All in the Family

April 24, 2014
Different flavors of Jews on the streets of Jerusalem.

A wild diversity of Jews shop at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.

Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.

One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism.  A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.

Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington.  They built the first synagogues here.

Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.

As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism.  If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.)  Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!

What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


Who’s the Most Jewish?

October 6, 2013
René Molho

René Molho

If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.

For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn.  Either way, it’s unpleasant.

This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community.  Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.

René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.

This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.

But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:

  • he doesn’t “look Jewish.”
  • her last name is Smith.
  • he goes to a Reform synagogue.
  • she doesn’t keep kosher, or doesn’t keep kosher enough.
  • so-and-so is a decendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
  • so-and-so looks SO Jewish.
  • so-and-so goes to such-and-such a synagogue.
  • so-and-so speaks Yiddish.

If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If only an Orthodox conversion will do, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity.  Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.

But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.

And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.


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