In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to teach Jewish history to Jewish high school students. When we came to the part on anti-Semitism, every student in the class insisted to me they had never experienced anti-Semitism personally. I went around telling adults about it all over Portland’s Jewish community. Oh, yes, they all said, anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.
Then came the year preceding the most recent presidential election. During the campaign, expressions of hatred toward Jews were dismissed as “the crazy fringe.” It will all subside, we reassured each other, after someone sane is elected.
After the election, we reassured each other: look, there are Jews in the inner circle. Perhaps it will be just like the Purim story – a bumbling and dangerous but easily manipulated ruler, with Jews undercover in the Administration – sorry, I meant to say Palace – bravely saving the day.
After the inauguration, we joined forces with others, seeking to protect those who were truly threatened. We reassured each other that we were safe, and we dedicated ourselves to using our safety and our privilege to support others.
And then came Charlottesville, where white nationalists were heard to chant: “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past.
In parts of Europe there’s a saying: when someone reaches a realization that is already obvious to everyone else, the answer is “congratulations, you’ve discovered America!”
Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past. Congratulations; you’ve discovered America. But in the United States of the twenty-first century, just exactly who is its target?
What defines a Jew today? Ironically, in 1946 Jean Paul Sartre wrote that because of the attraction of assimilation, Jews would have ceased to exist if it were not for the anti-Semites who would not permit that assimilation, and kept on identifying Jews, in order to blame us for their misfortunes.
Anti-Semitism is the modern political form of an ancient religious hatred, hatred for Jews, that was taught by Christianity. It caused horrific forms of persecution of our people everywhere in our Exile, and especially in Eastern Europe.
Here’s the thing, though: scientific studies of normal population growth patterns indicate that there should be something like 60 million Jews in the world, not somewhere around 15 million. It’s clear that even with pogroms, inquisitions, the Holocaust, and of course other kinds of mass murder without a formal name, there should be a lot more Jews than there are. Where did they go?
It has been suggested that many simply disappeared because they ceased to become Jewish, and stopped practicing in any way, and much less did they pass anything on to their children. Thus we hear stories of hidden Jews, half-Jews, and people who find out that they are Jewish because of a cotton swab and a DNA analysis. Some of you in this place have told me stories of an older relative who admitted just before death that, by the way, your mom was Jewish, or that your grandfather’s name was actually Yankele.
You may have noted recent reporting on “Jewish tourism” that allows us modern, privileged, safe American Jews to trace their roots in Eastern Europe. A recent article described a tourist’s realization that the icy parking lot where her bus had stopped in a remote Eastern European location was most likely located directly on top of her ancestors’ graves.
It has been observed that such tourism is depressing, and rather backward-looking. Such exploration of the Jewish past does not necessarily build its future – there used to be a strong argument that you should be Jewish so as to deny the Nazis the final victory, but that reasoning is not very compelling for today’s Jews.
That tourist in the icy parking lot, the one who is seeking her past in that Eastern European shtetl, describes herself as the descendants of Jews who gave up religion and became communists. It is true that many Jews, not long after emigrating to the United States, did not daven daily, but expressed their urgent sense of Jewish ethics by rising up against labor conditions and other capitalist predations, helping to establish new national norms such as labor unions, shorter work weeks, and safe working conditions. They also kept kosher homes, observed Jewish holy days, gave tzedakah, and supported Jewish communities and organizations both locally and worldwide.
Now, according to a story in the New York Times just this morning, there’s no real definition of a Jew any more, and everyone is sort of Jew-ish, since so many people feel “uprooted, wandered and dispersed.” The writer suggests that being Jewish “no longer corresponds to anything fixed. It’s not necessarily an identity. Better to call it a sensibility: the sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are — a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.”
So tonight I find myself wondering just how this particular Jewish tourist, seeking her Jewish roots, might identify herself as Jewish. What is her Jewish observance? Does she practice? Was she born Jewish, so that she can trace a personal connection to ancestors who escaped the mass murder of their families? Does she keep kosher? give tzedakah? Or is she just feeling uprooted, wandered and dispersed”? How and on what basis does she define herself as Jewish when meeting the local Jewish communities over there, in the land where our ancestors lived and died because of their identity?
In other words, as our tradition asks us to consider on this night of nights: when she visits, who shall they say is calling?
- “modeh Ani l’fanekha” – the Kotzker: but who is the “ani”?
You are standing at the door, and you knock. Someone asks “who is there?” and you say “I am.” And so this is the first question: who is the “I”?
“I” is an interesting word. It designates me alone, but it cannot be said by me alone unless you also share the definition of the word. Think about that for a moment. If I say yah, what do I mean? In Russian, I mean “I”, but in German, I mean “yes” and in Spanish I mean “already.” It’s a delicious irony that unless I am part of a community that shares a language, I cannot in words assert either my independence from, or my belonging to, community.
In Jewish tradition this existential question arises from some of the first words of the first of our morning prayers: modah ani l’fanekha, “I give thanks before You.”
A story: in 19th century Eastern Europe, the Kotzker Rebbe was known as a teacher and spiritual guide who insisted on honesty. He was fearless in his openness. Kotzk during his lifetime was not a place where you would go to hide from the truth you needed to learn.
It is said that one morning he joined the group praying in the shul and opened his own siddur. He began in the usual way with the opening words, modeh ani l’fanekha, and then stopped. For a long time he was silent, until his students noticed that he had stopped praying, and was simply standing there, lost in thought. Finally he looked up and said, “this ani, this ‘I’ – who is this? and what is the ‘before You’?” and he stopped, and prayed no more that day.
Interestingly, in Hebrew you do not ask someone “what is your name?” you ask “how are you called?” To answer this question is not only to give your name; it is to know how you are named by others.
The lesson of the Kotzker Rebbe’s interrupted prayer is that you have to know who you are, or we might say, what you are called, before you fully exist in the world. A midrash suggests that the first human beings were partners with G*d in the act of creation, demonstrated in our Book Bereshit by G*d’s bringing the animals to the human beings so that the humans might name them. The message is that the animals did not fully exist until they were named. The implication is that this is also true for us. We do not fully exist until we know the answer to the question “who shall I say is calling?”
- Who is the Jewish ani?
How do you define a Jew? how do you define yourself? how do those definitions converge? How do you know?
The famous Israeli poet Zelda Mishkovsky wrote about names, in a poem included in our prayers on this Kol Nidre eve. In part, it reads “each of us has a name / given by the stars / and given by our neighbors.”
For those born Jewish, that identity is a kind of destiny; for those who grew up in a Jewish family, there is a sort of low-key radar regarding who is Jewish. The person may do absolutely nothing in the way of Jewish practice, but yet that person is MOT, a “member of the tribe” and two Jews finding each other, whether on a mountain trail or at a downtown demonstration, know that somehow, they have something in common. You’re part of what is called amkha, a Hebrew word which literally means “Your people.”
When you grow into Judaism, having realized that you weren’t born that way but you are supposed to be a Jew, it’s all about the name “given by our neighbors.” Amkha again. So to become a Jew is to adopt the norms that Jews – your neighbors – will recognize in you as Jewish.
Story: “By you you’re a captain, by me you’re a captain, but sonny, by captains you’re no captain.”
It’s fascinating to consider the Talmud’s instructions for the case in which someone seeks to be Jewish. Two millennia ago it was written:
With regard to a potential convert who comes to a court in order to convert, at the present time, when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so, then the court accepts him immediately to begin the conversion process.
The judges of the court inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot, and they inform him of the sin of neglecting the mitzvah to allow the poor to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce in the corner of one’s field, and about the poor man’s tithe. And they inform him of the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot, as follows: They say to him: Be aware that before you came to this status and converted, had you profaned Shabbat, you would not be punished by stoning, since this prohibition does not apply to gentiles. But now, once converted, if you profane Shabbat, you will be punished by stoning….
And they do not overwhelm him with threats, and they are not exacting with him about the details of the mitzvot, i.e., the court should not overly dissuade the convert from converting. ….
If he accepts upon himself all of these ramifications, [if it is a male], then they circumcise him immediately. … When he is healed from the circumcision, they immerse him immediately, and three Torah scholars stand over him at the time of his immersion and inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot. Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense.
Have you noticed what’s missing from this series of requirements for conversion? There is no requirement to believe in the One G*d. That does not mean that belief doesn’t exist in Judaism; only that how we treat each other is held up as more immediately urgent in this time and context. Our actions in community are vital – how you think and what you believe should vary and waver as you go through your life, your experiences, your challenges.
That’s not to say that Judaism did not develop a series of beliefs, of course we did when the need presented itself. The great scholar Maimonides created Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were set to music as the Yigdal, which we will sing to conclude our Tefilah this evening.
But Jews know each other by what we do, not what we believe – except of course for the belief that what we do matters. Who is a Jew? Not one who davens, necessarily, but one who supports the Jewish community’s ability to daven – ideally, that means that even if you’re not a davener, you understand the power of making the minyan for those who need to daven.
A prayer minyan – our way of expressing critical mass – is a community symbolically made of ten Jews. They don’t necessarily all love the Rabbi, or the tune chosen by the prayer leader for the Ashrei, but they take for granted that Jews support Jewish community. The community holds our common sense of who we are and allows us to affirm each other. It also keeps track of time for us, guarding our memories and reminders and teachings, all that we need to know and couldn’t possibly keep track of alone.
Who shall I say is calling?
Zelda’s poem also includes this line: “each of us has a name / given by our celebrations.” How we mark time – how we celebrate it – is also, for Jews, a calling card. As we saw in the Talmudic text, you can tell a Jew by what they do – and don’t do – on Shabbat.
If you as a Jew know what to do on Shabbat, or on a holy day, in shul, or at home, think about how secure in your Jewish identity you feel. After a meal someone hands you a bencher or offers you another honor, and you can accept it, and feel honored.
But how uncomfortable it can feel to be in a place where everyone else knows what they are doing – except for you. There is a certain stress in knowing that no one there is going to mistake you for someone who belongs. That, in turn, may put a certain stress on your spiritual growth.
And the irony is that there’s no secret Jewish handshake, for Shabbat or anything else. This congregation’s entire reason for existence is to help us help each other to engage, explore, enjoy – and so grow spiritually.
The challenge, as Jewish tradition teaches it, is that coming to know myself actually requires getting out of my own way. The more I focus on myself, how I feel, what I know – the less I can focus on what I need to learn from the experience of us together.
- each of us has a name
In the days after last November’s election, our office received random phone calls from people who just wanted us to know that they supported us Jews. My first reaction was “who me?” No, really, others are far more endangered than I am.
Then last November I sat down with a couple that wanted my help to think about how to raise their children. One was Jewish, one Christian – and I do mean committed, active Christian. The Jew, on the other hand, told me that it was feelings of guilt that caused the meeting: how will my grandparents and parents feel if my kids aren’t Jews? but there was no real sense of commitment on the part of this Jew to Judaism, and no current practice.
A few years ago I would have encouraged this couple to explore Jewish practice before giving up on it. But this past winter another reality emerged: raising your kids as Jews now requires you to be aware that you are raising them to be noticeable, different, and vulnerable. That takes á priori commitment. If it ever was, choosing Judaism is not now simply choosing an attractive flavor or fashion or fad.
If we Jews are going to be singled out as we were in Charlottesville and will be again, shouldn’t we know what for? If we are going to be oppressed or persecuted or G*d forbid killed, should it not be for something we believe in deeply, and are fully committed to?
It was when I lived in Jerusalem that I first saw people living the teaching that life is not worth anything unless it is lived with a sense of purpose. It was there that I first heard people say that they refused to change their personal behaviors, such as riding the bus to work every day, even though buses were a favorite target of suicide bombers. To stop riding the bus would be “to let the terrorists win.”
Someone wiser than me has already said it: if there is in your life nothing worth dying for, then really, there is nothing worth living for. And if one is a Jew, the way to define that sense of self really has nothing to do with ancestors, and everything to do with the choices we make for ourselves and in our communities.
We have all day tomorrow to consider how we identify ourselves as Jews, and to consider how others identify us, as individuals and as part of our Jewish communities – here at Shir Tikvah, in Portland’s larger Jewish community, nationally, and also, of course, over there in Israel.
This makhzor of ours is a carefully developed entry into an intergenerational conversation, for us to engage with other Jews who have prayed these same prayers for centuries. Throughout the book there are kavvanot, “intentions,” bits added here and there to help us focus on the meaning of the prayers. Our own minhag is to continue adding kavvanot in the form of poetry and prose that we take turns reading, so that we may more deeply experience the sense of being part of this day. So let’s use it fully.
On this Yom Kippur of 5778, I invite you to set your own intention for your existence, just as if it were a somewhat mysterious and ancient book that nevertheless contains the story of your life. You know, like that book in which we hope to be sealed for life after this day. The thought of that symbolic book usefully reminds us that none of us knows how much time we have. As it is said in our tradition, “do not say when I have time I will study. Perhaps you will not have time.”
Seize the day while you have it: to find your way to more deeply and meaningfully to explore the name and identity of Jew (or as one who loves a Jew) as you bear it, through celebration and learning.
Take the time while you have it, to re-organize your life so that you spend more of it meaningfully and purposefully doing what defines it. There is still time for you to decide that you want your life’s identity to be shaped by you, not by social media, public advertising, or applicable affinity groups.
There is even still time for you to join me in visiting Israel next spring, where you can learn more about being a Jew in a week than you can anywhere else in a year. I urge you to consider it.
My hope and prayer for you and me here today is that there is still time in our lives to discover what we mean when we answer the question. Who shall I say is calling?
(finish with Zelda poem – p. 240, green sticker)
 Jean-Paul Satre, Réflexions sur la question juive, 1946
 Charly Wilder, “Seeking the Shtetl: a Writer Looks for her Jewish Past” New York Times 9/24/17
 Emet v’Emunah, Menakhem Mendel of Kotzk, 101 n.647
 Zelda, L’kol Ish Yesh Shem, Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk, The Spectacular Difference Publisher: Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 2004, 0-87820-222-6
 BT Yevamot 47a-b