Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d."

Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer recently wrote an article for Commentary magazine called "Whatever Happened to the Jewish People." I printed out a copy a few weeks ago and neglected to read it. I misplaced it, and it got lost. So for my trip to California, I reprinted the article and read it on the plane by an overhead light, much to the dismay of my row partners. But the article asks a lot of poignant questions that I often ask myself. Namely: Is a loss of ethnic neighborhoods, or clustering according to culture/race/religion, a bad thing?

Most people would say "no!" because of the idea of a melting pot of people -- everyone, no matter skin color, religion, creed, etc., should live together in order to learn to accept all peoples. The melting pot or salad bowl or whatever you want to call it is the true goal of a free, democratic society. Or is it? I've always been fascinated by assimilation and acculturation. Assimilation isn't the completely scary part, it's the acculturation. When cultures absolve themselves of all defining factors to become quintessentially liberal and secular. Is it a good thing? I say no. It's a very, very bad thing. But why? I imagine the preservation of culture and history can be well kept in museums, but it's the living culture that is truly wonderful.

Philosopher Martin Buber once said,
Israel is a people like no other, for it is the only people in the world which, from its earliest beginning, has been both a nation and a religious community.
Within this is the dimension of peoplehood. Religious, cultural, racial, national. When looking at Naomi, who adopted first the peoplehood and then the faith of Abraham, there is an interesting concept of the community. The Jewish people had a connected history, religion, customs and practices and as the authors say "a common fate." It only made sense for Jews to convene in similar neighborhoods and areas because it was a necessary means of growing and sustaining the people. Isolationism with a cohesive end in a societal, cultural, national and political sphere began to dominate all societies. The idea of "world-wide allegiance" began to erode. And what was a people, spread to every corner of the world, to do? Assimilate? Acculturate? Fight the erosion?

I think that for some time there was a successful erosion. I also think that in the past 10 years, this has changed -- drastically -- but only in a few ways. Israel, with the creation of the Birthright trip, has led to a more connected and embracing generation of Jews who see Israel as more than just a "homeland." But still, we're taught that congregating in neighborhoods stinks of ghettos and the life of the dhimmi. It is interesting to watch the immigration of different peoples to the U.S. and the concentration of those people in neighborhoods together. Lincoln, Neb., was an interesting example -- the Sudanese lived near one another and opened shops there, the Middle Eastern refugees would settle and open insurance agencies, restaurants and other shops; the same with the Vietnamese community. And I was jealous of that connection, that community. I could also get into intermarriage, but that's another battle on a different day.

Why can a community not be a community in a larger community? Why is it not OK? What is so wrong with wanting to be around the comfort of people who live and believe as you do? Not every group of people takes on a racist, isolationist attitude. But is that what it's really about? Do we lose the thriving culture of peoples because we fear ignorance?

Then again, life in the U.S. is different than in most other countries with large Jewish populations. I attribute this largely to patriotism and nationalism -- the desire to achieve the American Dream. To become someone who is not different than anyone else, to be a part of a bigger, unrecognizable race of people. Thus everyone becomes, well, nothing. There is no peoplehood any longer. But what is there in this? What is psychologically appealing about this? As the authors say, "... contemporary American society seems less hospitable to the perpetuation of strong bonds of peoplehood."

We're victims of the erosion of peoplehood. And
To retreat from peoplehood is to repudiate what has been at the core. Even from the point of view of the individual, the loss of this core can be devastating To see oneself as part of a larger collective entity is to situate oneself in a history of 3,200 years and more, imparting a sense of transcendent connection, purpose, and destiny. It buttresses faith, enhances religious activity, lends significance to communal affiliation.
Even more, as Eugene B. Borowitz, a Reform theolgian, wrote in 1965:
Jewish peoplehood is an indispensable part of Jewish religious thought and Jewish religious practice. A specifically Jewish religious life ... means, therefore, life in and with the Jewish people, the Covenant community. ... When at least ten Jews congregate to pray, they ... represent all Israel, past and present, here and everywhere.
Thus, I suppose no matter what there is a a peoplehood. But how can a people sustain itself when there is an erosion of the idea of peoplehood, when there is a lack of self respect for the nation itself. I guess, I feel like the idea of a community of people is not a bad thing. I look at Hasidic communities and I find myself wishing I could be a part of the closeness, having everything there. It's much like the communities of early America -- you have your religious house, your market, your butcher shop, your bakery, your dairy. It's all there. It's logical and convenient.

Community. Your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. I feel like perhaps I rambled a bit. I'm finding it harder and harder to organize my thoughts. There's too much that sweeps through after reading a simple 4-page article.

But the thought of a lost GLOBAL COMMUNITY of Jews, being replaced with an individual existence of individual Jews ... is unnatural for us, it is unnatural and fear instilling. Evolution and redefining is essential. But what are we without our core?