Monday, May 27, 2013

Being Jewish: It's not just about religion

Another trip to Israel and the dichotomy surrounding is still pronounced and prevalent.  It also comes at a time when I find myself exploring Jewishness in the context of race and religion; a confounding concept to many non-Jews.  A concept that seems to be confounding many Israelis too.

What is Jewishness?  A religion, a genetic marker, a way of life?  I have written previously about being a Good Jew (see ), but is there a scientific explanation too?  There have been genetic studies that trace an Ashkenazi gene throughout millennia, and I can remember being confused by the concept that Jewish people had a higher risk to certain diseases than others.  How could religion make someone more likely to contract a diseases?  And yet recent studies have traced the male Y chromosomal DNA to the fertile crescent and the female Mitochondial DNA which, according to Behar et al (2006), says 40% of all Ashkenazis can trace their lineage to just four women.  Let’s face it, how many of us have said “Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish.”

If we agree there is a genetic “Jewishness”, does that address the question of a Jewish race?  Was Hitler’s motivation religion based?  There is no evidence that Hitler embarked on a holy war, but instead embarked on a purification war.  A war intent on the  elimination of  what he referred to as ‘sub races’, including Jews, Slavs, and the Roma and Sinti Gypsies.  That’s not to say that religious-based persecution has not been common, but often the hatred has been a question of race, including the stereotypes of being subversive, money hungry, or devious.  Do you hear such specific attacks against Catholics? Buddhists?  Hindi?  I am often asked if I am Italian due in part to my Mediterranean features, and when I respond, “No, I’m Jewish”, the immediate reaction is one of confusion.  After all, Jewish is not a place, it’s a religion.  But in the context of ancient races such as the Arab people, individuals will connect with a racial, before a national identity, and sometimes both.

Which brings me to the Secular Jew.  Oxymoron right?  Well, not necessarily.  Spend a Friday night in Tel Aviv and you will see bars and restaurants filled with Israeli Jews having  a great time.  Yes during Shabbat.  How can that be?  For one thing, there is a nationalistic identity for Israelis that supersedes a religious identity, a secular view that saw its seed sown by Herzl in the 19th century.  But are Israelis the only secular Jews?  I doubt that.  I am sure I am not alone when I relate more to the traditions of being Jewish rather than the religious aspects of being Jewish.  This, I am sure, is confusing to many and for some time confounded me.

But this is also becoming confusing for many Israelis too.  Theodor Herzl envisioned a state for Jews, a state where anti-Semitism could not touch them, even in societies where Jews were well established, if not assimilated.  But in a recent editorial in Haaretz, the future of Israel was questioned:  Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state: a refuge for members of the Jewish people, not a state with an official religion like Muslim Saudi Arabia. The Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one. On Israeli identity cards, "Jewish" describes a nationality.  And yet members of the Netanyahu government want to see a resurgent “Jewish Identity Administration” in lock step with the “Religious Services Ministry”.  As a Jew, nothing scares me more than this idea of a Jewish state; a state where the last remaining traces of tolerance and inclusion are replaced with intolerance. 

To me Jewishness is more than DNA or the Talmud.  It’s not only about lighting candles on Hanukkah or keeping kosher.  It is about never accepting the status quo, it’s about seeking wisdom, it’s about never forgetting our past so that it is never repeated, it is about asking why, how come, what if, and who says so?  It is honoring our elders but remaining wary of blind faith.  It is walking in another person’s shoes to get to get to know the person.  And of course it’s about kvetching.

Religion, Race, DNA, and culture.  How about all of the above?



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