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