Sunday, July 29, 2012

When We Say "Never Again"

A good friend of mine (who is not Jewish) recently asked me how my teachers in Jewish day school approached modern-day genocide -- whether we were encouraged to speak out about it, rally about it, raise awareness about it, etc. -- given our very personal connection to a genocide perpetrated against our grandparents.

I remember my middle and high school education well. There was concerted energy and effort put into ensuring that we were all educated about the Holocaust so that it would never again happen. We went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington for our 8th grade class trip. On Yom HaShoah, we had all day, school-wide assemblies -- Holocaust-related films were screened, graphic pictures covered the walls. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust meant something very personal to me, but I believe that even if I had not had this connection, I would never be able to forgot. Those images are seared forever into my mind.

I was in high school from 1993 to 1997. It was during that same period of time that a genocide was perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of Tutsi in Rwanda and thousands of Muslims in Bosnia. I do remember learning about this in my Social Studies classroom. It was taught with the same sort of detachment and casual rhetoric that any other current event was taught. It was not mentioned in any of my other classes, in any school assembly, in any other venue. I don't remember it having been discussed in shul (which, I'll grant the benefit of the doubt here, as my memory of that is rather weak and blurry) or at any of the Shabbos tables at which I ate lunch.

My friend was shocked to hear this and, in speaking it, I was shocked to remember it. Why was there not any concerted effort to try to get students involved (or, at the very least, concerned)? Why did we not at least mention these ongoing genocides in our discussions of the Holocaust? I think of how powerful a statement that could have been -- As your grandparents and their families were being tortured and killed because of the ethnicity into which they were born, so these people are being tortured and killed today for the same reason. When we say never again, let's mean it. Let's do something for those who suffer today. Let's refuse to be silent.

Obviously, I don't know what it was like in other schools. And I don't know what it's like today. I suspect (or at least I hope) with Darfur, that conversation has finally emerged.

If you're reading this and you've attended a Jewish day school (or are there now, or have children who are there), I'd really appreciate your letting me know what your experience with this has been. (If you're too shy to write in the comments section, you can email me at onherown100 AT gmail DOT com.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Definition of Jew

"So I work at this Hebrew school," she says, "It's Reform, so a lot of the couples are intermarried. And so it's so funny because there are all these kids with the last name Gonzalez or Campbell and they're probably really Jewish and then there are all these kids whose last names are Cohen or Levy and they're probably not!"

Ever hear something like this? The above is an approximation of something a friend of mine told me many years ago. I remember laughing at the time. How odd, I thought. A Cohen that's not Jewish and a Gonzalez that is. How twisted and strange.

It is now years later and my life, my outlook, my world are very different than they were when I first heard that story.

I have a good friend who lives in my town. She was born Christian and later in her life became distanced from the religion of her birth and more just spiritual. Then she met the man she would eventually marry. He was Jewish. He never pressured her to become Jewish, but through him she fell in love with the religion and eventually decided to convert.

She looked at all the different Jewish affiliations, spoke to all the rabbis of the different congregations, and found that the one philosophy which most resonated with her was that of the Conservative movement. And so it was under the guidance of this rabbi that she converted.

Today, her family attends that synagogue regularly. They also celebrate Shabbat and the holidays with an enthusiasm that is rare among practicing Jews. They keep kosher. My parents, sisters, all of the people in the world that I come from, indeed almost any Orthodox Jew, would not consider her or her children to be "really" Jewish.

I remember also the story of my second cousins. My grandmother's sister had intermarried; indeed, she had converted to Christianity when she got married. She then went on to have four children and raise them Christian. "They're really Jewish, and they just don't know," we used to whisper to each other as kids. 

I think of my friend who converted, of my second cousins, of that story that I laughed at so long ago. How terrible! To imagine that one group has the power to define membership in a religion. It's even kind of juvenile; the way in high school, groups of kids turn up their noses at that one other kid who they've decided is a "poser." It's also just plain bizarre for a group that (rightfully) sees themselves as endangered, as losing members constantly to secular world, to turn away anyone who wants to be part of their religion. And, at the same time, clings so desperately on to those who don't even see themselves as Jewish.

So where does this idea of the Jewish blood line come from? I know the halachah upon which this is all based, that lineage is determined by the mother. From my understanding, the reason for this is that, historically, you could never be sure of a child's paternity, but you could of their maternity. But with modern science, that problem is now gone.

And why the obsession with the one standard way of conversion? In other words, why does it matter? If someone wants to be part of the Jewish tradition, shouldn't that be enough? Especially if that person who is raised without religion entirely but has a Jewish mother can just (poof!) become a practicing Jew over night if they wish?

It really just seems like some kind of magical thinking to me. As if people just believe there's some sort of innate quality to being Jewish. I guess they do believe this, though it seems absurd to me. I remember one rabbi in high school teaching us that Jews possess a nefesh (spirit?) and a neshama (soul), whereas non-Jews possess only a nefesh.

And so I come back then to the question: Judaism, as defined by its adherents -- a race or a religion? It seems to me like it is the former.