A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jew Are What Jew Is: Jewish Identity

Frank Zappa has a 1981 song (and album) called "You Are What You Is" in which he imagines a white guy who takes on the trappings of black culture in order to become black, and a black guy who tries to become white (he buys a pair of Jordache jeans and learns to golf). The chorus chides both of these guys for crossing the boundaries of their identities:

You are what you is
You is what you am
A cow don't make a ham
You ain't what your not
So see what you got
You are what you is
An' that's all it is

I'm pretty sure Zappa is satirizing the reactionary voice of the chorus - a guy born to an Italian father of Greek-Arab ancestry, who destroyed musical genres and them fused them back together, who was an accomplished rock musician restless enough to compose jazz and avant card symphonic music couldn't possibly be telling people to stay in their place.

Jumping back and forth between identities is an essential feature of Jewish life. This Shabbat afternoon we had a great group of people over from Kulam (the 20s-40s something group that I run for Congregation Har HaShem). The topic: Jewish identity (a group was going to see the play Beau Jest - featuring Kulam's very own Emily Norman - which deals with questions of Jewish identity and boundaries between Jewish and mainstream culture).

This was a chance for a group of Jews to talk about their experience navigating the boundaries of Jewish identity and to eat...bagels. Several boundaries were uncovered in our discussion. People wrestle with the relationship between their identities as Jews and participants in the broader culture; identities as Jews within a antisemitic environment; their identities as religious vs. secular Jews; identities as Sefardic Jews in a largely Ashkenazic culture; and their experience as non-Jews among Jews (not everyone in the group is Jewish). What a miracle that in 2008 Jewish people are around and have the luxury to explore the meaning of Jewish existence.

(Several premises and false premises went unexplored, among them the division between Jewish and something called 'mainstream' culture and the division between religious and secular Jewish identity. This is a topic for another post. This was my fault and choice; I wanted to have discussions about the experience of identity, not discussions about discussions about the experience of identity).

For the most part the conversation was lighthearted but I know that crossing over between these boundaries takes its toll on the lives of modern Jews. Most painfully and commonly, some relationships are broken because the thoroughly assimilated Jew couldn't make peace with his/her partner's non-Jewish upbringing - and couldn't admit it. There are other ways in which Jewish unease (or guilt) in the face of non-Jewish culture takes a social or professional toll (see Meet the Parents, a movie that I don't think ever mentions Judaism but that could only have been written by a Jew).

To be Jewish is to hang out on the boundary of multiple cultures, feeling puzzled (or guilty) about whether one is Jewish enough or too Jewish. This was true even before something called 'Judaism' existed. In D'varim (Deuteronomy) the Israelites are warned to stay away from the any shikseh and shegetz who live in the land of milk and honey. God is the concerned Jewish mother here: "Sure, you'll start just dating. But I promise you it won't end until you're murdering and worshiping false gods!" Obviously in the Talmudic period anxiety about the relationship between Jewish culture and the host culture was even more pronounced. Modernity added to the perplexity by making it possible (eventually) for Jews (and anyone else) to choose identity, or at least group affiliation.

Immanuel Levinas critiqued the modern Jew who would carefully weigh the value of Jewish culture through "the language of the university" before deciding whether to embrace Judaism fully. This "language" was Judaism as it was presented in scholarly or philosophical, sociological terms - that is, as it is described from the outside. Levinas did not want us to demand of Judaism that it provide us with a handily summarized "system or doctrine." Rather Levinas wanted Jewish identity to consist in the exploration of Judaism on its own terms, on a deep level. In short, to engage with Jewish texts (and, maybe to engage with Jewish tradition).

He also suggests that Jewish identity should not be seen as a choice but rather as a responsibility:

Far from being a serene self-presence...Jewish identity is rather the patience, fatigue and numbness of a responsibility - a stiff neck that supports the universe. - Levinas, "Means of Identification," in Difficult Freedom, p 51
"Stiff neck" is both a reference to God's characterization of the Israelites in the Torah as being disobedient and also, I'm guessing, a reference to the Jewish refusal to completely disappear into the larger culture. Levinas' basic point is important. Young Jews are benefiting from a Jewish renaissance right now. This rebirth will only matter, though, if Jewish identity becomes nothing more than another consumable....
I'm all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer -
a guaranteed personality.
- The Clash, "Lost in the Supermarket," London Calling
The struggle is to create something powerful and lasting out of Jewish culture, a vision of a world renewed and the responsibility to help create it. Identity is too puny a word for this, suggesting as it does the individual's exploration of culture. Jewish culture is meaningless in such a context, because Jewish tradition insists that we see ourselves as part of a people and part of the human community. So, indeed, Jew ARE what Jew IS.


  1. It was certainly an interesting discussion on Jewish Identity and one that I hope will continue later. Even despite the fact it makes me ponder way too much about what I think my Jewish Identity is.

  2. We will continue the discussion. There was a lot of positive feedback and it seems like the sort of conversation people want to have. Thanks

  3. I'm sorry to have missed out, that sounded intriguing