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Reclaiming The Noun - April 2017


Published April 28, 2017

As Americans and as Jewish people, we have had the luxury of asking ourselves the question, “are we more American than Jewish? Or are we more Jewish than American?” To tell you the truth, I don’t think that is the right question, but we will get to that later.

In honor of this week’s observance of Yom Hashoah, our specified day to remember the Holocaust, memories of last summer’s travel in Eastern Europe surface. On that trip, the question of deepest identity rarely left my side.

Let’s begin in Warsaw. For decades I had heard of the Warsaw Ghetto where Jewish people had stood up against the Nazis. I saw where hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were gathered and forced onto trains to concentration camps. Today the Warsaw train station where the transport took place has a modest monument of sculptured dead trees with an odd opening in the cement archway which allows you to see through to a living tree. That Jewish symbolism we have seen before. It is the symbol of our people; even in the face of the darkest night, we commit to life.

I learned that World War Two was not the end of Warsaw’s Anti-Semitism. As late as 1069 when American Jewish people were dancing to the vibe of the Beatles, Polish Jewish people were given three days to leave Warsaw again, this time by the command of Russia.

Poland is a country in the most unfortunate geographical position of being stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. In such a spot, Poland was manipulated between these two countries. There had been an uprising of Polish gentiles which resulted in the punishment of the city being utterly leveled. Warsaw was imagined to be the new home for the SS so neither Jewish people nor Poles were welcome there.

The second city visited was Krakow and specifically the Krakow Ghetto where Jewish people were herded together before being taken to transport. The Nazis continued to shrink the living space and sadistically kept the Jewish people crowded, overworked and starved. We became identified with typhus and other disease.

In this dark place I learned about a non-Jewish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz. He was the only Pole to live and work among the Jewish people in the Krakow Ghetto from its inception to its liquidation. His pharmacy evolved into a hiding place and a clearing house for escape information. In the evenings, in the very back of the pharmacy, this wonder man held coffee gatherings where the ghetto dwellers could gather to speak of music and literature and realign with the sensibilities of who they had once been.

In front of his pharmacy is the famous Krakow square where Jewish people were herded before being taken to transport. There a monument of metal chairs, representing thousands of Jews who were sent from that spot. That same day, I visited Schindler’s aluminum factory where Oscar Schindler, a non-Jewish man of courage saved thousands of Jewish people by employing them in his factory.

It may have been this very day when I came to my answer of deepest identity.  I realized that in Poland, Jewish people had lived since the 11th century. And yet, we were never seen as Poles. We were Jews. To take it further, there was no adjective about it; there was no ISH added to our three letters. Not Jewish. Jews.

The Poles said “Jews.” The Germans said “Jews.” How did we lose the noun and become an adjective?

In Edgar Bronfman’s book, “Why be Jewish?” we begin to see that the second adjective name Jewish, is meant to soften our identity as Jew. Mark Oppenheimer, in an editorial on Bronfman’s book suggests the following experiment. Picture yourself in line at a supermarket. You are calmly flipping through a People’s magazine or checking your text messages and you overhear a middle aged woman in front of you talking on her phone in a pleasant, non- judgmental voice.  You are not really listening and then all of a sudden a sentence makes your ears perk up. “Oh, you know Peter,” she says to whoever is on the other end of the call, “He’s a real Jew.”

Now, no matter how calm her voice, Oppenheimer suggests that we are likely to wonder if that was an anti-Semitic statement.  After all, what does it mean, in English speaking culture to call someone a “real Jew?”

Now consider a variation on the same theme. Same supermarket, same woman talking on her phone in a calm voice, same sentence with one slight change. “Oh, you know, Peter, he’s a real Christian.” Oppenheimer suggests that associations of kind, charitable and self-sacrificing come to mind.

Oppeheimer first noticed this rather troubling disparity when he was a young reporter, covering religion for the Hartford Courant and Al Gore lost the controversial 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Gore’s vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman was a senator from his home state of Connecticut and most he knew were excited for the Democratic ticket and hometown boy, to win.

Of courses, the election turned out to be the most muddled in American History, until ours last Fall, but a winner was not decided for a full month, until the Supreme Court, in Bush v Gore, stayed the recount of the Florida vote, handing the lection to Bush and Dick Cheney.

While Oppenheimer like most reporters was done with this topic, by the next January he had an idea for a fun piece about how the vice –residential candidacy of a Jew, Joe Lieberman, had made the world safer for ethnic humor.

For example, Al Gore had joked on David Letterman’s show that their ticket would be there for the American people 24/6, a reference to Lieberman’s observance of the Jewish Sabbath.  Oppenheimer wrote and filed the story, his editor liked it and he sent it off to the copy desk for a final read.

All seemed just fine until he got a call from one of the old timers on the copy desk. “Okay”, said the man, if I change this line here a bit. You wrote that the American people elected a Jew as vice – president. I want to change that to a Jewish vice president.”

 Oppenheimer pushed back. “I like it the way it is. It’s snappier, to the point, why change it?
 The old timer editor paused, “It’s just that it sounds kind of offensive the way it is. I mean, I’m not Jewish but to me, if you call somebody a Jew – that doesn’t sound very nice, you know?” And sure enough, in the next day’s paper, the Senator was called Jewish, as always.

Most Jews if asked about their religion say NOT “I’m a Jew” but rather, “the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the KIND of Christian you are talking to. Liberal Protestants may say more frequently, “I’m Christian” using the adjective, but many evangelicals will say, “I’m A Christian” claiming the noun.

Which brings us back to the Lieberman question. Was the senator a Jew or was he a Jewish Senator?

Do we say, “Christian-ish? Muslim-ish? Buddhist-ish or Hindu-ish? For each of these religious identities, the noun is used; we say Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.  At the deepest level, we can use the adjective Jew-Ish as much as we wish, but the wherever we are, in whatever era, at the core, we are Jews.

Let me share with you some words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Brittan. He reminds us that the Hebrew word Yehuda, in English Jew, comes from the root to be grateful. To be a Jew, is to be in touch with gratitude.

 Rabbi Sachs writes:

I am a Jew and this is why. It is not so much WHAT we are but what we are called on, to be.

I am a Jew, because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinished story.

I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose. Our tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West teaching that human life was sacred and that before G-d, all are equal.

I am the descendant of countless generations of ancestor who, though sorely tested and bitterly tried, remained faithful to the covenant pledged at Mt. Sinai to live by truth for all time.

I am a Jew because our nation, though at times suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, rescuing victims or fighting for justice and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do not less.”

He concludes, “I am proud, simply, to be a Jew.”

I am not suggesting that we forgo the adjective form of our people, Jewish, and must embrace the noun, Jew, overnight. What I hope is that we will become more conscious of names and consider reclaiming our own.



Mon, September 28 2020 10 Tishrei 5781