August 10, 2006
Who Is A Jew?
If you're not Mel Gibson, who correctly guessed that the Malibu sheriff's deputy arresting him at 2 a.m. was, in fact, Jewish -- what are the odds? -- you might want a
foolproof tip to discern who's a Jew.
Here's a hint: the first-person plural. Start up a discussion of the war in Lebanon. If the person you're speaking with eventually starts saying things like, "What can we do?" or "Why should we accept a cease-fire?" even though that person is not Israeli, that says it all.
For a great many of us, there is an instant and easy identification with the Jewish state. They are not they, they are we. The heat of battle forges them into us. Whether we've spent much time there, whether we have blood relatives there, we feel ourselves as one, we are they.
At its worst, this intensity of identification can betray an arrogant cowardice. It is one thing to feel -- to know -- that your fate is intertwined with that of another country, 7,570 miles away. It's another to speak as if you or your loved ones will pay the price as quickly for your beliefs. Some Diaspora Jews, goes the saying, are always willing to fight to the last Israeli.
At its best, the fusing of our identities makes all of us stronger. We know who's doing the actual fighting and bleeding and dying. We are well aware who is spending Friday at the bomb shelter and who at The Grove. But with a sense of humility and proportion intact, we do all we can: following the news intently, helping however possible, standing up for Israel whenever necessary.
The Passover haggadah speaks of four sons -- the wise, the wicked, the simple and the innocent. The moment we turn on CNN and settle back into the sofa, we become one of them. As images of the war fill the screen, do we distance ourselves from them by asking: "Who are those people?" Do we stare blankly at the screen, confounded by the ping-pong of punditry and the powerful images cooked up for us, then shrug and flip to "Iron Chef"? Do we leave TV news behind and search for deeper answers? Or do we see ourselves in those flames?
To be fair, at different times in our lives, at different moments, we may be all those sons. The fire in every thinking Jew -- American, Israeli, Persian or Byelorussian -- heats up, cools down, flares up again. For a rare handful of us it burns bright and constant.
You can have criticisms of how Israel is handling the war -- thinking you know better is an integral aspect of Jewish identity -- but there can be no doubt this is a war Israel didn't seek, and must win.
These thoughts struck me as I read how, earlier this week, more than 1,500 gathered for a memorial service in Bucks County, Pa., for Michael Levin. I didn't know him, but the day he was killed fighting for Israel in Lebanon, I heard. He was the son of a colleague's best friend. The connection was hardly close, but it felt immediate.
Levin was 22. He moved to Israel after high school, entered the Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel, and then went to Kibbutz Yavne Ulpan to become more fluent in Hebrew. After receiving special permission to enter the Israel Defense Forces so soon after making aliyah, he became a paratrooper.
"He knew who he was, what he wanted and where he was headed," his father Mark Levin said at the memorial service.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Levin had been deployed to southern Lebanon and was searching a building for Hezbollah terrorists in when it was struck by an antitank shell.
Levin's death reverberated from Israel to Philly to Los Angeles. It wasn't just that he was a great kid who became an outstanding young man. It was also that he acted on his yearning to make they one with us. He threw his lot in with Israel in the most real way possible, in the most honest way.
Part of Levin's Jewish identity was forged at camp. He grew up spending summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where he made lifelong friends.
Last week, just after Tisha B'Av, the fast day of mourning, drew to a close, some 20 staff members gathered in the library at Camp Ramah in Ojai. A candle glowed in front the room, a picture Levin beside it.
Israeli counselors JJ Jonah and Marshall Lestz, who knew Levin in Israel, led a small memorial service in his memory. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, read an e-mail sent to him by his cousin, Smadar Cohen, who also knew Mike well.
"I'll remember him as so many things: as a wonderful friend, as a guy who was always there for me," Cohen wrote, "a funny, sweet, brave boy who died for something he believed in with all his heart."
For Greyber, Levin's death had a meaning deeper than the headlines and the evening news.
"I hope you feel in this one death," he wrote to friends, "the cost being paid so dearly by so many -- so many young men and women in their youth who have to fight, so many children and mothers and fathers and relatives waking and sleeping in fear for their loved ones, so many families in bomb shelters -- the cost being paid so that, in the words of 'HaTikvah', we can 'be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.'
May we tie our fate to theirs."
Yes. May we tie our fate to theirs.