The Meaning of Jewish Identity

Sermon given January 16, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

After the last High Holy Days, several congregants complained that I had failed to include a story about my grandmother in any of my sermons. Tonight, I’ll try to make up for that failure.

Like many of us, I have a beloved Jewish grandmother. Like many such grandmothers, mine was once a great cook. One might imagine her specialties to have been Jewish favorites, like matzo balls, hallah, and herring. Sorry to disappoint. My grandmother made enchiladas, coffee cake, and seafood gumbo: typical, perhaps, for a Texas grandmother born and raised in Mississippi, but not for a Yiddishe Bubbe.

My experience, though, was atypical. Most American Jews over age thirty had Bubbies and Zaydies with a distinct Jewish Flavor. If not immigrants themselves, they had been heavily influenced by their European-born parents. Many were raised in Orthodox homes. Even if they had abandoned traditional observance themselves, they gave their children and grandchildren a tangible connection to old-world Judaism, complete with Yiddish phrases, folk superstitions, and delectable foods, loaded with chicken fat.

Many of the children and grandchildren of these Bubbies and Zaydies rejected Judaism. However, with nostalgic affection for their grandparents, they maintained a Jewish identity. They would not enter a synagogue, but they yearned for a good piece of gefilte fish. They forgot their Hebrew letters, but not their Yiddish slang. They proclaimed themselves atheists, but insisted that they felt Jewish in their hearts.

Some of these culturally-identified Jews continue their ties to the Jewish community and support Jewish causes. They richly endow organizations that memorialize the Holocaust and ultra-Orthodox institutions that seem to represent the lost Jewish world of Bubbe and Zayde. They do have a Jewish identity, but one that is linked entirely to the past. They don’t feel authentic enough to be Jewish parents and grandparents themselves. Though they loved the matzo balls, they don’t know how to make them. Worse still, they don’t know why Bubbe made them, or when they were served. They may be Jewish in their hearts, but their children have no Judaism in their lives.

Today, we see emerging a new kind of Jewish parent or grandparent, with a very different kind of Jewish identity. These folks may not even have grown up eating gefilte fish, much less knowing how to make it. Many are Jews-by-Choice, or are partners in interfaith marriages, while others earnestly sought out and found Jewish mates. Some have non-Jewish spouses who sacrificially commit themselves to raising Jewish children.

These Jewish parents may not know chutzpah from tzuris, but they have learned their alef-bet. For them, eating at Max’s is a new experience, but observing Shabbat is a weekly tradition. They perform mitzvot, both ethical and ritual, and they believe in God, however differently perceived. Do they feel Jewish in their hearts? Well, yes, they do, but only because their actions and their souls, every day of their lives, remind them and everyone around them that they are Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. I like bagels and lox as much as the next guy, maybe more. I eat at Max’s, and I bless the memories of the Bubbies and Zaydies who did their best to preserve their heritage. Today, though, Judaism in America must thrive, with or without an East European flavor. The forces that will keep Judaism strong and vital in the twenty-first century are not nostalgia and chicken fat, but a sincere struggle toward faith in God, the study of God’s word, expressed in Torah, and the performance of God’s will, the mitzvot, at home, in the synagogue, and everywhere we go.

How do we know? How can we be sure that our children’s Jewish identities will be formed by focus on God, Torah and mitzvot?

We know, because Judaism grew and thrived for centuries before there even was a Yiddish language or a matzo ball.

We know, because ethnicity no longer impresses us as a cogent reason for maintaining a Jewish identity.

We know, because our children will ask about their place in the world and the meaning of their lives. The answers lie in Torah, in faith, and in authentically Jewish action.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt. They are oppressed, as our people has been, too many times, throughout the ages. And yet, even in that darkest hour, the Israelites thrived. They grew and multiplied, blossoming into a mighty nation.

We, thank God, live in freedom. We are not oppressed. We can even choose to be Jewish, or cease to be Jewish, without incurring the dangers of ancient Egypt or of Europe in our own century.

Let us not be nostalgic for the bad old days of Jewish history, when our strength depended upon our response to oppression, when Jewish identity meant banding together against a common foe. Rather, let us rejoice in our freedom to identify as Jews in positive and authentic actions. Let our Jewish identity we strong, not only in our hearts, but also in our souls and in our hands, through our faith brought to life in action.

Our Jewish grandparents might have been Bubbe and Zayde, Grandma and Grandpa or Nana and Pops. Some made chicken soup, while others specialized in chili con queso. Whether they said “aw, shucks” or “oy vey,” they all proudly proclaimed: “Shema Yisrael.” May our own Jewish identities honor them all.