As recent surveys reveal a disturbingly large number of American Jews -- millions, in fact -- who feel disconnected from their Jewish identity, allow me to share what being Jewish means to me.
To me, being Jewish means entering into a partnership with the Divine for the repair of our broken world (in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam).
To me, being Jewish means recognizing that this is not work to be outsourced to a higher authority or to other people, but my responsibility during my lifetime.
To me, being Jewish means affirming life (Deuteronomy: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live") -- and the moral choice each of us has to bring us all a little closer to the prophetic vision of a world at peace and in harmony.
To me, being Jewish means championing what is arguably the single most revolutionary concept in the annals of human civilization, introduced to the world by the Jews -- monotheism. We are all created in the image of the one God (in Hebrew, B'tzelem Elohim).
To me, being Jewish means embracing the deep symbolic meaning the rabbis gave to the story of Adam and Eve -- that all of us, whatever our race, religion, or ethnicity, share the same family tree. No one can claim superiority over anyone else.
To me, being Jewish means celebrating the fact that Jews were the original revolutionaries - the first to challenge the status quo and insist on the right to worship differently than the majority, while still being treated equally under the law. Today, we call this pluralism, and it is a bedrock principle of democratic societies.
To me, being Jewish means welcoming the pioneering Jewish effort to establish a universal moral code of conduct, where previously there was none to speak of. It's not by accident that America's Founding Fathers chose the words of Leviticus for our nation's Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof."
To me, being Jewish means seeking to act as if that code of conduct were my daily GPS -- to pursue justice, to treat my neighbor as I would wish to be treated, to welcome the stranger in our midst, to be sensitive to the environment, and to seek peace.
To me, being Jewish means recognizing that I am an heir and custodian of a civilization that is thousands of years old, and that has within it bountiful riches of theology and faith, philosophy and ethics, music and art, ethnography and history, and so much more -- enough for a lifetime of endless exploration and education.
To me, being Jewish means appreciating the centrality of discussion and debate about life's big questions, the delicate balance of tradition and modernity, and the categorical rejection of imposed views or doctrinal thinking.
To me, being Jewish means the joy of belonging and community wherever I go; the meaningful and symbol-laden annual holiday cycle; the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish people to advancing the frontiers of world civilization; and the admirable, almost unimaginable, determination to persevere against all odds.
To me, being Jewish means having a past to which I am inextricably linked by the generations that preceded me, that prepared their children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, that sat at the Passover table and yearned for "Next year in Jerusalem" and the coming of Elijah, that fasted on Yom Kippur as they underwent their moral inventory, and celebrated joyously at Purim in the knowledge that our enemies had been defeated -- as well as a future that will long outlive me, and carry the baton of the Jewish people.
To me, being Jewish means living in perpetual mourning for all that has been lost in the Holocaust, the pogroms, the inquisitions, the forced conversions, the exiles, the blood libels, and the other deadly manifestations of anti-Semitism -- and, at the same time, living in everlasting gratitude for the gift of life, the blessing of opportunity, and the sacred task set before us of igniting the divine spark within each of us.
To me, being Jewish means the exultation of knowing that, in my lifetime, the prayers of millions of Jews over many centuries have finally been answered -- the return of the Jewish people to the cradle of our existence, the Land of Israel.
To me, being Jewish means affirming the inextricable link between Israel and the Jewish people. This land represents not only the physical, or sovereign, symbol of our peoplehood, but also -- whether we choose to live there or not -- the highest metaphysical expression of our faith, our prayer, and our yearning.
To me, being Jewish means knowing that in fighting against anti-Semitism and for Israel's right to live in peace and security, I am affirming the highest values of tolerance and democracy for all.
To me, being Jewish means pride in the immense Jewish contribution to the defense of human dignity and human rights. Not by accident, the Hebrew Bible -- from the exodus from Egypt to the very concept of the Promised Land -- was a source of inspiration for the American civil rights movement. Strikingly, Jews have never been satisfied with things as they are. If Isaiah and our other prophets returned to earth, they would remind us that, for all that has been achieved, there's much more work to be done before we can declare success here on earth.
And finally, as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said, to me, being Jewish means not necessarily seeking to make the world more Jewish, but rather more human. That is the goal animating our people, through good times and bad, from the very beginning of this extraordinary historical journey to the present day.
May every Jew feel the sense of happiness, enrichment, and inspiration that I've had the privilege of experiencing throughout my life!
Interviews by Ryan E. Smith | Portraits by Joel Lipton and Andy Romanoff | PUBLISHED Apr 19, 2013 | Cover Story
Pinpointing what makes people so passionate about Israel is no easy thing, perhaps because there are so many options.
It is the Jewish state, the only political entity in the world where Jews are a majority. It is the historical home of the Jewish people, the land of King David and the Temple Mount. It is the religious center of the Jewish universe as well as a holy land to billions of Christians and Muslims. And it is a refuge for Jews from across the globe dating back to before the Holocaust.
It is a rich, complicated place — qualities that are simultaneously the source of its greatness and its greatest challenges. Actor Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame outlined myriad, yet deeply personal ways of finding meaning in Israel during his opening remarks at December’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala in Century City.
“Because I love Israel, I do advocate for Palestinians proudly and passionately,” he said. “But there can never be any doubt that I am also an advocate for Israel, a country that is perhaps one of the most maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nations on the planet.
“I believe in the right of Israel to exist and to exist in the land where it resides. I believe she is a great country populated by a great and important people. I believe she is a proud and strong democracy in a part in the world where the notion of democracy, of people’s innate right to determine their own fate, finds little company or support.”
These are just a few ways that people can connect to the Holy Land. We asked 18 members of the Jewish and Israeli communities in the Los Angeles area what Israel means to them and — surprise — we got 18 distinct responses. So what does Israel mean to us? Maybe the best way to put it is: Everything.
Photo by Andy Romanoff
‘A family of people’
“When I was in junior high school, I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel outside of Tel Aviv. … It was all about being with a family of people — that cultural environment and the welcoming warmth, and storytelling over dinner, and sitting around in the afternoon having tea and coffee, and the stories that I got to hear that were just about people’s lives. It’s about a lifestyle.”
— Susan Feniger, 59, Kenter Canyon
Chef/co-owner, Border Grill and Susan Feniger’s STREET
Photo by Andy Romanoff
‘Planting so many trees’
“I remember getting certificates and people planting trees in my honor for my birthday and bar mitzvah, and we all knew how important that was. I think that was my earliest realization that Israel was a difficult environment and that by doing all the amazing things that were done — planting so many trees — they were able to survive in what was otherwise a pretty barren country. … I think it has probably affected my sense of the environment growing up and actively fighting to preserve our environment in this country and the world.”
— Paul Koretz, 58, Beverly Center
L.A. city councilmember, District 5
Photo by Joel Lipton
‘It really changed my life’
“Both my parents are Israeli. I consider myself Israeli-American. … I always just had this strong sense of family and stories and knowing where I came from. And then when I went to Israel, it really changed my life. I felt so connected to the land. I just felt like I belonged there. I also just felt a deeper connection with Judaism on my trip. After my trip — a one-year kibbutz ulpan program — I just decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being involved in the Jewish community and being connected to Israel.”
— Orly Barad, 26, Woodland Hills
Program manager, Israeli American Council
Photo by Joel Lipton
‘Symbol of resilience and positivity’
“Israel has always been a second home for me while I was living in [my native] Iran, because my grandmother lived there. We spent all our summertimes in Holon and in summer camps in Israel. … Unfortunately, because I cannot go back to Iran, Israel remains my place of my childhood memories and my childhood experiences.
“I lived in Israel for about nine months after the [Iranian] Revolution. It was the biggest gift I could have had when I was a teenager. … I believe that Israel is the most democratic country, that it faces huge challenges, and I feel that Israel as a country has grown in such amazing and beautiful ways. What it means to me is a symbol of resilience and positivity.”
— Shulamit “Shula” Nazarian, 50, Venice and Holmby Hills
Owner/director, Shulamit Gallery