Two Cheers For Jewish Identity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
August 3, 2001
It's easy enough to poke fun at the Judaism with which I was raised. How many sermons can one listen to on the topic, "Judaism thought of it first," which never gave one any reason for continuing to practice Judaism as a religion now that the rest of world had signed on to our best ideas?
Nor is intellectual coherence the description that leaps to mind when contemplating my Jewish upbringing. I can still remember the derisive sighs that greeted my mother's announcement that henceforth no butter would grace our Friday night table or that she would no longer be doing laundry on Saturday. "But we don't keep kosher, Mom; we are not shomer Shabbos," my brothers and I complained.
Yet I have to say that my parents were, at some level, remarkable successes as Jewish parents. All five of their sons married Jewish women; four of them made aliyah and are raising large Orthodox families in Israel.
Of what did my parents' success consist? They instilled in each of their sons the feeling that being Jewish was the single most defining quality about him. Not just the silly "Jewish pride" that barely rises above the level of rooting for the local sports team ó though there was surely a healthy measure of that as well ó but a sense that being Jewish is an identity, in a way that being a Ravens' fan is not.
My brothers and I did not reject our parents' upbringing. We continued it. As I frequently remind them, "You have only yourselves to blame. You told us that being Jewish was the most important thing about us, and we took you seriously."
They do not attempt to deny it; nor at this stage, as they live surrounded by nearly 30 grandchildren, would they even want to.
Each of us, acting on the belief that our Jewishness held the key to who we were, decided at some point to explore that Judaism in depth. We did not conclude, as so many have, that there was nothing more to Judaism than that to which we were exposed in Hebrew school or countless Shabbos sermons.
Rather we intuitively felt that something about which our parents felt so deeply, and all our ancestors even more intensely, must possess depths about which we had yet to learn.
My brothers and I all traveled different roads, but they all started in the same place: the memory of our mother's tears when she awakened us June 6, 1967, and told us that Israel was at war. The only time the TV was even allowed near the sanctum of the Rosenblum dining room was during the tense United Nations debates leading up to that war when we hung on Abba Eban's every word.
For us, the desire to be linked to the historical continuity of the Jewish people was so intense that when we realized that Jewish history is the history of a people faithful to God and His Torah, we could see no alternative to becoming Torah observant. Our observance, to some extent, preceded our faith; we did and then we understood.
My application for the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary gave expression to that attitude: "For our ancestors, the crucial fact about the mitzvot was that each and every one of them was God-given. To pick and choose among them on the basis of what one feels he needs to maintain his Jewish identity is to cut oneself off from the faith of our forefathers. ... While I have not yet attained the faith of my ancestors, I do not reject it in favor of any more ëmodern' understanding."
I cannot defend the theological coherence of a Shabbos table adorned with non-kosher food or of a Shabbos meal followed by high school basketball games and parties. And I know too well the inadequacy of a Jewish upbringing such as my own to ensure Jewish continuity. The children of too many of my friends, raised in ostensibly similar homes, are not even Jewish.
But I remain profoundly grateful to my parents for their insistence on a Shabbos meal, on candles (even those lit after the onset of Shabbos) and kiddush. That Shabbos meal left its mark in the idea that there are some things you do because you are Jewish and that it is a privilege to do so.
When many years later, a stranger would accost me and ask, "Are you Jewish?" I could not say, "No." And when he asked, "Would you like to put on tefillin?" I could also not think of any good reason why not, even though I had last done so at the Sunday morning tefillin club before my bar mitzvah.
A strong Jewish identity may not be enough, but with it, anything is possible.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list