Sunday, April 25, 2010

What it means to be a Jew...

Tony Judt (who is is stricken with ALS - see Rough Fractals post for a video of Judt speaking movingly about his illness (Click on title of this post for link)) writes about, among other things, Zionism, modern Israel and Judaism with a critical and inside perspective. He is Jewish - British by birth though raised a family and lives in New York).

Below are excerpts from his essay, "Toni" in the May 13, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books. What does it mean to me to be a Jew? The religious aspect / the cultural? Growing up in New York singing Kumbaya and Checkoslovakia Boom Si Boom at summer camp; the Holocaust as compelling reason for Israel; Bar Mitzvah as homage to grandparents - all worthy but is there more than that for an assimilated generation - something that grabs hold or defines or identifies what it means to be Jewish in the modern (American) world?

Here is Tony Judt's perspective: (The excerpts do not do the essay justice - I recommend it in it's nuanced and articulate entirety in which I think he provides a powerful definition of Jewish identity that is not a purely secular definition but neither is it based on memories which few can legitimately claim as their own. He addresses some tough issues...

"I find it odd that American Jews have have taken out a territorial insurance policy in the Middle east lest we find ourselves back n Poland - 1942...Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected and influential than at any time or place in the history of the community. Why then is contemporary Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection - and anticipation - of its own disappearance?"

"Being Jewish consists largely of what it once meant to be Jewish. Indeed of all the Rabbinical injunctions, the most enduring and distinctive is Zakhor! - Remember! But most Jews have internalized this injunction without any secure sense of what it requires of them. We are the people who remember - something."

"What then should we remember? Great Grandmother's latkes back in Pilvistock? I doubt it: shorn of setting and symbols, they are nothing but apple cakes. Childhood tales of Cossack terrors? What possible resonance could these have to a generation who has never know a Cossack? Memory is a poor foundation for any collective enterprise. The authority of historical injunction, lacking contemporary iteration, grows obscure".

"In that sense American Jews are instinctively correct to indulge their Holocaust obsession; it provides reference, liturgy, example and moral instruction - as well as historical proximity. And yet they are making a terrible mistake: they have confused a means of remembering with a reason to do so. Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents? If we fail to rise above this consideration, our grandchildren will have little reason to identify with us."

"I don't expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation; to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self criticism and a retreat into self pity... Judaism is for me a sensibility of collective truth-telling: the dafka-like (contrarian) quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other people's conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish".

(Judt's father's cousin, Toni Avegael, was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 where she was gassed to death. Tony Judt was named after her.)

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