On Jewish Identity: Family, Tribe, Religion and/or Nation

Bambi (being held) with my Cousins in the Village of Bet Hlllel, Hula Valley, Israel

Family – Youthful Exposure to a Jewish Life

Dear Readers,

This Israel derekh – path – that I am on is in large measure a Jewish path. What does it mean to be Jewish? How am I Jewish? I know that Jewish identity is so much more complex than any particular theological belief.

At the age of 6 months, my parents moved me and my two older sisters across the country from New York City to Seattle (specifically Mercer Island) for dad to take on the job as the Director of the Caroline Kline Galland Jewish Home for the Aged. He was the first professional gerontological social worker to direct that institution and by all the accounts I have heard, he did his job well. Later he took on the position of Director of the Jewish Family and Child Service, thus leading two of the most significant Jewish social service organizations in the region.

Our parents sent all three of us kids to Jewish Sunday school. My sisters and I both attended as campers and counselors Jewish day and overnight camps. I played basketball for the Jewish Community Center team – in the Catholic Youth Organization league no less! I studied for and carried out the Bar Mitzvah ritual, which was a beautiful and life-affirming event with family and friends of many generations from throughout the country in attendance.

My father spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. My mother’s mother tongue (mama loshen) was Yiddish. Theodore Bikel’s Yiddish records were played in the home and occasionally my mom would both begin to hum the songs (she rarely remembered verses; a trait I have unfortunately inherited) and burst into sweet tears at the sound of the Yiddish language. Late in life, mom would go back to her Yiddish roots and join a Yiddish Club and was active in JCC governance and elder activities.

Around the dinner table, the talk of politics and current events included discussions of Israel and anti-Semitism. I remember the little blue and white tin boxes where we would put our coins to plant trees in the Jewish State. Much of the Jewish identity that I derived from my parents was focused on an awareness of the Jewish People’s (our people’s) history of oppression, culminating most recently with the horrors of the Holocaust. I ended up sensing that my parents motive force for social justice was somehow a Jewish part of their being – even though they never quoted the Torah or Talmud or referenced Jewish liturgical or ethical precepts. (OK… “never” is not quite fair. I remember dad saying “choose life” and Hillel was quoted with his “if not now, when” from time to time. But really, does that count?)

One would think from the above description that I was instilled with a strong Jewish identity as a youth, and perhaps that is correct. And yet…

  1. In moving to Seattle my parents took their children far away from family and the bosom of a large New York Jewish culture. Our nearest relatives at the time lived in Los Angeles, and we saw them less than a handful of times throughout my childhood. Eventually my Uncle and Aunt moved to Berkeley, California with their two sons, 700 miles to the south. But that was it. All other known relatives remained on the East Coast and were rarely seen. I spent my entire childhood (age 2 – 18) in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Our high school graduating class had less than 10 Jews among 700 graduates. I knew about half of them and was a close friend of one.
  2. For a short time we joined a Reform Synagogue, though I never remember once going to Shabbat or any other services at the Shul. We never said prayers in our house, with only two exceptions: Hanukkah and during the Passover Seder.
  3. We neither kept kosher in the home, nor observed in any manner shabbat rituals. Neither of my parents ever learned how to read Hebrew (or Yiddish for that matter). Growing up, I never remember them ever trying.
  4. Even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, we didn’t go to Shul. Sometimes I fasted. I don’t remember my parents doing it.
  5. Both my grandfathers were actively hostile to organized religion. My father’s father, the only grandparent who lived long enough for me to get to know as a young adult, would rail against the “bombast and prejudice” of the religious.
  6. While apparently my mother’s youth included some observance of kashrut in the home, she not only ignored that in her own home, but the kosher issue never came up during my childhood. The abundance of shellfish in Washington State didn’t make a kosher lifestyle any easier for those with creative palates. My mother’s father experienced horrible oppression from his religious father, being whipped when found to be reading secular books. He fully rebelled from religious life, and wrote poetry about that rebellion.

I left my childhood aware that I was a Jew, even generally proud of being a Jew, though I could understand only a few words of Hebrew or Yiddish, had never studied the Torah (after bar mitzvah), had never attended religious services, and was neither physically nor emotionally close to any religious (ritual-practicing) relatives.

Jewishly Dabbling – and a Bit More – in Adulthood

As a young adult, and beyond, my Jewish religious explorations have been sporadic. Sincere, but rather shallow.

A vivid memory from college days, is visiting the Chabad House down the block on Friday night because of curiosity and hunger (they provided free chicken soup and other Shabbat meal treats). During services the rabbi asked me to do a certain prayer. I responded, with embarrassment, that I didn’t know how to read Hebrew. “That’s OK,” he replied. “G-d understands English.”

I never seriously dated a Jewish girl/woman until I met Karen, who would become my first wife. She was more knowledgeable of Jewish ritual from her family and community life in New York City, though she did not practice kashrut nor attend shul herself when we met. We got married by Rabbi Vicki Hollander, one of the first female ordained (Reform) Rabbis the world has ever known, under a chupa and with smashing of glass. It all felt highly important for me to be somehow part of the ancient Jewish lineage.

When we moved to Olympia, we found out that coincidentally Rabbi Hollander was leading services part-time at the local temple. We went, felt the embrace of a nice, small and welcoming community of interesting people, and joined a temple for the first time as adults. Even though Vicki left a few months later, the temple has been a surprisingly large part of my life ever since. Our son Zac, went through all the main Jewish life-cycle events, from being given away by a Cohen, to you know what (sorry about that, Zac!), to Bar Mitzvah. And even after our divorce, and my remarriage to Jean, who is not Jewish, I found myself comfortable to be around other Jews, with the temple as somewhat of a refuge from the dominant Christian-oriented culture around us.

I say surprisingly large part of my life above, in that for one who has off and on played a meaningful role in temple governance (on the Board, committees, etc.), I have remained largely ignorant of Jewish ritual practice and observe less than I know. But as the temple has evolved over the years to affiliate itself with the Reconstructionist Movement, I found a theological home in the basic thinking of its principal founder, Mordecai Kaplan, in which he views Judaism “as the civilization of the Jewish people” without the need of supernatural explanations for that which is divine in the universe. And I have experienced endless delight in exploring with smart and more knowledgeable people than myself, the abundant, engrossing and at times highly humorous ideas and debates found within the Torah and Talmud.

Rediscovering Family

While on a sabbatical year, touring the world with my mother in 1980, my father passed away due to heart failure while visiting the Museum of the Diaspora (Beit Hatfootsot) in Israel. This dramatic event was at least part of the motivating force that resulted in my first visit to Israel in 1994, to be with my mother and return to that museum. Also, it was an opportunity to reconnect with my Cousin Adele who had visited us in Bellevue in my youth, see her children Danny and Michal, and meet a whole set of relatives on my mother’s side who grew up in Kibbutz K’far Giladi, in the northern tip of the country, adjacent to Lebanon.

In the last 25 years, I have been so fortunate to be able to connect with parts of my larger world-wide family (mishpocha).The magic of the internet, and the technologies of connection, have permitted parts of our families, long thought dead or simply unknown, to miraculously come to life over these past years. Jean and I visited Adele’s little sister Sybil in South Africa nearly 12 years ago, and through Sybil, other family in that amazing country have become people we love and care about. Five years ago, Sybil, her husband Arnold, Jean and my sister Laurie went to Israel and linked up with even more relatives that I hadn’t known existed. With a Jewish genealogy conference taking place in Seattle about three years ago, we found that there were a plethora of relatives from throughout the world that we knew nothing about but who were thriving participants in their communities. So a reunion on my mother’s side of the family was hatched, and 20 months ago, 90 people connected through our great grandparents (or closer) met in New York City to laugh and tell stories.

The diversity of our family’s Jewish identities is breathtaking. I have – and have met – relatives who are:

  1. Haredi Jews, who live principally within their religious community and adhere strictly to religious rites in all their events and daily life. (You’ve got to watch Shtisel!) There are literally hundreds of different groups within this category. Some are strongly attached to a particular rabbi (Hasidim) who see this individual almost with messianic attributes. Others are offended by such devotion to a man (always a man), and have leaders with less charismatic expectations. Some Haredi are anti-Zionist (these are often in New York and elsewhere in the diaspora) who believe that Israel should not be re-established prior to the arrival of the messiah. Many Haredi (most?) do not serve in the Israeli Army, instead are provided a student deferment. There is great political and legal conflict over this public policy. Some strains of Haredi believe that until all Jews fully practice Jewish ritual life, the messiah will not come. How do you think they view Reconstructionist Judaism?
  2. Modern Orthodox Observant Jews, who follow Jewish ritual law (halakha), but also find ways of living in the larger society. For example, many hold jobs outside of religious institutions and interact with the non-religious.
  3. Modern Orthodox Semi-Observant Jews, who pick and choose the halakha they follow and have mixed emotions about how observant (frum) they really should or want to be.
  4. Conservative Jews, who are frankly mostly of American descent, and also pick and choose their adherence to halakha. They are just beginning to move to more gender-inclusive forms of ritual which clearly would distinguish them from the Orthodox, who have in general rejected that.
  5. Reform Jews or otherwise Progressive Jews, who find in their participation in Jewish life and community both social purpose, friendships, and the comforts of ritual. Again, this is much bigger in the US than in Israel. The Israeli version of this group constantly is in a fight for credibility and legal status as “Jews” from the dominantly Orthodox rabbinate. For example, Israel does not necessarily recognize the “right of return” for diaspora Jews if they were converts performed by Reform rabbis.
  6. Unaffiliated Jews, who, especially in Israel, observe certain rituals, believe in the basic notion of the Hebrew G-d, but whose secular life is paramount. These folks appreciate the joys of Shabbat shared with family and friends, light the candles, say the prayers, and would probably be uncomfortable eating oysters (treyf). They see themselves clearly as Jews, and not just Israelis, but resent some of the restrictions placed on their lives in Israel by some laws pushed forward by the Haredi and Orthodox.
  7. Secular Jews, or more to the point in Israel, Secular Israelis, who’s identity as Israelis is more nationalistic than religious but nonetheless consider themselves Jews.
  8. Anti-Zionist Secular Israelis, who neither see themselves as Jews, nor agree with the notion of a Jewish State. They would probably be fine with a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine political question, if safety were assured.

As I have shared meals with these relatives and talked about our lives and beliefs, the richness and pain and joy and wonder in the diversity of the Jewish people is brought home to me in intimate ways.

Other Explorations of Religion and Identity

I’ve recently run into the most extraordinary folks. A few examples and we’ll call this blog entry much too long but over:

  1. A couple of nights ago, my landlady Gila had a lovely dinner party with neighbors, her daughter, her friends and me. What a feast! These folks were all Zionists, a mix of some of the above religious categories, and generally left of center politically as Israelis measure these things. We got to talking about all the difficulties presently facing Jews and the country. But then one of them said, “You know, Jews are a happy people. If you look at the happiness ratings of countries in the world, we’re number 8.” So I looked it up. OK… number 11. Not so bad. Today, as I was studying Hebrew with a local Mizrahi Jew (from Morocco and Iraq), she talked without my prompting about how happy she and most Israelis are. What prompted her expression was the upcoming holiday of Purim, which is the official “you’re allowed to go completely nuts and have all the fun you can” holiday around here. At least part of that joy, they claim, and I have to agree, is their Jewish lifestyle.
  2. I’ve been going to the Kol Haneshama synagogue when in town for Friday night services. This is one of the first Reform shuls in Israel. Its service is simple and very very beautiful which consists almost entirely of singing and praying musically. It is all – or almost all – in Hebrew, so I can not yet understand hardly any of the content, but musically it is very familiar to what we do at our Olympia temple. However with this group, of between 75 and 100 folks, the singing participation is by just about everyone, they know what they are singing and it is very powerful.
  3. I walked home from Kol Haneshama a few weeks ago with a gentleman who turns out to be the “Father of Reform Zionism”, Dr. Michael Livni. He also founded a Reform kibbutz in the Negev Desert. We got a ride together a couple of days ago home from my Skilled Volunteers for Israel Jerusalem program head Terry, who was mentioned earlier in the blog. I’ve reached out for a conversation with Dr. Livni and hope he can find the time to engage.
  4. Went for a falafel with a Jerusalem Palestinian student from my ulpan last week. Really sweet, nice young man. He took me to the East Jerusalem side of city, and we sat down outside on some plastic chairs to eat. There were no empty tables so he asked whether we could join a group of older Palestinians hanging out. They said fine. One of them, Ibrahim, then started to tell me about his life and his work for peace. He claimed to have been to the White House and all around the world advocating for peace. Here is his website. The site is exactly like sitting next to him. He invited me to his Peace House. I might just go.
  5. There is an English language Jewish education center in my neighborhood called Pardes. I will be going to a workshop there this coming Thursday. Jerusalem is replete with educational opportunities about religion, history, the arts and culture. I will continue to explore these and share highlights with you along the way.

4 thoughts on “On Jewish Identity: Family, Tribe, Religion and/or Nation

  1. Hi Daniel!

    Your latest blog was very, very interesting and I enjoyed it immensely.

    I’m not a believer, but was exposed to a wide variety of religions while growing up. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to fit in Buddhism or the Jewish religion during my youth. My parents pretty much thought it best to expose me and Michael to as much as possible and then let us decide which religious path to take, if any. I’ve come to realize how progressive that was of them.

    Thanks again for all the insights. I look forward to your next blog.




    1. It’s very interesting from a strictly “survival of the fittest religion” point of view how the more open and tolerant and “ecumenical” types of upbringings dont tend to be the ones that end up with the most people connecting to some religion. Generally, I think, they tend to result in folks just leaving organized religion completely.


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