Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Contemplating One's People

Religion is on my mind. I often wish it wasn't, but the idea of a higher being, a benevolent dictator above, something bigger than mere mortals, seems to be the topic du jour, nearly every jour:)

I am Jewish and, while I have never made this my sole identifier, I am what I am. Judaism rears up often as a theme, especially because my children are enrolled in Hebrew school. I am forced, then, to stand up and take notice of traditions and holidays I might otherwise ignore as I go about my daily life, a mostly secular life.

On Monday, for example, I was invited to join Eli's Hebrew school for a program to discuss Israel Independence Day. During the program, we discussed both sides of the Israel question, role-playing from the perspectives of an Israeli child and a Palestinian one, posing the question of how each side might feel. It was fascinating. Eli played the Palestinian and, asked how he might feel if people tried to take his homeland away, Eli put his hands together like a machine gun and puttered his lips rapid-fire, shooting away at me, the enemy. It was an instinct as true as any other, albeit a sad one.

"That is exactly how some people felt, feel," I said, acknowledging that anger in the region over the years has often led to violence, on both sides. As for me, my feelings from the perspective of an Israeli, I tapped into how, as a Jew, I am reminded constantly of the many instances in history in which my people have been likewise forced from their homes, and offered up how incredibly important it is both literally and philosophically that there is a place that will always take me in should I need someplace to go. Would that it hadn't meant and wouldn't currently mean kicking other people out of their homes.

It is not an easy problem to solve, surely. For Eli, though, it is. He raised his hand at one point and posed to the religious school head the question: "Why, if it's so obvious they should share the land, aren't they doing it?" Hmmm. Tough one to answer. It will take a lifetime and still, I fear, it won't be clear.

The role of Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, how they are regarded, the right and wrong of what Jews do, came up strongly on Tuesday when I was invited to Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, the oldest temple in America, founded in 1654, to celebrate the fact that May is Jewish American Heritage Month. It is a month proclaimed by President Bush in 2006 as a time to recognize the contributions Jews have made over their 350 years on American soil.

Esti Berkowitz, a fellow writer of a blog called Primetime Parenting, offered up the age old idea that Jews "start often from nothing, without resources, and have the ability to pick up the pieces and move on." She pointed to Ruth Handler, one of 10 children of poor immigrant parents, who invented Barbie, and to others, like jeans inventor Levi Strauss and Albert Einstein. Photos of successful Jews hung in posters around the room and Rabbi Hayyim Angel spoke highly of the 23 original founders of Shearith Israel who were instrumental at building the biggest most successful Jewish community in the world, in New York City. Jews from everywhere descend on the temple daily, he told me, to learn about their heritage in America. I gave him a gold star for his efforts helping people figure themselves through their people's history.

It has always been a dilemma for me, presenting anyone's history, including my own, in only the most positive light. Of course, there are always blights. Like Woody Allen, arguably the face of New York Jewry to many, I always wonder what people would really say if they were telling the whole truth, nothing but the truth. But the proud accomplishments of a people, even amidst many who might otherwise give the group a bad name, is important. And, of course, building Jewish pride is a year-round job, not just during Jewish American Heritage Month, the efforts for which are chronicled at A friend recently told me she has been invited to attend an invitation-only summit of Jewish tastemaker types called Reboot, held annually outside Park City, Utah, to discuss ways in which modern Jews are held up in the media, in movies, across all creative fronts. I am interested to hear what she learns from the experience, how her many projects might reflect her Jewish heritage in some new way.

It is funny because I do not think of myself as Jewish above all else but I have encountered others who, upon learning that I am Jewish, see only that. I understand it is an important thing to understand, one's heritage, and that, no matter what, no matter whether you want it to or not, your religion, your culture, your background has bearing on who you are, on who you become, on how others view you. It is the reason, I suppose, that I am teaching my children about their heritage, albeit, hopefully, with an eye on how they might feel if they were born under different circumstances.

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