July 19, 2011
David Suissa: Peoplehood is history
The latest buzzword in the Jewish world is “peoplehood.” In a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled “Funding Peoplehood,” Misha Galperin, a top official with the Jewish Agency, writes that for the past few years “the organized Jewish community worldwide has recognized that the next major task facing us is strengthening Jewish identity, which we’ve come to call ‘the price of peoplehood.’ ”
As he writes: “Prominent Jewish sociologists have identified the declining bonds of peoplehood as one of the most significant challenges posed by modernity and by a culture of universalism. Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving.”
This new “peoplehood” buzzword is just the latest iteration of a broader issue that’s been around for decades, using terms like “Jewish continuity,” “assimilation,” “intermarriage” and so on. “Peoplehood” is the latest reminder of a familiar problem for the organized Jewish community: American Jews in general don’t feel compelled to connect to their Jewish tradition.
What I find fascinating about this latest emphasis on “peoplehood,” however, is its tribal connotation. It’s like an admission of failure. We couldn’t get you to connect to Judaism so let’s try something more primal: Connect to your tribe! To your people! It’s the outreach of last resort.
No wonder Galperin’s piece got some heated responses. Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, which focuses on Jews helping the world (and not just other Jews), wrote: “What’s missing from this piece is a more expansive, values-based understanding of how Jewish peoplehood is expressed.”
Another critique came from Daniel Septimus, of myjewishlearning.com, who wrote: “What is the content of Galperin’s ‘bond of peoplehood’? What is this bonded people supposed to do? What values do they cherish and share? What mission do they work to achieve? The Jewish community’s inability to articulate answers to these questions, while at the same time fetishizing ‘peoplehood’ to the brink of idolatry, is exactly the reason the younger generation has drifted away.”
Personally, I’m torn between two lovers. I have a deep sense of Judaism as a way of life and as a source of meaning and mission, but I also have a deep sense of Judaism as belonging to a miraculous people. If I moved to the desert and did absolutely nothing Jewish for three years, I would still feel nourished by my Jewish identity. The mere fact of “belonging” to my people is enough. It is the very transcendent nature of this feeling that moves me.
In the same way that faith and belief in God transcend reason, my connection to the Jewish people does the same. If I had to constantly justify this connection through reason — if I made it conditional on common actions or values — it wouldn’t have the same power or emotion.
In fact, it’s a mistake to assume that a deeper connection to Judaism and Jewish values will naturally lead to a deeper connection between Jews. Not necessarily. If I see “Jewish values,” for example, as being synonymous with humanistic values like compassion, social justice and freedom, how does that connect me with Jews in yeshivas? Similarly, if I pray and learn Talmud all day, how does that connect me with Jews who express their Judaism by helping Muslims in Darfur?
Given all that, how might we promote a sense of peoplehood with Jews who feel no special connection with their Jewish brethren?
If you ask me, the most natural way to promote Jewish peoplehood is to teach the extraordinary history of the Jewish people.
And I don’t just mean biblical stories with all their grand moral lessons. I mean history, pure and simple. I mean the history of the migration of Sephardi Jews throughout the centuries; the history of the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Persia; the beginning of the Chasidic movement; the golden age of the medieval philosophers; the Jewish contributions to humanity; the beginning of the Zionist movement and so on.
I mean teaching Jews (yes, even in day schools and yeshivas) not just our master story, but also our cultural and ancestral stories — warts and all — and how those myriad journeys have improbably converged in our generation.
Our sense of solidarity can only be enhanced by a greater familiarity with our incredible journey.
Unfortunately, history is the ugly stepchild of Jewish outreach. It doesn’t have the romance of spirituality, the imperative of Torah study, the headiness of repairing the world or the practical relevance of daily rituals. What it does have, however, is narrative. Hundreds and thousands of narratives that have the power to bond us with the collective Jewish experience.
A few weeks ago, I reconnected with my cousin Sydney Suissa, who I grew up with in Casablanca and Montreal. Sydney was always a history buff. He ran programming at the History Channel and is now doing the same thing at National Geographic. My cousin is not Torah observant, but he has a deep connection to his people.
Why? Because he’s been learning Jewish history for most of his life. His connection to his people didn’t come from studying Torah, or from doing tikkun olam, which are important acts in their own right. It came because he embraced a remarkable story and heritage he feels he belongs to and would like to continue.
Galperin and the Jewish Agency are onto something. But maybe Galperin’s next piece should be titled “Finding Peoplehood.” He should invite and help Jews everywhere to discover the amazing story — and stories — of their people.
Values, rituals and study are important, but to build real human connections, you also need great stories. Just ask any Jewish screenwriter.
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