Consider this story, from 19th century Poland, a time when Jews eagerly embraced modernity as a way out of persecution and oppression:
A maskil, that is, a Jew who valued secular knowledge, and was, further, the kind of maskil who disdained Jewish teachings as primitive, went to the Kotzker Rabbi one day and said,
“in the Talmud it is said that if one sees an elephant in a dream, miracles will be done for that person….
and if one sees a myrtle in a dream, one will have good luck with property.
Well,” he sneered, “I saw an elephant in my dreams and I saw a myrtle too,
and no miracle happened for me, and my business didn’t prosper at all.”
The Kotsker Rabbi replied,
“One who eats like a Jew and drinks like a Jew and sleeps like a Jew and lives like a Jew,
dreams like a Jew.
But if you gorge yourself like your enemy and you get drunk like your enemy
and you sleep like your enemy and you live like your enemy,
do you expect that the interpretation of your dreams should then be like a Jew?”
(cited in Sparks Beneath the Surface 233-234)
There is at least one clear lesson for us Jews (and the people who love them) which is emerging from these days of rising hatred and fear since last fall’s election: we can’t stand an assault on our identity if we are not strongly rooted in it.
It’s this impetus that has caused people who were never part of a Jewish community before to seek out Jewish belonging, finding perhaps not entirely “safety in numbers” but, at least, a bit less loneliness. And it’s this same awareness that causes intermarried families to think a bit harder before deciding that the Jewish option for raising their families is the best one.
In the past generation or two, Jews have felt safe in the U.S. and it’s a nasty shock to realize that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past. The question, as usual, is not “why me?” but “what shall I do know, and how shall I decide?”
For those who know deep in themselves that their Jewish identity is the taproot of their existence, it’s a matter of learning. Immersing ourselves in Torah learning is the Jewish response to any and every perplexity. What is your life and its meaning? what is your situation and what are your choices? How to consider your history, and the possibilites for your future?
For those descendents of the maskilim, conflicted and defensive about their Jewish identity, clinging defiantly to the modern idea that they already know enough – well, that is a choice too.
For those of us who dream, as our tradition puts it, “through a clouded mirror,” and long to see our Jewish destiny more clearly, and seek support in these troubled times for a way to stand more firmly in the integrity of our identity and our choices,
Follow along with, Theodore Ross, the author of Am I A Jew? – My Journey Among the Believers and Pretenders, the Lapsed and the Lost, In Search of Faith (not necessarily my own), my roots, and who knows, even myself, as he considers these questions and more. Maybe you’ll find an answer – or maybe just some more, better questions. Best of all, maybe you’ll find your place, a little more solidly, with your people.