Jewish Journal


September 16, 2004

“I Am Jewish.”


"I am Jewish," were the words Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl spoke to his terrorist captors shortly before they murdered him. To honor Pearl's life and work, his parents Ruth and Judea asked Jews from all walks of life to reflect on what these words mean in their own lives. Many of these pieces can serve as powerful sources of inspiration and reflection during these Days of Awe. Following are excerpts from "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl."

The Force That Breaks Boundaries by Douglas Rushkoff

Jews are not a tribe but an amalgamation of tribes around a single premise: that human beings have a role. Judaism dared to make human beings responsible for this realm. Instead of depending upon the gods for food and protection, we decided to enact God, ourselves, and to depend on one another.

So out of the death cults of Mitzrayim came a repudiation of idolatry, and a way of living that celebrated life itself. To say "l'chaim" was new, revolutionary, even naughty. It overturned sacred truths in favor of sacred living.

We are not passive recipients of law and truth, but active creators of ethical systems and models for the Divine. We are not believers, or even doubters, but wrestlers. Israel, more than a nation-state, is this very confrontation with the Divine. The wrestling is our continuity.

It's important to me that those who, throughout history, have attacked the Jews on the basis of blood not be allowed to redefine our indescribable process or our eternally evolving civilization. We are attacked for our refusal to accept the boundaries, yet sometimes we incorporate these very attacks into our thinking and beliefs.

It was Pharaoh who first used the term Am Yisrael in Torah, fearing a people who might replicate like bugs and not support him in a war. It was the Spanish of the Inquisition who invented the notion of Jewish blood, looking for a new reason to murder those who had converted to Catholicism. It was Hitler, via Jung, who spread the idea of a Jewish "genetic memory," capable of instilling an uncooperative nature in even those with partial Jewish ancestry. And it was Danny Pearl's killers who defined his Judaism as a sin of birth.

I refuse these definitions.

Yes, our parents pass our Judaism on to us, but not through their race, blood or genes -- it is through their teaching, their love and their spirit. Judaism is not bestowed; it is enacted. Judaism is not a boundary; it is the force that breaks boundaries.

And Judaism is the refusal to let anyone tell us otherwise.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of "Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism," is a professor of communications at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and a commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

The Idol Store by Sarah Silverman

Remember the guy who smashed all the idols in the idol store? His mother had a heart attack when she saw the mess, but I'm sure she bragged about it later. That's us. That's me. I am Jewish. Sarah Silverman is a comic, actress, and writer. She is very pretty.

Ethical Principle, Not Convenience by Zev Yaroslavsky

I am a Jew! At its core, being a Jew means seeing myself as though I were a slave in Egypt; as though I were a student of Maimonides; as though I lived in Chmelnitzky's 17th-century Ukraine; as though I resided in my ancestors' Lithuanian shtetl, with all of the hardship and scholarship that permeated the place; as though I were confronted with the moral meltdown of World War II; and as though I were a participant in the rebirth of the Jewish state. These and other seminal events in Jewish history inform who I am and the kind of decisions I make in my personal and professional public service life.

We are a people of laws, not whim. We are a people of ethical principle, not convenience. As a Jew, I am committed to justice -- to doing the right thing, even, or especially, when doing so puts me at risk. Being a Jew means identifying and soldiering with those who are marginalized and persecuted. It means, in the words of Moses in Deuteronomy, being "strong and of good courage."

Zev Yaroslavsky is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and a former member of the Los Angeles City Council. Prior to his entry into politics in 1975, he was a well-known advocate for human rights and freedom of emigration for Jews in the former U.S.S.R.

A Jewish Mother by Wendy Wasserstein

I made my stage debut in second grade, in 1957, as Queen Esther at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. As I recall, I wore one of my mother's striped sheets tied around me as a toga, and a birthday crown. I have no idea who played my cousin Mordechai, or the evil Haman, but to this day I am convinced that I have a life in the theater because of Queen Esther.

In later years, I wrote a play called "The Sisters Rosensweig" about Jewish identity. My friend Martin Sherman, the Jewish author of the play "Bent," said to me, "Wendy, the thing is, these are all voices you remember from your childhood in Brooklyn." Those voices I remember were distinctly Jewish voices: funny, ironic, yearning, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes grandiose, but always with a great heart.

My grandfather Shimon was a Yiddish playwright. He came to this country in 1928. He was an actor in Yiddish plays in Pittsburgh, and ultimately, was the principal of a Hebrew school in Paterson, N.J. According to my mother, my grandfather knew Menasha Skulnik and Molly Picon, the great practitioners of Yiddish theater in America at that time. Also according to my mother, my grandfather walked past the synagogue deliberately on High Holidays. I have no idea whether that is true or not, but that story has always contextualized my religious practice.

When I was a student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, my mother, Lola, served the children hamburgers with string beans and butter sauce, a deliberate kosher violation. She told the rabbi's children, who appreciated the sweetness of the beans, that it was really lemon juice. In my childhood mind, I thought a burning bush or flying hand would come through our window in Flatbush at any moment.

And yet, in many ways, those dinners seemed to me at the heart of why I consider myself Jewish. My sense of identity comes directly from the creativity of my mother and her profound sense of family. My mother, who had to be convinced by me to celebrate Passover yearly, used to bang on televisions and tell who exactly was Jewish. I remember distinctly her explaining to me that she didn't care what anybody said, but that Sen. Barry Goldwater was Jewish. I didn't even know Jews lived in Arizona at that time.

I am often asked if I consider myself a woman writer or a Jewish writer. I am also often asked if I think my work is "too New York" to be appreciated in the rest of the country, or the world. My answer is: If I am not a Jewish or female writer, then I have no idea who I am. And as for being "too New York," I know what that is a euphemism for. I now have a 4-year-old daughter. When I define myself, I am happily now not only a Jewish female writer but also the ultimate form of Judaism: a Jewish mother.

Wendy Wasserstein is a playwright. She is the author of "The Heidi Chronicles," "The Sisters Rosensweig," and "An American Daughter."

Jews as the Scouts of Civilization by Judea Pearl

To be Jewish is to identify myself with the past, present and future of a collective of individuals who call themselves "Jews." As an act of choice, I select a certain thread of history and label it "mine," that is, relevant to me. Similarly, I select the destiny of other members of the collective and label it "ours," that is, relevant to our children.

The logic of being Jewish thus rests on a fortunate symbiosis between two forces: choice and history. The first lays claim to universalism, the second to tribalism.

We strive for a culture of universal, all-inclusive humanity, yet we recognize that the innate architecture of the human mind requires a tribal framework to codify, implement and sustain the principles of that culture. We thus nurture a tribal subculture, equipped with vivid ethos and personalized teachings, and use it to inspire humanistic standards of behavior, warmth of an extended family, and a sense of mission and continuity. Our record and endurance attest to the power of this symbiosis.

And religion? What about God, and covenant, and holiness, and the 613 mitzvot?

I am a secular Jew. I find it hard to believe that an entity up there takes record of my thoughts and deeds. Still, I chant the Friday night Kiddush with all the seriousness that my grandfather did. Why? Because my tradition, with all its theology, myths and rituals, offers me an effective language of symbols and metaphors with which to understand the teachings of my past, and in which to formulate my commitments for the future.

This is perhaps what Danny meant when he said: "Afterlife? I don't have answers, mainly questions. But I sure hope Gabriel likes my music." In other words, "I doubt the existence of the afterlife, but I conduct my life as though a Gabriel will be asking one day: 'Anyone here care to bring some joy to the world?' I want to be chosen."

But why Jewish? Why don't I offer my children the choice of some other subculture to anchor our identity and to exercise our humanity? The answer is twofold: it wouldn't be easy, and it wouldn't be wise.

I would probably make a clumsy, unconvincing father reciting the songs of the Hiawatha to my children. In contrast, I do a fairly decent job with the Kiddush, or Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) or the story of Chanukah. These reside deep in my brain, marked with a big "mine," evoking hundreds of stories, smells and melodies that one expects from a father, grandfather or teacher. I cherish the thought that these sweet melodies were also evoked in Danny's mind when he wrote to us in an e-mail in September of 1998: "I intend to give my children all the Jewish tradition I know, maybe more with your help."

But who are we? I look down the history of ideas and I find our little subculture scoring an impressive list of accomplishments. I see Jews as the scouts of civilization -- the ones who question conventional wisdom and constantly seek the exploration of new pathways. Abraham questioned the wisdom of idolatry, Moses questioned the wisdom of servitude and lawlessness, the prophets questioned institutional injustice, and so the chain goes on from the Maccabees, Jesus and Spinoza, to Marx, Herzl and Freud, down to Einstein, Gershwin and the civil rights activists of the 1960s.

As individuals, we do not consciously choose this lonely role as scouts, border-challengers, idol-smashers and boat-rockers. It has permeated our veins partly from the Bible and the Talmud in their persistent encouragement of curiosity, learning and debate, and partly transmitted through the free-spirited character and attitude of our parents, uncles and historical role models. But mostly, this role has been imposed on us by the travesties of history-conventional wisdoms were mighty unkind to us, and their guardians quite oppressive. Our sanity demanded that we challenge those conventions and, in due course, we have learned to challenge all conventions.

Ironically, this habit of questioning authorities has evoked much anti-Jewish antagonism. Few can appreciate those who are on the lookout for improvement, especially when experiments occasionally fail (e.g., Marxism). Still, many are grateful when experiments turn successful (e.g., relativity) and most understand that, failures notwithstanding, experiments propel the progress of civilization.

Thus, is my Jewishness a blessing or a burden? Do I prefer the trails of the scouts to the safety of the bandwagon? You bet I do. It is only from those trails that I can see where the voyage is heading, and it is only from there that I can discover greener pastures.

I am Jewish, and I doubt I would be in my element elsewhere.

Judea Pearl was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is a professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles, and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation. He is the author of three books on artificial intelligence: "Heuristics," "Probabilistic Reasoning" and "Causality."

To Become a Jew by Leon Wieseltier

I prefer to declare not that I am Jewish but that I am a Jew. There is nothing adjectival about this dimension of my being. It is not a quality of anything else, not a modification of another essence; it is itself a noun, itself an essence; it is itself. When I say that I am a Jew, I do not mean to say that I am only a Jew -- existence is never single or whole, except when it is debased; but the Jew that I am is primary, irreducible, a raw and rich fact of my fate. And yet I do not appeal to its facticity for its justification. Quite the contrary. Such an appeal would be repulsively tribal; and it is the first lesson of Jewish history that the Jews are considerably more than a tribe. No, the facticity of my identity, the accidental truth that it is what I have inherited, rather embarrasses me. I wish that I could have chosen it. I pray that I would have chosen it. Accident is not an adequate foundation for a life. I envy converts, once the sons and the daughters of their parents and now the sons and the daughters of Abraham and Sarah. They are Jews as a consequence of their own reflection and their own freedom. They became Jews out of inner necessity. But I must transform outer necessity into inner necessity.

Kierkegaard once remarked that it is easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian than for a Christian to become a Christian. When I say that I am a Jew, I mean to say that a Jew is what I desire to become. The sense in which I am already one -- the biological and the sociological -- does not affect my soul or reveal what it can accomplish, though it certainly affects my historical allegiances and my political actions. I am proud to be the heir of my ancestors, but I am too proud to be just an heir. I wish to be also one of my ancestors, an artificer of this tradition and thereby an artificer of myself. So I am a Jew who is becoming a Jew, if I am a serious Jew at all. I make myself known as much by my chosen destination as by my unchosen origin. (One of the many unfortunate consequences of the concept of the Chosen People is that it has relieved many Jews of the responsibility of choice, or so they think.)

I am a Jew: This is another way of saying that I am busy at work. But the study of Judaism, and of the civilization that it bred, makes the toil easy: The exposure to the words and the ideas of Judaism has always been, for me, an experience of seduction to which I keenly capitulate. Here is an example, a text to raise up (as the rabbis believed) the soul of the deceased, a yahrtzeit text from the tradition of nineteenth-century Polish Hasidism, in sorrowful and respectful recollection of Daniel Pearl. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk reported an interpretation of a verse and a prayer in the name of his teacher, Jacob Isaac of Przysucha. In Numbers, after Aaron is instructed to light the lamps in the Tabernacle, it is recorded that "Aaron did so." Rashi glosses these otherwise superfluous words with the midrashic comment: "This is said in praise of Aaron, to indicate that he made no changes [in his fulfillment of the command]." The Kotzker produces a deep hermeneutical pun in Rashi's comment: The Hebrew words shelo shina, or "he made no changes," the Kotzker reads as shelo na'asah yashan etzlo, or "it did not become old for him." Or as he remarks in Yiddish, ess iz nisht alt gevorn, explaining that Aaron "would do his work every day as if for the first time, not out of habit, as if it had grown stale."

This power of refreshment the Kotzker takes to be the implication of a peculiar blessing at the start of the morning prayers. "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a gentile." Shelo asani goy: This formulation is uttered every morning, the Chasidic philosopher suggests, "because one must feel in one's soul every day as if one has gone from being a non-Jew to being a Jew." It is a startlingly modern ideal of self-creation. It is about as spiritually realistic as the other modern fantasies of a completely new beginning, of emptying oneself entirely of what one has found so as to fill oneself entirely with what one has made-but it is a very useful exaggeration. It demands that every Jew acknowledge the contingent nature of his Jewishness, and then correct it. For if I cannot imagine not being a Jew, I cannot glory in being a Jew, or at least I have not earned the right to this glory.

And may it always be said about the memory of Daniel Pearl that ess iz nisht alt gevorn.

Leon Wieseltier is the author of "Kaddish" and the literary editor of The New Republic.

One of a Special People by Gershom Sizomu

I am the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) in Uganda, Africa. Our number is small, but we are a strong, spiritual and deeply religious Jewish community. There are more than 600 of us, although our numbers have dwindled from several thousand.

Born in 1969, I am 34 years old. My wife, Tzipporah, and I have brought our two young children with us on my 5-year journey through rabbinical school here in Los Angeles. We are far from our home.

In 1919, Shimei (Semei) Kakungulu, the founder of our community, was a military general. After reading the Bible, he abandoned his military service, broke away from the Imperial British East African Company, where he served as a local governor of the eastern region, and rejected ongoing missionary efforts still prevalent in our country.

Shimei circumcised himself, his children, and the males of our tribe. He started strict observance of Shabbat every Saturday. More than 3,000 of his followers -- our previous generation -- celebrated Jewish festivals, observed fasts and began complete adherence to kashrut, as written in the Five Books of Moses.

When I was only 2 years old, Iddi Amin Dada, legendary for his cruelty and corruption, grabbed political power and the presidency at gunpoint. Between 1971 and 1979, Amin ordered us to stop our religious observance and warned us against calling ourselves Jews. He gave us three alternatives: convert to Islam or Christianity, become unaffiliated, or face public execution.

While many of our people succumbed to the first alternative and converted, my family and several other families continued to observe Shabbat and the other mitzvot in secret. Most often, we held services in bedrooms, where we would worship in whispers to our God.

In 1989 at the age of 20, I was arrested with three fellow Jews. We were caught mobilizing our youth to learn about Judaism and the Hebrew language, and we were also rebuilding the foundation of our main synagogue, which had been destroyed during Amin's regime. We suffered in the hands of local Christian and Muslim government administrators, who were not at all interested in the existence of a Jewish community.

To be Jewish in Uganda we must withstand many levels of intimidation, oppression and abuse. We face restricted access to social services owned or managed by Christians and Muslims. But Uganda is not our only challenge.

I do not look Jewish in the eyes of the international Jewish community and I am frequently asked, "How did you become Jewish?" and "Who converted you?"

A beit din (rabbinical court) of Conservative rabbis performed "mass conversions" for our community members to bring us officially into the Jewish world family in February 2002.

When I'm weak from my Yom Kippur fast, I realize I am a fragile being, but my God lives forever and ever. I look forward to every Shabbat, which brings meaning, joy, comfort and spiritual restoration into my life for 26 hours. Communal Pesach seders and celebrations of every holiday from Shavuot and Sukkot to bar and bat mitzvot connect me at once to the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

I will forever walk in the path of Torah and identify with the holy traditions of Judaism passed down from one generation to another. I will work hard to ensure that Judaism continues for the sake of maintaining an even stronger bond between me and my God, who is most high. He is the creator of space and all its mysteries, world architect, the source of life, and a permanent force behind nature and cosmic order.

Although I have faced life-threatening dangers during my 34 years as a Jew in Uganda, I am also one of a special people -- the Jewish people -- who have resisted many centuries of hatred and oppression and continue to say shalom to the world.

Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) of Uganda, received his bachelor's degree at the Islamic University in Uganda and is currently studying at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism. n

Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl

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