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The Power of Saying ‘I Am A Jew’

Star of David Silhouette

Star of David Silhouette

What does it mean to be Jewish? I ask that question of myself all the time, especially as a parent. It pertains to how I raise my children, how I educate them, and what I expect of them.

With all of the choices we American Jews have so far as how to express our Jewishness, it can get complicated. I often think about Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian Jewish artist who died in poverty in 1920, who countered the antisemitism he found in post-Dreyfus Affair Paris by proclaiming, to whomever he met: “I am Modigliani. I am a Jew.” He wasn’t going to synagogue or studying Talmudic texts but he was letting everyone know that, while he looked Italian and spoke French like he was born there, he was a Jew. “Hate me if you wish but that’s who I am. I am Modigliani the Jew.”

The story reminds me of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who moments before being tragically murdered by Islamists in 2002, was forced to recite: “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish.” His father, Judea Pearl, reclaimed and repeated these very words at a 2013 Jerusalem memorial for his son.

Today, when I say that I am a Jew, what am I saying?

That my people win lots of Nobel prizes?  That, one day a year, come hell or high water, you will find me fasting and attending synagogue services? Or that I eschew bread for eight days every spring?  Does it mean that I believe in one God? That I study Biblical texts?  That family togetherness has an overriding importance in my life? And of course, that food does, too?

A Hebrew poet called Zelda once wrote: “Each person has a name. That God gave him and which his father and mother gave him. Every person has a name…”

So is it enough to just know in your heart that you’re a Jew? Or is more expected of us to belong to the tribe, which some believe involves marrying a Jew, keeping kosher, honoring the Sabbath and attending synagogue.  Do we need to repair the world?  How many layers does one have to go to hit the Jewish motherlode?

Recently I attended a dinner party with a Jewish, yeshiva-educated man married to a non-Jewish woman. She was expecting their second child. In the end, said the expectant father, while I know that my wife is not Jewish and that many people therefore wouldn’t consider my children to be Jewish either, I have a different threshold. My hope, he said, is that when my children grow up, when asked who they are, they would answer: I am a Jew.

And maybe that’s enough.

Image: Robert and Talbot Trudeau

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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