Friday, January 23, 2015

Distinctly Jewish, From Ancient Egypt to Today

Throughout this week you may have seen on social media an article called “Hot pastrami and the decline of secular, Jewish-American identity: How deli stopped being an essential part of the Jewish-American story.” This opinion piece, written by Peter Beinart and published by Haaretz, expresses Beinart’s observation that the secular American Jewish identity is being diluted and fading away to the point where there soon may not be a singular, distinctive American-Jewish persona and culture recognizable by Jews and non-Jews alike. Even if we do not necessarily agree with his assessment of the situation, Beinart’s concern is certainly one that we must take seriously.

Maintaining a strong Jewish identity, one that is distinct from other cultures, one that stands out even in assimilated societies, and one that we are proud to exhibit has always been a hallmark of our people. Even in the darkest of times, when fear might have led to this identity being hidden in public, it continued to grow and flourish in private circles. For centuries, our religion has been maintained through study of Torah, and our peoplehood has been maintained by Jewish culture: our rituals, our holidays, our foods, our language, and all of our idiosyncrasies.

This has been true even from the earliest days of the Jewish people. As we read this week in Parashat Bo, and as we know from the story of Passover, on the eve of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, our ancestors were commanded to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood. This smearing of blood was used to identify and distinguish Jewish homes from non-Jewish homes, protecting our ancestors from the final plague: the killing of the first-born.

Throughout the ages we have maintained our ancestors’ practice. By following the precedent in Egypt and observing the commandments in our Torah, we continue to mark our doorposts to this day with a mezuzah , clearly and proudly letting people know that our home is a Jewish home. And we have even gone further, wearing bracelets, rings, and necklaces featuring a Star of David, a “Chai” (Hebrew word for life), and even a smaller mezuzah. Many Jews also choose to wear their kippot (skullcaps, also known as yarmulkes) in public due to a feeling of religious obligation, a sense of pride and identity, or, many times, both. 

Over the past few months, and especially brought to a head over the past few weeks, we have come to clearly see that rampant Jewish hatred still exists in many parts of the civilized world. In these places, such as France, our fellow Jews have had to hide who they really are and temper their expressions of Jewish identity, fearing abuse, assault, or even the loss of their lives. They are no longer comfortable wearing their Jewish jewelry, kippot, or other outward signs of being Jewish. This fear has gotten to the point where an Israeli barber has created what is being called the “magic yarmulke;” a washable skullcap made out of hair. This new “fashion statement” blends easily with regular hair and allows one to fulfill the obligation of covering the head, while remaining inconspicuous (read, safe) in public. 

In ancient Egypt, when our people were persecuted and oppressed, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what saved their lives. In today’s Europe, when our people enjoy lives of freedom in the greater society, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what puts their safety at risk. I am, as we all should be, dumbfounded by this dichotomy.

Our hearts go out to Jews all over the world who live in fear, hesitant to announce that they are Jews. Our prayers go out to God that one day, very soon, the world will become enlightened. Our actions, therefore, must be put towards embracing OUR Jewish identities and proudly displaying them for all to see. If we can maintain a singular, unique, and distinctive identity as American Jews, we can give our brothers and sisters across the world hope that one day, they may be able to proudly show off their unique identities as well.

Let us put our Judaism on display. Let us embrace that which makes us unique in the world. And, this Shabbat, let’s have a bowl of matzo ball soup, corned beef (or pastrami) on rye, and a knish on the side, to remind us of who we are and where we come from.

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