10 May 2010

Moment Magazine: What it means to be Jewish

Moment Magazine's 35th anniversary issue asked two questions of 70 Jewish individuals in diverse fields: What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world today?

Click here for the responses of these individuals.

Theodore Bikel - Shmuley Boteach - Geraldine Brooks - Mel Brooks - Michael Broyde - Alan Dershowitz - Stephen J. Dubner  - Dianne Feinstein - Ruth Bader Ginsburg - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - Dan Glickman -Arthur Green - Blu Greenberg - Jerome Groopman - Roya Hakakian - Michael Hammer - Susannah Heschel - Madeleine May Kunin - Tony Kushner - Liz Lerman - Daniel Libeskind - Joseph Leiberman - Yavilah McCoy - Ruth Messinger - Leonard Nimoy - Sherwin Nuland - Judea Pearl - Itzhak Perlman - Judith Shulevitz - Gary Shteyngart - Ilan Stavans - Elie Wiesel - Leon Wieseltier - Ruth Wisse.

and here for these:

Daniel S. Abraham - Marc Angel - Ed Asner - Adam Berger - David Biale - Mayim Bialik - Sharon Brous - Andrei Codrescu - Anita Diamant - Ari Fleischer - Joshua Foer - Yuri Foreman - Samuel Freedman - Myla Goldberg - Peter Himmelman -  Dara Horn - Yitz "Y-Love" Jordan - Deborah Dash Moore - Walter Mosley - Aryeh Neier - Elisa New - Judith Plaskow - Francine Prose - Jonathan Rosen - Hannah Rosenthal - Elizabeth Samson - David Saperstein - Zalman Schachter-Shalomi - Harold Schulweis - Howard Schwartz - Dani Shapiro - Yoam Shoham - Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas - Edward Witten - David Wolpe.

Here's some of just five of the list:

Mel Brooks - comedian, writer, actor, director and producer.
I’m part of the generation that changed their name so they’d get hired. I went from Kaminsky to Brooks. My mother’s name was Brookman. But I couldn’t fit Brookman on the drums. ... There was a lot of comedy when I was a little kid, street corner comics. We couldn’t own railroads, so prize fighting and comedy were open to us. We’re still comedians. Maybe because Jews cried for so long, it was time to laugh. Who knows? I started in the Borscht Belt with terrible jokes. The first joke I ever wrote, I think, was, “You can’t keep Jews in jail, they eat lox.” ... What can we offer the world? We can still offer what Maimonides and Moses laid down. We can offer the law of human behavior. We astonishingly were one of the first cultures to create this thing called law, what is right and what is wrong, based on the tenets of the Old Testament. And, if they want something tasty, we can certainly offer matzoh brei.
Roya Hakakian - author, "Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran."
... When I emigrated to the United States in 1985, however, I had options. Living in a democracy means that Judaism is not a monochromatic exercise, it is a multi-colored fact, a brilliant spectrum of many possibilities in which the range is so vast that all of us can find a shade that becomes us and allows us to continue to identify as Jewish. ... This is what we do as Jews: We read. Our connection with the higher authority is through a very rigorous exercise of reading. Human religious proxies are dangerous because it is easier to manipulate people this way. If there is to be a proxy, let it be a book. As Jews, we can help bring all other faith communities, including Muslim ones, in contact with the texts that they worship. Enhancing literacy among all populations is the way to engender the greatest Jewish value there is.
Michael Hammer - population geneticist, University of Arizona.
When I look at the Jews, I see continuity among people of different communities—Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, the Bukharan Jews from Central Asia—who remained apart for thousands of years. From a population geneticist’s point of view, to be Jewish today is to be a beautiful example of the process of descent with modification from a common ancestor. We not only share a common culture and religion, our genes tell us we share a common origin. One example is the special genetic marker of the Cohanim, the priestly class, which is represented by a unique Y chromosome lineage carried by Cohanim in different Jewish communities today that traces back to a common male ancestor over 100 generations ago. I’m not a Cohen but knowing this has an emotional impact on me. Our ancestors almost went extinct many times in history, so it’s amazing that Jews still exist today as a people. Our genetic heritage brings with it all the forces that shaped that struggle for survival. Genetic variation is influenced not only by chance but also by selective pressure. Whether you have what it takes to survive changes in the environment depends on what you carry with you, so in our genes and our culture, we carry the special talents we have as Jews. There are many explanations for this. Perhaps Jews, as a result of having evolved through the many near-extinctions and persecutions, had to be clever and outthink others to survive. Perhaps because Jews could not own land in many places in the past, they had to work with numbers and mental constructs and abstractions more than others. And, of course, our culture has always taught us the importance of education and studying. So what do we offer the world? We offer our unique brand of intelligence.
Rigoberto Emmanuel ViƱas - rabbi, Lincoln Park Jewish Center, Yonkers, New York:
To be a Jew is to be a part of a people with a very open, vibrant and inclusive spiritual path. I am a first-generation Cuban-American rabbi and am in contact with many people who are descendants of 14th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition but who continued to practice Jewish customs in secret all over the world. Today, there are millions of such people in Latin America, and an enormous number of them are seeking out their Jewish roots. What is calling them home to Judaism is a spiritual quest to get above all the chasing after power and the unbridled hedonism that goes on in this world. Unfortunately, their openness to Judaism is often greeted with suspicion, legalism and exclusion by other Jews. I want Jewish communities all over the world to become more open to these people and to others looking for a connection with something larger. What Jews can offer the world is to present Judaism as the open spiritual path that it is. We should embrace Jews of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and share our diversity and openness with the world. If we do so, it will reinvigorate us and present a different and more accurate face of Judaism to the world.

Marc Angel - rabbi emeritus, Congregation Shearith Israel-Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, New York City.

After nearly 2,000 years of exile, Jews returned to Israel and revitalized the Hebrew language and culture. For an ancient nation to rise again in its homeland is an awesome historic accomplishment. To be a Jew today is to share in the glory and responsibility of Israel reborn. Jews, who may number 15 million in a world of seven billion, offer the world unparalleled idealism. In spite of centuries of anti-Semitism, we have retained an amazing optimism in the ultimate goodness of humanity. There is scarcely a humanitarian cause that does not include Jews as leaders and activists. A recently deciphered inscription dating from the 10th century BCE—the earliest known fragment of Hebrew writing—captures the essential spirit of the Jewish people: “You shall not do it, but worship the Lord. Judge the slave and the widow; judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave, support the stranger.”
Read the other 65 responses at the links above.

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