Jewish Identity

Words depend on the context within which they are uttered. During the course of my normal life, whether “I am a Jew” or not is usually either obvious or irrelevant or both at once: obvious at the kosher butcher shop, irrelevant at the bank; obvious in the synagogue, irrelevant in the subway. When I teach Yiddish literature at the university, I use the first person pronoun to refer to us students, not us Jews. While my own interest in Yiddish may have been inspired by my Jewishness, some of my non-Jewish students were drawn to the subject by the desire to master an unfamiliar culture. Being Jewish may be the point or beside the point of the passion for literary studies. The American way of life affords us the freedom to live as we please, within the bounds of the law. We may choose to live as Jews, visibly and vitally, or else slip anonymously into the gentile mainstream. Since I have always enjoyed being a Jew it never occurred to me to live otherwise. I appreciate the tough-mindedness of the Jewish religious tradition that knows how hard it is to achieve a mature civilization; I admire my ancestors who brought Jewish civilization to such a high level of maturity. Although I don’t follow all the requirements of Halakhah, my observance is higher than that of my parents whose observance was lower than that of their parents. I love the cycle the Jewish year, particularly the contrasted experiences of Rosh Hashanah and Passover. The culture and history of the Jewish people engages much of my intellectual energy. And the pleasure of being a member of the Jewish community usually outweighs its frustrations. Most of all I cherish those of my fellow Jews who settled and who maintain the State of Israel, which I consider the highest manifestation of the human spirit in modern times. Jews always tried to take full responsibility for their actions in every human sphere, but not until we reclaimed responsibility for our political life could we provide a haven for Jews in danger. The more Hebrew I learn to speak and read, the longer and more often I am in Israel the more friends and relatives I acquire in the country, the greater my debt to its defenders. The achievements of Israel depend entirely on the patience of its defenders, for it is the only democracy in the world that has had to fight for its life from inception to the present. Not since the Romans crushed the second Jewish commonwealth have Jewish soldiers been able to protect the Jewish polity from its enemies. It goes unappreciated that these defenders of Israel are also the front line of defense for the democratic world. The presence of enemies introduces a different context for the affirmation of Jewish identity. Jean Paul Sartre believed that the presence of anti-Semites required that Jews embrace their identity for they would otherwise become inauthentic foils of their adversaries and escapists from their existential condition. In 1942, at the height of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews of Europe, the Soviet Yiddish poet ltsik Feffer wrote a poem titled, “I Am a Jew.” Feffer was a colonel in the Red Army, a member of the Communist Party, and an agent for the Soviet secret police. In the preceding years, he had obeyed Stalinist dictates to avoid all Jewish national expression. But the rules changed once Germany invaded Russia, and Feffer’s poem came out as subtle as a drum:

Pharoah and Titus, Haman made their aim To slay me in their times and lands Eternity still bears my name Upon its lands. And I survived in Spain the rack, The Inquisition Fires, too. My horn sounded this message back: “I am a Jew!”

–Itsik Feffer, translated by Joseph Leftwich

Every stanza ended with the same refrain of defiant Jewish self-affirmation. Not surprisingly, six years later, when Stalin ordered the arrest of Feffer, among other prominent Jews, on capital charges of anti-Soviet treachery, the poem was brought as evidence of Feffer’s Jewish nationalist propaganda. At the trial a fellow defendant protested: “There cannot be anything criminal in the phrase ‘I am a Jew.’ If I approach someone and say, ‘I am a Jew,’ what could be bad about that?”[1] His comment was just, but, under the circumstances, naive. When the goal of aggressors is the ruin of the Jewish people, an otherwise unexceptional statement of fact acquires powers of resistance. This resistance became manifest when Soviet Jewry took up where Feffer left off in proclaiming, “We are Jews.” Many claimed the right to live as Jews by immigrating to the Jewish homeland. No Jew should have to affirm his identity in response to a knife at his throat. No regime or leader should seek aggrandizement at the expense of the Jewish people or deny us the same rights that they claim for themselves to land, to peace, to national existence. But as long as our enemies threaten, it is unutterably shameful to ignore their presence. Those of us who live outside Israel should be confronting its defamers no less vigorously than the Israel Defense Forces resist invaders and terrorists. I consider it my highest duty and priority as a Jew to oppose the propaganda war against the Jewish state, which has been waged with increasing sophistication and resources by Arab leaders who should have been improving their own societies. Precisely because America allows me the choice to be or not to be a Jew, I am free to expose our attackers for as long as it takes them to stop their attacks. I Am Jewish  

Excerpted from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, ed. by Judea and Ruth Pearl, c 2005, Published by Jewish Lights Publishing, PO Box 237, Woodstock, Vermont 05091, Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of LongHill Partners, Inc.   [1] Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, ed. Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P.  Naumov, trans. Laura Esther Wolf on (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 158.

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