I am Jewish

Yom Kippur Eve 5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Hearing Kol Nidre…. sitting in the sanctuary…. scanning the room…. These are the sights and sounds and senses, which remind us of who we are. We are linked to those around us, those who preceded us and who will follow after us. This embracing moment enables most here tonight to comfortably say, “I am Jewish.” I say, “most,” since I gratefully acknowledge that our congregational family includes a number of wonderfully supportive men and women for whom this is respectfully not their faith tradition, but are very much part of our congregation.

This evening, let us ask what it really means to say, “I am Jewish?” I know that may seem like a straight line for any number of jokes, but this evening I present it as a challenge. During the course of the next 24 hours, I invite you to reflect upon your answer to this essential question. Through words of prayer, teaching from this pulpit and your own private pondering, I hope that as we conclude our worship tomorrow afternoon you will have formulated a response that is both meaningful to you and will prompt your actions in the year to come.

Do you recall the tragic story of Daniel Pearl? He was the Wall Street Journal reporter, who in 2002 was captured and executed by Al Quaida terrorists in Pakistan. Videotaped moments before his execution, he stated, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Then, his life was snuffed out. Why he expressed what he did, we will never really know, but we are free to examine its potential meaning. In death he left behind his parents, Judea and Ruth, a sister Tamara, and his pregnant wife Mariane, who would later bear his son, Adam. This past year, Mariane’s book on the subject, “A Mighty Heart” became a film starring Angelina Jolie.

In response to this horrific act, Alana Frey, a 12 year old Bat Mitzvah girl launched a project to collect writings from people she knew on what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” This was to be a gift to Daniel’s newborn son, Adam, that he might know the possibilities of what his father meant by those words. Inspired by this, Daniel’s parents similarly solicited responses from a cross section of Jewish men and women around the world to create the book, I Am Jewish- Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. This too would be a gift for Adam, but for all of us as well. By exploring the responses of others, perhaps we can formulate an answer for ourselves, which will motivate us for the future. There is of course no single definition to the question, but one can discern a number of patterns to the responses.

For many, to say “I am Jewish” is a matter of identity. It all starts with biology. When your parents are Jewish, it automatically connects you to being Jewish. If even just one parent is Jewish, you feel linked in some way, whether or not you are raised as a Jewish child. In my Judaism class at Loyola University, invariably a few of the students enroll because they have a Jewish parent or grandparent and feel a kinship with being Jewish. It is also not unusual when one who approaches me for conversion, there lurks a Jewish ancestor somewhere in the family tree.

Being Jewish by “identity” implies that we are part of a large Jewish family for good and for ill. We identify with our fellow Jews wherever they are. We’re all cousins. This often comes up in connection with oppressed Jews or acts of anti-Semitism. The reality is that prejudice and persecution of Jews continues in our world, whether in diatribes from Iran, violence in Europe or incidents here at home. I believe this to be a negative, even destructive base for identity. Martin Peretz, Harvard educator and long time editor of the New Republic states, “Jewish meaning is made out of life, not out of martyrdom.” (p. 60) I believe we are stronger as a community when we focus on what we have done, not what has been done to us.

From our own recent experience, we identify with Jewish communities in a different kind of trouble- nature. As Jews we relate to all victims of natural disasters, but to say “I am Jewish” prompts us to identify with our particular people, like family. As the poster in our lobby so magnificently depicts, we were the beneficiaries of thousands of Jews who reached out to us following Hurricane Katrina. This past year, we in turn have responded to the Jewish communities in San Diego, devastated by fires, Iowa deluged by floods, and most recently in Texas, ravished by Hurricane Ike.

“I am Jewish” also means that we identify with individual Jews as they achieve success and fame in secular realms, including Jewish athletes, celebrities, performers, Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners, politicians, authors, composers and many others. Their prominence may have little or much to do with their being Jewish. Regardless, they are part of our family, and so we identity with them, even bask a bit in their glory. On the flip side, when we discover Jews behaving badly, we feel personally embarrassed and ashamed.

However, I argue that simply being Jewish as a matter of identity is not enough to sustain us as Jews. Modern reality demonstrates that Jews freely enter and exit our community at will. There must be something more than a biological identifying link. Certainly that is true for the wonderful, dedicated members of our community who have come to us through conversion!

Many speak of heritage as the key component of what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” We relate to past historical trials and triumphs, the teachings we have contributed to civilization and accomplishments we have attained, while hopefully building upon them. For example, Larry King, like many others, describes himself as a “cultural Jew.” He writes: “I love the Jewish sense of humor. The shtick of the Jewish comedian burns in me. I love a good joke.” Though he doesn’t observe High Holy Days, he admits to a certain reverence at that time of year as he thinks about his parents. (The rabbi in me hopes it is guilt, not always such a bad feeling, when it prompts us to do what is right.) He goes on to say, “It’s an imprint I carry with me everywhere. I was taught to hate prejudice. I was taught the value of loyalty- the value of family…I was certainly embedded with strong Jewish values of education and learning, no matter what the form.” (p. 52) The problem I have with this approach to being Jewish is that while it gives meaning to his life today, it will neither transcend him or be transmitted to a future generation.

German born Michael Blumenthal, former Secretary of Treasury and now President and CEO of the Berlin Jewish Museum, also embraces heritage as his link to being Jewish. He writes: “Without strong religious anchors there was a time when still young, I wondered whether my Jewish heritage was only a burden to be borne, rather than a privilege and blessing to be acknowledged with pride….The Jewish religion is the foundation for the sum total of ethical and moral values of the Western World. Jewish men and women, wherever they lived, have contributed enormously to every facet of human life. It is a tradition and a heritage to be cherished and valued.” (p. 54) For him, “I am Jewish,” combines appreciation of the past leading to responsibility for the future.

Similarly, Daniel Gill, a childhood friend of Daniel Pearl’s, draws upon heritage as a rallying cry for action. He states: “Being a survivor is not what I think when I say ‘I am a Jewish’.. I think about how we’re different.. We are a people of the book, of law…We question, challenge, debate, extrapolate, construct and deconstruct… We focus on this life, not what comes after…Being Jewish means striving for Tikkun Olam, a repairing of the world, of hesed and rachamim and tsedakah…We built nations, changed the histories of music, arts, science, law and jurisprudence, politics, academia, philosophy, finance, agriculture, every field imaginable. We marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and made Duck Soup and E.T.” (p. 86) We can proudly reflect upon our heritage and say, “we are different and we have made a difference.” Heritage can be a source of nostalgia or a foundation for the future.

Many express their being Jewish through “Tikun Olam- repairing the world.” Numerous respondents stressed that saying “I am Jewish” is an imperative to make the world a better place. In many ways, this was Daniel Pearl’s kind of Judaism. A history of oppression and martyrdom becomes the impetus to shape this world as less cruel and more humane. “I am Jewish” is to side with the oppressed, rather than with the oppressor.” (p. 165) For others- “we are raised to believe that the world can be made better. That the work of creation is a joint venture, with God and humanity partners- maybe even equal partners.” (p. 203) To say “I am Jewish” means to stand upon our Judaism as the foundation for improving the world.

Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. It teaches that God’s love and our concern extends beyond our own particular community. We care about the Ninevites, who were our enemies, even the vegetation which we did not plant. Tikun Olam is the Jewish mandate to be universalists.

Identity, heritage, Tikun Olam are all important. They are significant aspects of what it means to be Jewish, branches and limbs of the Jewish tree of life. However, I believe that the trunk and roots lie in our covenantal relationship with God, which is linked to the faith of Judaism.

Rabbi Harold Kushner discusses how heritage and identity focuses on the past, while the statement of “I am Jewish” needs to address the present and future. “To say ‘I am a Jew’ says something about how I will live this day: how I will treat other people in my life, how honest will I be in my business dealings, how much of my income will I set aside for tsedakah, will I find time in my day for prayer and study? And it says something about the future: what sort of world do I envision and work for? What are the most important values I will strive to impart to my children and grandchildren?…“Life’s challenge is to realize that divine potential in me and the Torah is the instruction manual to guide me to do that.” (p. 165)

My friends, this kind of Jewish self definition does not just happen. It is not achieved by eating Jewish food, socializing with fellow Jews, or even donating to Jewish causes. Rather it requires an investment of self in prayer and ritual to connect with the God, who is understood in so many different ways in our faith; it springs from studying Jewish texts to appreciate the values that will guide our lives; it is inspired by spending significant time in the land of Israel to feel a greater link to our past and current history;

I know that the concept of “requirement” sounds onerous, burdensome. It does not have to be that way. We begin most of our services with the words emblazoned on our gates: Ivdu et Adonai B’simcha. Serve God, whether through prayer, study, daily activity, tikun olam, but serve God with a sense of joy.

7 year old Jade Ransohoff says it so well: “I am Jewish means having fun being a Jew.” This is why so many of you and our children loved going to Jewish cultural summer camps. It can be fun being a Jew. Our Nursery and Religious Schools embrace that philosophy as well. One of the many reasons I became a rabbi was that I concluded, “what could be more fun and fulfilling than being Jewish as my life’s work?” I encourage you to venture forth, experience and celebrate Jewish life with joy.

So what do I mean when I say “I am Jewish?” It begins with indebtedness to my parents, who by their words and deeds made it clear to me who I was. Through formal and informal education I have come to appreciate that I am part of a history and community much larger than myself. The historical episodes of the past, both the valleys of travail and the peaks of triumph are part of my Jewish family heritage. All of this is rooted in a relationship with a loving God, who in mysterious ways instructed our people in the past and continues as an active presence in the future. Through God inspired teachings I possess a moral compass that guides my daily activity and prompts me to realize that I am linked and have a responsibility to all people. And as I navigate my way through each day, I am able to serve God with joy.

Part of Daniel Pearl’s legacy was his final words. They were perceived as an expression of community, a challenge to his executioners, an acceptance of his fate. They have become a source of inspiration for us. I invite us all to consider what it means to say, “I am Jewish” throughout this holy day and then live accordingly in the year to come.



Quotations in this sermon are from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired By the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004.






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