What Element of Contemporary Jewish History Shapes your Identity?
Since the time that Rome destroyed the Second Temple and Jewish infrastructure in the Land of Israel, in 70CE, our people have (until the start of the 20th century) lived as a minority in countries throughout the world. Diaspora Jewry, as we have been identified, has lived under the influence of surrounding cultures, with two in particular, having shaped specific Jewish Diaspora identities: Ashkenazic, as associated with Jewish life in Christian lands and Sephardic, associated with lands under the rule of Islam. During this more than two thousand year period, there had always been a Jewish presence in Israel, but too small and weak to generate any significant Jewish infrastructure in the Holy Land, and certainly not an identifiable governing body.
With the emergence of Zionism, a political and cultural movement focused on return to the land, as a core Jewish ideology, given that we have directed our prayers over the two millennia in the direction of Jerusalem, Jews began from the late 1800s to return to the land. With the rise of Nazi Germany and the systematic destruction of Jewish communities in all lands under their control, the urgency of reestablishing Israel as homeland for the Jewish people became a high priority, given that almost all nations, including the U.S., refused to accept Jewish refugees; the U.S. notoriously returned a boatload and more of Jewish refugee children from within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, back to Europe, where they perished.
From out of the shadow of the Shoah, and the barbaric cruelties that saw the annihilation of almost all of European Jewry, by what was reputed to be one of the most civilized peoples in the world, emerged the miracle that was Israel, a nation returning to life, for the third time in human history.
Even more miraculous was how Israel survived, first, its war of independence against the surrounding Arab nations and then wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and continued conflicts and wars with the emergent Palestinian entity, originally an artificial construct resulting from all Arab nations refusing to accept Arab refugees from these wars, into their lands. The Palestinian entity was born in the refugee camps on Israel’s borders, given nowhere else they could go.
The conflict with enemies surrounding Israel has not ceased, although two peace agreements over the years have held, a particularly strong, if understated, one, with Jordan, and another, more tenuous, yet enduring, one, with Egypt.
While Israel continues to seek peace and lasting security in the Middle East, including openness to a two state solution with the Palestinians (if only the latter group would stop teaching their children math equations in terms of how many Jews you can kill, and agree to talk, without predetermined end results), the neighborhood continues to be one of the most dangerous in the world, and a place where Western reasoning does not readily apply in seeking sensible solutions.
We, alive today, dwell in the shadow of the darkest period of our history, given the near destruction of the Jewish world (had the Germans won the war, that might have happened; some suggest they lost because of prioritizing using trains to take Jews to their deaths instead of troops to the front lines), contrasted by the miracle of the return to life of Israel (and the Hebrew language) after 2000 years of dormancy.
The question for us, today, is which narrative we allow to determine our Jewish identity: the shock and devastation of the Shoah, with increased awareness that soon there will be no more survivors, leaving the next generations to keep the memories of the Holocaust and its lessons alive in a world that would be more than willing to forget or let it go, especially considering how little most did to save Jewish lives. As important as it is for us to keep these memories alive, and its lessons, that if this could happen in the enlightened world of Germany, with Jews living there for generations and many identifying more as German than Jewish (a lot of good that did!), then it could happen anywhere, it is more important to keep from despair regarding the Jewish future.
That is where the light of Israel shines its inspiration, hope and new energy for a good and healthy Jewish future, including the reemergence of Hebrew as a living language, and home to Jewish values that are difficult to define in terms of English or any other language of the nations that have been our home.
Personally, my years of study in Israel, with my first year as an education abroad student at the Hebrew University, in 1968, followed by two years of study as a seminary student, also in Jerusalem, have shaped my identity as a Jew and rabbi and enabled me to learn and teach a Judaism of vibrancy, reflecting an approach to living in society, as modeled by life in Israel. What a powerful experience one can find in visiting Israel either for a matter of weeks or for months and more of study, a reality that puts Jews from around the world in the only setting where they can feel what it is like to be the majority culture.
While the Passover holiday, particularly the Seder, instructs us to begin in our observances with the despair of life as slaves in Egypt and to culminate with the joy of becoming a people in empowered partnership with God, from negative to positive, that is the life story of the Jewish people in the times we live. From out of the darkest hours of the Shoah, in a few short years (briefer than a moment when you measure Jewish history in thousands of years), we find ourselves in a state of a dream come true, i.e. generations that prayed in the lands of dispersion for a return of Jewish community in Israel, yielding our times in which the dream came true, with all the blessings and wonders that Israel provides.
The question for each of us is how we move forward in our identity Jewishly in this era: my choice would be to not let the memory of the devastation of the Shoah paralyze us but to choose the feeling of empowerment that comes with living in this era of the reemergence of Israel as a vibrant force for light and good in our world.
How do you answer the question?