A friend, who is herself a hyphenated American, recently asked me: Do you think of yourself as Jewish, Russian or French and which comes first? As I think about it, I am tempted to reply: The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Actually, I do have those three strata below the American identity, and I am glad for the opportunity to unearth and untangle them.
Being Jewish is the foundation. It comes from long ago and far away and is actually part of a person’s DNA. It is a way of experiencing and viewing the world. It means being tolerant and self-deprecating, appreciating justice, respecting fairness, and seeing the funny aspects of life. It can be expressed in a shrug or a hand gesture which is immediately recognizable. It also means appreciating the richness of the Yiddish language even if you can’t speak it yourself. A character in a Woody Allen film is asked about his religion. He replies: “I was born into the Jewish persuasion but I converted to narcissism.”
My parents were not observant Jews, so in my case Jewishness was stripped of synagogue attendance and of the archaic and obsolete dietary laws and of the nonsensical interdictions about doing any work on the Sabbath: No writing, driving, cooking, shopping etc. I am glad that no one forced those ridiculous concepts on me because it has left me free to evolve my own philosophy and conduct of life.
But Judaism is much more than a religious practice. It is an identity and membership in a tribe, and being Jewish has always been an important part of me.
Next time: The Russian layer