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Contents > Author > Sasha Schtetlman > Thank You, Adonai, Who Has Made Me a Jew 1987- Present
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Sasha Schtetlman
Thank You, Adonai, Who Has Made Me a Jew
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What does it mean to be a Jew? For millennia the rabbis have contemplated the very essence of Judaism, pondered the foundations of one of the world?s most enduring ? well, whatever it is.
I suppose that the religion is a part of it: after performing a grueling series of trials and tribulations, anyone can theoretically become Jewish?I assure you that this is not at all common. I understand that a Christian need only accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to call himself such; Adonai (one of God?s many names) is not nearly so accepting. Brave is the man who will learn several long incantations in one of the world?s ugliest languages, and braver still is he who will volunteer himself for circumcision. I don?t know if Madonna and her buddies down at ?Kabala Center? in Beverly Hills consider themselves Jewish?my rabbi, at least, has sworn on high heaven to the contrary.
But the real problem with the religious definition isn?t so much that it?s too inclusive?there are more self-proclaimed Jews like myself than like Madonna. I remember a particular Sabbath dinner I had with my family, all of us dressed in suits or skirts, ready to eat and then off to the Synagogue. My mother said the candle blessing, my father sang the Kiddush (this becomes more of a hum halfway through, as none but my sister can fully remember the words?still, he tries). I asked my father, not unlike the Good Son from the Passover story that is recited every year, ?Dad, do you believe in God?? He insisted that I express my own opinion first, so this I gladly did: ?Well,? I said, ?here?s how it is: don?t know if God exists, or if he doesn?t. All I know is, I have never seen any evidence to suggest the presence of a Divine Presence. In the absence of proof of the affirmative, one must accept the negative, for the simplest solution is usually the best? (perhaps it?s a bit ironic that I should try to disprove the existence of my own God through the device of William of Occam, a medieval Franciscan Theologian). As I had expected, my father?s sentiments were similar: ?You?ve put my thoughts out far more eloquently than I could,? he replied.
Jews actually have a long history of atheism. Karl Marx, Jewish founder of Communism, called religion the ?opiate of the masses.? Michael Newdow, who has recently gained fame through a remarkably successful bid to strike the ?under God? clause from the Pledge of Allegiance, was born Jewish. Not a single member of my family has ever admitted to belief in God in the traditional sense, and most of them were themselves Communists 40 years ago. Even amongst religious Jews, there are few fundamentalists (excluding the Orthodox branch of Judaism that is, by definition, fundamentalist). Albert Einstein, another Jew, believed ?in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God Who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings.? Ultimately, most Jews know God on their own terms.
Hitler thought Judaism was a race, and, at the risk of sounding a bit insensitive, I will admit that my family considers itself to be a different kind of Caucasian. Make no mistake, no one in my family thinks Judaism is a race per se, but my parents seem to think of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jews as having something biologically in common. Nazi propaganda art depicts a short, chubby Jewish lawyer with lots of dark hair, brown, close-set eyes, olive skin, a large hooked nose, and various other features that fit my family to a tee. This is by no means a rule?all the popular girls at Hebrew School had long blonde hair, fair skin, and bright blue eyes?it?s just a general trend that, for whatever reason, tends to be true. Judaism is, at least to some extent, inherited. You can instantly become an Israeli citizen with merely one Jewish grandparent, and the Orthodox will spare you various conversion rituals if your mother was Jewish. We are, in theory, descendents of the Abraham of Biblical fame. But whether or not Judaism has any genetic meaning is ultimately irrelevant?Americans and American Jews are so diverse in ancestry that no generic biological trait can apply.
Remember too that my experience with Judaism is a distinctly Ashkenazic one. My great-grandfather Jacob Shtetlman (literally ?townsman? in Yiddish) came over from some unknown former U.S.S.R. town through Ellis Island in the early 20th century, where he settled in Bensonhurst (after careful examination of the data from some Jewish friends, I have concluded that Brooklyn is the World?s largest exporter of Jewish grandparents, topping everywhere else combined). Even among the Ashkenazim, there is enormous variation: I have great-great-grandparents from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and, according to my grandfather, possibly the Netherlands. And anyone who?s been to Beverly Hills knows that Jews can be Persian (from Iran) too. There is a tribe of South African Jews whose priestly class shares the genetic marker of the Ashkenazic Cohenim (whence comes the name Cohen). There are Ethiopian Jews and even Chinese Jews, all of whom have different customs and beliefs. The fact is, my family?s ethnic traditions are probably far more similar to those of gentile Ukrainian and Belarusian peasants than to those of an Iraqi Jew.
Perhaps the answer lies in the culture: observing the holidays (religiously or not), singing the songs, learning the stories and so forth. But don?t think that Jewish culture is all fun and games: My mother swears that she actually likes gefilte fish, but I beg to differ: I?ve never seen her eat more than an ounce in a meal, and the it?s only featured once ever year (for Passover). She has never ordered it at a restaurant. The songs can grow a bit irritating too, especially when fitted with new lyrics to accommodate for our bad memories. I can make a dreidle (the ceremonial spinning top toy) whirl like a dervish ?upwards of a minute on occasion, though shorter if spun on the handle end?but I suspect it just comes with practice. My affinity for the admittedly bland but perennial Jewish favorite matzo ball soup is legendary in my family to the point where my grandfather insists that he makes it ?just for me.?
I think then that the only surefire way of evaluating someone?s Jewishness is through a simple question: ?are you Jewish?? The name ?Israel? means ?he who struggles with God,? and self-determination is a recurrent theme in all of Jewish teaching. The ability to understand and grapple with identity and religion are important to personal growth, Jewish or otherwise. Thus, self-identification becomes the only reasonably basis for definition. The Orthodox say a prayer in the morning to the effect of ?Thank you Lord, Adonai, who has made me a Jew.? But for the rest of us, Judaism remains?as well it should?a matter of choice.

(Los Angeles)

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