I was reading a private bulletin board the other day when I read a very interesting post about Judaism. I don’t really want to get too personal with my blog but I will say that I am Jewish. We have a strong Jewish community in Buenos Aires and in other places like Mar del Plata. I actually moved to Vancouver because I had some Jewish family members there and it was a smooth move. I will admit that I am not very religious. I respect it and try to be as good as I can, but I am not a participant of this faith or any other faith. Still I wanted to share this interesting reading on Judaism. It’s private and posted by someone I know so I was given the OK to post it in my blog.
Today represents the 360th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to North America – Arrival Day. Coincidentally, tonight I will be attending the final nominations committee of Geshercity – Boston a volunteer driven organization with the mission of trying to connect young Jewish adults to the greater Jewish community. As it turns out, this last meeting will mark my final act as the chair of Geshercity-Boston; after 3 years of sitting on the Geshercity-Jewish Interaction board, you’re automatically put out to pasture. It’s an odd feeling realizing that I’ll no longer be a part of Geshercity – I’ve been part of the organization for at least 5 years. In fact, I would describe myself as a Geshercity success story: I had no connection with the Boston Jewish community prior to becoming involved with Geshercity. However, as the organization’s name suggests, Geshercity is but a bridge to the Jewish community, and although I’ve taken the scenic route in crossing it, this part of the journey is finished. I must now decide what to do next.
I specifically chose to describe my time at Geshercity as part of a journey back to the Jewish community because it has indeed been a long road, and it isn’t finished. I grew up in a predominately Catholic section on Long Island, and as you might imagine most of my friends were not Jewish. To be sure, a significant portion of my friends were Jewish, but that was more of a function of geographic coincidence (we lived pretty close to each other), rather than, say synagogue membership or youth group attendance. Indeed, I always felt that the forced socialization of Jewish kids to be contrived. I did attend Hebrew school, which was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. (The material was interesting but the kids were mostly intolerable.) I hated the local youth groups for their cliquish ways and I never wanted to attend “Jewish camp.” Why should I want to hang out with a bunch of snotty Jewish kids when I already had my friends – Jewish and goyish. One might say that I was a well assimilated American Jew.
This is not to say, I never encountered anti-Semitism – I still remember being called a “Jew Boy” by some Italian kid in second grade – but this, like the other few events were pretty minor.
My anti-contrived Jewish socialization continued through college. I tried becoming a part of the Hillel, but I just didn’t feel at home, although I make use of the Hillel for High Holiday services and for Passover meals. Indeed, the Hillel was instrumental in fighting the Claremont Colleges for the right to use a never used kitchen to prepare kosher for Passover meals. The resistance the Hillel met was testimony to how un-Jewfriendly the Claremont colleges were at the time, but that’s a whole other story for another time. Besides, I didn’t have much time for Jews or Judaism – I had problem sets to complete and exams to prepare for.
I had the same attitude when I started grad school, but eventually my attitude started to change. Some of the change was prompted by the reaction to a couple of fellow students in my early grad school classes. Both of them were orthodox and during the High Holidays and Passover, they took off several days, missing several classes. This prompted some grumbling from on professor in particular and this grumbling proceeded to irk me. These two weren’t taking off time to go frolic on a vacation – they were being true to their religion and culture. I suspect the professor’s attitude was a function of the inability to grasp that someone could consider something other than his class to take priority. Looking back at it now, I see the reaction as an example of the intellectual elite’s tendency to dismiss and denigrate religion. But at the time, I saw it as an example of Jews being misunderstood in America.
Nevertheless, my contact with fellow Jews during my early grad school years was minimal. It wasn’t a conscious decision per se – although I never sought out Jews, I never actively avoided them. I hung out with my non-Jewish friends, dated non-Jewish women and was pretty happy – except around Jewish holiday time. My lack of Jewish friends left me decidedly alone on the Jewish holidays (if nothing else, the Jewish religion is a very social one). After several of these holidays I decided to seek out fellow Jews. Eventually, I found Geshercity Boston and, as they say, the rest is history.
So what does this have to do with Arrival Day? 350 years after the arrival of the first Jew in America, in many respects, the American Jewish community has, for lack of a better word, arrived. Jews have become an integral part of the social, political, cultural, and intellectual fabric of America. We can generally walk around without any fear of being beaten, harassed or discriminated against. However, lately, things appear to be changing. The internet is rife with anti-Semitism, some blatant, some less so. Indeed, take a look at any forum that allows anonymous posting and you’ll find plenty of anti-Semitism. Given the safety of internet anonymity, people will reveal their true colors. With the recent “Israeli spy” scandal, accusations of Jewish dual loyalty have resurfaced, and even if the suspected mole, Larry Franklin, isn’t Jewish, he sure talks like them.. The Passion of the Christ, a movie that, at best, paints Jews in an unsympathetic light, recently became one of the highest grossing movies of all time in the US, (thanks in no small part to Abe Foxman’s big mouth). The list goes on.
In these times, American Jews need each other, and yet our numbers are dwindling. Judaism and Jewish culture are seen as burdens rather than gifts. Indeed my friend’s Jewish co-workers were actively rooting for a new hire not to be an orthodox Jew. This shouldn’t be. Judaism, in its strictest form, is a difficult religion to follow, but that shouldn’t mean it should be tossed aside as an inconvenience. Jewish culture should not be something to be embarrassed about. Members of minority of groups find themselves identifying more and more with their culture, and we Jews would do well to do the same. If we do not, there will be precious few of us to celebrate Arrival day in 2354.