a member of the Jewish people, that’s why!”

It was music to my ears.

“Rabbi, did you hear what you just said?”

There was a pause and then he sheepishly admitted that maybe I was right. That just maybe, it is membership in a People that defines whether you are a Jew or not.

Here’s the part where I confess that the non-Jewish neighbor with tfillin-envy never happened, but this scenario came to me during my conversation with the rabbi to illustrate my deep conviction that everything goes back to Peoplehood.

In other words, this concept of Peoplehood that is so fashionable these days, wasn’t invented by Mordecai Kapalan in the 20th century. It is, in fact, the oldest phrase in Jewish history. We were always known as am Israel, the People of Israel. Even Pharaoh in Egypt spoke about the Jews as an am, as a People.

And yet, to my mind, the most serious danger facing the Jewish people today is that Jews of all kinds have forgotten that word: People.

We are not a religion and we’ve never been a religion. Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. It bases itself entirely on the covenant between a People and God Almighty – not between an individual and God.

And yet, we are losing more and more Jews because fewer and fewer Jews recognize the fact that we are a People. That is why so many organizations and educators have awakened this very word that we should have never have lost in the first place – to carry us back to our roots.

But before we examine how it is that we are a People over a religion, we must first ask ourselves, how we lost this identity in the first place?

If there is anything about which Jews have been in agreement throughout the generations, it was the understanding of what it meant to be a Jew.

Up until great emancipation in the beginning of the 19th century, being a Jew meant being a member of a particular People. Once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt and when we left Egypt and came to Mt. Sinai to meet the creator, we signed a covenant with him by which we agreed that we would be his People and he would be our God; he would take care of us and give us rain in the right season and take care of our land and we would keep His commandments.

I know of no Jewish philosopher before the emancipation who understood being Jewish as anything other than this covenant of Peoplehood.

But back to the covenant itself. It turns out that God kept his side of the bargain, but we sinned and because of our sins, we were scattered among the nations of the earth. This is why for thousand of years every Jew understood inherently that our role in life was to keep ourselves distinct as a People, which was why Jews lived in ghettos. It was there that we could more easily keep God’s commandments. It was there that we hoped and prayed that God would forgive us and bring us to back to the land of Israel. Then around 250 years ago, along comes modernity, and with it, modern nationalism, and with that, modern liberalism and suddenly, Jews are faced with the opportunity to leave the ghetto and in order to do so, many of them have to change their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Some simply stopped being Jewish.

The charedim among us became more ghettoized.

But the mass of Jews accepted two new issues of what it meant to be Jewish. One is that Judaism is a religion, which most of the Western world still believes today, and the second is that Jews are a nation, which is a product of Zionism.

For many who left the ghetto eager to become assimilated, they adhered to one non-written rule: We can act like them, but we can’t accept their God. From that day on, Judaism became a religion.
For the Zionists, the manifesto became: We are a nation.

The American Jews declared: We are a religion.

And so it was that the basic idea of who we are started getting lost. All Mordecai Kaplan did was try to reawaken the oldest idea of what it means to be a Jew – that Judaism is a culture of that particular people.

When I was President of Hillel International, I used to travel around the Jewish world meeting with young students. I always carried a chart with me that was divided into three columns. The top line listed: apples, oranges, bananas. Down the side read: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber. A final line that asked the students to fill in the blanks: Jew, it listed, and then two blank spots. In other words, What is to a Jew as an apple is to an orange?

In the USA, over 200,000 responses were unanimous: Jew, Christian, Muslim.

What does that say? Judaism is a religion.

But from the over 40,000 responses from Israelis, not one said Jew, Christian, Muslim. Instead they said Arab or Italian or American. In other words, for them, Judaism is a nationality.

When it came to the Russian Jews, 10,000 responded this way: Jew, non-Jewish is a Russian?

What does this all tell us? I’ll tell you what this tells us: the Jewish people are totally confused about our identity!

So now we see organizations, like the former UJA, making statements like, “We are one.” We are one what? We are one hell of a mess, that’s what we are!

Therefore, the time is ripe to remind the Jews that we are first and foremost a People. Let is remember what Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your God is my God.”

The order is not accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,” but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I say, “Your people is my people.”

It is not that I am anti-religions. I am an observant Jew. But I am bound to the commandments only because I am a member of a People. The moment you define Judaism as a religion, the first thing that happens is you create religions denominations. Where was Reform, even Orthodox Judaism 700 years ago? They did not exist because we did not define ourselves as a religion.

Also, if Judaism were only a religion, what right would Jews have to their own state? No other religion has a state.

We are only perpetuating confusion by not educating our children that they are members of a People.

Only when we understand Judaism in the context of Peoplehood can we begin to understand what it means to be a Jew. And only when we see ourselves as part of a People will Judaism unite – instead of divide – us.

Without Peoplehood what would Israelis have in common with Jews in the Diaspora?

The time is now to teach our children that Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. The State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People and all the organizations that are supposed to serve the Jewish people should put up front and center the message of Jewish Peoplehood.

That is why I have become a fanatic about teaching about the Jewish People.

If you want to know the truth, I hate the word Peoplehood. It is confusing. I want to teach about am Israel. I want to create a sense of belonging in every Jew to the Jewish People. How do you interpret the culture of Jewish Peoplehood into your life?

The mission of Jewish leaders in the 21st century should therefore be how to ensure the continued, significant renaissance of the Jewish people, ensuring a sense of belonging by every Jew to his people, its heritage, its values, its State, and its dreams and aspirations to work as Jews to make this a better world for all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tell Me about the Future of the Jews

File Under Peoplehood
This is a Jerusalem Post column and blog posting by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. He wrote it for Yom Ha'atzmaut and I nearly missed in the flurry of events and postings surrounding the week from Yom Hashoah, through Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut. Rabbi Gordis spoke at the gala for the Jewish High School of Connecticut in our sanctuary a month ago. I remember thinking that I have never read anything by him or heard him speak when I haven't found myslef thinking. A lot. This is no exception. Much of my focus at work has been about Jewish peoplehood in general and connecting to Israel in particular. This fits right in. Enjoy. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews." .... The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state. There are moments when a People has earned a celebration.  Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews."

So you survey the world in January 1946. It's a year after the liberation of Auschwitz, and just months since the war has ended. You cast your eyes toward Eastern Europe, which not much earlier had been the world's center of Jewish life, learning, literature and culture. Eastern European Jewry is gone.

Though we commonly say that Hitler annihilated one third of the world's Jews, that number is technically correct but misses the point. The number that really matters is that after Hitler, 90 percent of Eastern Europe's Jews had been murdered.  
Prior to the war, there had been some 3,200,000 Polish Jews. At the end of the war, merely 300,000 were left. By 1950, estimates are that 100,000 Jews remained in Poland. As far as Polish Jewry was concerned, Hitler had won.

Hitler won in Hungary, too, and throughout Eastern Europe. The great seat of Jewish life was simply no longer. There are a few Jews left there, of course, but many of those who did survive will for a long time be living under Soviet rule, which, if you'd had a crystal ball, you'd know was going to get infinitely worse long before it got any better. A future for the Jews? It did not look pretty.

You could look a bit westward. You might turn your attention to Salonika.  
Some 56,000 Jews had lived there before the war; 98% of them died. Westward still, you might consider France. But the story of Vichy France would bring you no solace.  
Europe, until only some 10 years earlier the center of the Jewish world, was an enormous, blood-soaked Jewish cemetery - only without markers to note the names of the millions who had been butchered.

So you might turn your attention across the Atlantic Ocean, to the United States.

But the American Jews you would have surveyed in 1946 were not the American Jews of today. Today, at AIPAC's annual Policy Conference, for example, thousands of American Jews (and many non- Jews, as well) ascend the steps of Capitol Hill to speak to their elected officials about Israel. They do so with a sense of absolute entitlement (in the best sense of the word), with no hesitation.

But between 1938 and 1945, how many Jews ascended those steps to demand that at least one bomb be dropped on the tracks to Auschwitz, or that American shores be opened to at least some of the thousands of Jews who had literally nowhere to go? During the worst years that the Jews had known in two millennia, virtually no Jews went to Capitol Hill or the White House. There was the famous Rabbis' March of October 1943, in which some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis went to the White House (though FDR refused to meet with them), but that was about it.

In January 1946, American Jews did not interview for positions on Wall Street wearing a kippa, and did not seek jobs on Madison Avenue informing their prospective employers that they would not work on Shabbat. The self-confidence of American Jews that we now take so for granted was almost nowhere to be found back then. With European Jews going up smokestacks, American Jews mostly went about their business, fearful of rocking the boat of American hospitality. A future for the Jews?
There was, of course, one other place where there was a sizable Jewish population - Palestine. But in Palestine, too, the shores were sealed. Tens of thousands of British troops were stationed in Palestine, not only to "keep the peace," but to make sure that Jews did not immigrate and change the demographic balance of the country. The story of the Exodus is famous, perhaps, precisely because it ended reasonably well. Most Jews today can name not even one of the ships that sank, carrying their homeless Jews with them. In January 1946, the British weren't budging. A future for the Jews? In January 1946, there was little cause to believe in a rich Jewish future. You might have believed that a covenant promised some Jewish future, but it would have been hard to argue it was a bright one.

Now fast-forward 66 years, to 2012.

Where do we find ourselves today? Jewish life in Europe, while facing renewed anti-Semitism in some places, is coming back to life. Berlin is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. There are Jewish cultural festivals in Poland (though staged largely by non-Jews, since there are few Jews left). In Budapest and Prague, Jewish museums, kosher restaurants and synagogues abound. Soviet Jews are largely out, and those who remain have synagogues, schools, camps and community centers. And across the ocean, the success and vibrancy of American Jewish life is legendary.

There was no way to expect any of this in 1946, no reason to even imagine it.

How did it happen? The simple but often overlooked truth is that what has made this difference for Jews world over is the State of Israel.  
It was Israel's victory in 1967 that injected energy into Soviet Jewry and led them to rattle their cage, demanding their freedom.  Post-1967, the world saw the Jews as people who would shape their own destiny.  Unlike the Tibetans (or Chechnyans or Basques, to name just a few), Jews were no longer tiptoeing around the world, waiting to see what the world had in store for them.

The re-creation of the Jewish state has changed not only how the world sees the Jews, but how the Jews see themselves.  The days of "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them" (Num. 13:33) are gone, and the reason is the State of Israel.

We are a people sometimes over-inclined to indulge in hand-wringing (and at others, unwilling to do the hand-wringing we ought to). And we face our challenges. Iran is worrisome, Egyptian peace is tenuous. Hila Bezaleli's tragic death was a metaphor for the lack of accountability that plagues this country.  The behavior of Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner, as well as the reactions to what he did, is also deeply unsettling.

But let us remember this, nevertheless: it is far too easy to lose sight of what we have accomplished. Sixty-six years ago, no sane, level-headed person could have imagined that we would have what we have. A language brought back to life, and bookstores filled with hundreds of linear feet of books in a language that just a century ago almost no one spoke. More people studying Torah now than there were in Europe at its height. An economic engine that is the envy of many supposedly more established countries. A democracy fashioned by immigrants, most of whom had never lived in a functioning democracy. Cutting-edge health care. An army that keeps us so safe, we go days on end without even thinking about our enemies.
That's worth remembering in the midst of the attacks on us, from the international community as well as from Jews.  
There's much to repair, and too often, we fail to meet the standards we've set for ourselves. All true, and they demand our continued attention, but at the same time, we dare not lose sight of what we've built. To borrow the phrase from Virginia Slims, "we've come a long way, baby."

The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state.  
There are moments when a People has earned a celebration. Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments.  

The original Jerusalem Post
column can be found here:

Comments and reactions can be posted here: