Friday, December 26, 2008

The Jew in Me

If it weren’t for the religion, I’d probably be a Jew.

A highly selective Jew, mind you, but a Jew.

Let me tell you why.

Religion is a bundle of things. It’s doctrine, it’s the institutions it throws up to define and control the community of believers, the art and music of its historical traditions, and more, not relevant to this discussion.

I can’t be a Christian because I can’t buy into the myths. Virgin birth, walking on water, a God who answers the prayers of some by setting aside natural laws and ignoring others. It’s all too much to swallow for me. And once you throw those out, what is Christian about you?

Many people succeed in remaining Christian, if they start there, and continuing to identify themselves as such because they can’t bear the loss of the community they sprang from, and saying they are no longer catholic, or whatever, would tax their Italian, Irish, or other ethnic identity. So they apologize for being “bad Christians” but don’t let go of the identity.

But if you do find the courage to say, “You know, I just don’t find any reason to accept the authority of an institution that requires me to believe I inherited sin and now am obligated to worship the guy who paid off that debt, well then, you're out.

With Jews it’s a different story. It’s hard to discuss Jewishness and Jewry without including religion, that aspect of religion involved with myths and doctrines, I mean, but if you try, you can manage it. The State of Israel, in fact, was founded by people who decided they could pretty much do without it. If they had had the luxury of being able to take in only others like themselves, and not the religious ones as well, many of whom then stomped all over the land shouting God loves me, me, me and not you, in fact, who knows what might have been.

But that's another story and beyond what draws me to Jewishness. So is the fact that for most members of any group, what counts is whether they take you in and not just whether you want in. Either way, Israel doesn't define Jewishness and I would not be an Israeli, even if I were to become a Jew. It's all academic, anyway, since the only way to become a Jew is through the religion, and that isn't going to happen.

In this multicultural world, where we are not just exposed to but actually live on quite intimate terms with cultural "others," there are lots of groups with which we can come to identify, sometimes superficially, sometimes not so superficially. I felt a rush of Japaneseness when I got my permanent resident visa for Japan. I feel a rush of Italianness every time somebody puts a plate of pasta in front of me, but I understand I can eat the fettuccini and the sushi, light the candles on shabbas, and enjoy the fact the English language is full of words like kvetch and shlep and concepts like Mensch, without seeking out anybody's licence to a new identity.

But then, there are times, when I would almost do more. I would go back to those early days when it first occurred to me that I might put on the mantle of Jewishness and wear it.

Thirty years ago, when Harvey Milk was shot, I went to his funeral in that gorgeous Temple Emanu-El on Arguello Street in San Francisco and sat in the pew right in front of Diane Feinstein. When the service started, first the cantor came out and sang the Mourners’ Kaddish. If you’ve never understood the power of music to communicate more powerfully than words, then listen to a good cantor chant the kaddish some time, particularly if you’re feeling the pain of loss.

Then came a sermon by the rabbi. “We are not here to mourn Harvey Milk so much as to feel sorry for ourselves.”

What?! Did he really say that?

If you were raised in a tradition of “pie in the sky bye and bye” and “gone on to his reward” and “smiling down from Heaven” stuff, this frank honesty can blow you away. It did me, at any rate.

Any man who could speak honestly like that was one of my kind. Coming right on the heels of the kaddish, all I could think of was where do I sign up?

It was an emotional moment and it passed and life went back to normal. But something remained from that one-two punch, the music from the depths of your soul and a religious leader who said it like it was.

What I drew from that, obviously, is not that I ought to join the religion, but that these were people who knew how to say things that were worth listening to. Things I saw as true. Never mind there were Christians who might do the same. Never mind there were ways of being Jewish that might not appeal to me. This was a moment of my personal history that has stayed with me.

And I thought a lot about that moment this week when I heard the news of this guy Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme has cost people an astonishing fifty billion dollars.

A white supremacist or other anti-Semite might want to make the case this is just another Jewish banker at work. It would not take much to see the exact opposite is true. The Jewish response to Madoff is a rush to isolate him from the community, and I find a parallel in that rush to the opening remark at Milk's funeral. I note, with admiration, two ways of being different from the christian culture in which I was raised. No "he's better off in Heaven." And no "God has already forgiven him, and we must too."

Madoff is a Jew who used his Jewish identity to con other Jews into investing with him. The decision to do so is shutting down all kinds of programs and institutions, but Jews are particularly hard hit. Israel's Technion Technology University has lost $72 million. The Yad Sarah Organization, on whom countless numbers of sick and infirm depend, can’t pay its $20 million operating expenses. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost $15 million, and the list goes on and on. It hurt many beyond the Jewish community, of course - diabetes research, the New York Public Library, countless after-school programs are effected. But the bitter irony that so many Jews were harmed is what I want to focus on here.

There are Bible stories like the one of the prodigal son and how he is welcomed home after his years of profligacy. I like that story. Joseph and his coat of many colors, and the brothers who tried to kill him but now, it turns out, are dependent on him to save their lives and their whole nation. All kinds of great moral lessons in the Bible. I loved these stories as a kid, and have not thrown them out with the bathwater. What I didn't hear, and wish I did, was the more practical savvy take on some of those Bible stories that I keep uncovering in the Jewish tradition.

Just a quick aside here. At a local Congregational Church where George Lakoff was talking, a woman in the audience, clearly unaware she was talking to a Jew, asked Lakoff how she might get her fellow Christians to focus on Jesus' message and less on the Old Testament. Lakoff responded by telling her about the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God tells Abraham to kill Isaac and at the last minute lets him substitute a lamb for his son. "When I was growing up in the Talmudic tradition," he told the woman, "We understood God to have said, while snatching the knife from Abraham's hand, 'Schmuck, don't you know when I'm having you on?'"

One rabbi in Connecticut is urging Jews to launch an ex-communication program to oust Madoff from the community. Another rabbi from Los Angeles, David Wolpe - my kind of guy, again - tells the story of Jacob and Esau and reminds us of a rabbinical tradition which includes sayings such as, “When Esau kisses you, check to make sure your teeth are still there.”

There are all sorts of places one can go with this. If you seek out the Bible verse in Malachi, you’ll eventually get around to the interpretation that Jacob = Israel and his nasty brother Esau = Israel’s enemies and this is just another story about how “God loves us best.” But that’s where religion gets political and toxic and as far as I’m concerned, sometimes a banana is just a banana and this is a story about the fact there are bad guys out there and here is a group of people unafraid to call things as they see them. Rabbi Wolpe has decided there are some sins that are simply unforgiveable.

In the first case, we have a rabbi who wakes you up to the fact that wailing to the skies about the pain of loss is a more honest way of being than smiling through the tears and pretending it isn’t all happening. In the second, we have a rabbi who has decided that since Madoff could never fix the damage he has done between now and the time he goes to his grave, maybe there’s no point in pretending he can be forgiven.

I know there are lots of people in this touchy feely Buddhist world we live in here in California ready to lecture me on the dangers to my soul of carrying a grudge. Hatred, I fully understand, eats away at the hater more than it harms the hated. But I’m not talking about hatred. I don’t feel hatred for Madoff, although I might if I had suffered the consequences of his greed up close. I just think we should get real and stay real about the responsibility the world requires of us.

There is a powerful moment at the heart of the film Munich, which I wrote about some years ago now where one of the characters has a crisis of conscience. He is one of the members of an assassination team Golda Meir has put together to hunt down the killers of the Israeli Olympic Team at Munich. At the moment of truth, he finds he doesn’t have what it takes to pull off an assassination and he is going to have to let his friends and his country down.

And why, exactly, can he not do this thing they are all requiring of him?

Because it isn’t Jewish.

Ever notice how much human behavior, even in the modern world, is tribal? And how much time people spend trying to identify their tribe? In Japan, because I worked with kids who had lived their young years outside of Japan and were now back and learning with varied success how to fit in, the question “What is a Japanese?” was a daily existential question. Jews, too, can fill volumes looking for an answer to what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.

For me, perhaps because I don’t have to carry baggage I choose not to carry, I can say the answer is not so complicated. It goes like this: You can leave the shtetl behind, the Yiddish language, the latkes and the gefilte fish and still be Jewish. (I’m using Ashkenazi examples; one could use Sephardic or modern Israeli examples just as well). You can even leave the religion behind, and still be Jewish. But if you leave behind the ethical way of being in the world, if you rob and cheat and slander and kill, will the gefilte fish still make you Jewish ?

One could do worse than be a member of a group that asks questions like that.

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