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The global ‘we’
November 24th, 2009
As a teenager deeply involved with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, I thought and talked a lot about Jewish identity. One question planted during a BBYO event seemed to define how most American Jews framed our conversations about identity: Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew?
I batted the question (and its progeny) around and around: Which part of my identity is most important? Is Judaism a religion or a nation? If I stop believing in God, am I no longer Jewish? If I were to live in a non-Jewish neighborhood, marry a non-Jew and never attend synagogue but pray deeply, what am I?
It was living in Israel that provided one cogent answer to all the questions. What bound me to the Morrocan owner of a corner makholet (convenience store), who invited me for muffaletta as I passed his shop on the last day of Passover? Why did I feel related to the fervently religious women in sheitels (wigs) as much as to the leggy, secular girls who hung out at dance clubs? Because we are part of one people, one diverse, multifaceted and worldwide tribe.
I was bitten by the bug of Jewish peoplehood.
Credited to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who used the term in a 1942 article, the word “peoplehood” has picked up steam in the organized Jewish world. Just last month, the Jewish Federations of North America (the umbrella organization of the federation system) devoted hours of program time at its annual General Assembly to a series of programs on the topic.
About the word “peoplehood”: When I first heard the term several years ago, I thought it sounded fresh, in an ad hoc, authentic way. But now that it has so infiltrated the system that books, awards and entire organizations use and overuse the word, it feels clunky, self-conscious and empty. I must admit that I can hardly bear to hear, much less say, the word.
However, I have come to believe deeply that “peoplehood” describes a Jewish connectedness that is not only exciting and empowering but may be a new tag for a deep and alluring Judaism that might help Jews feel, well, Jewish. It is, in short, a game-changing way to understand Jewish identity.
So what is Jewish peoplehood? Definitions run the gamut: “The interconnectedness of the Jewish People,” a “global we,” “an unquenchable commitment to the unity and totality of the Jewish people.”
In their new book, “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?,” Misha Galperin, Ph.D., and Erica Brown, Ph.D., define it as “the collective aspects of Jewish identity and community that create connections among individuals, even strangers.”
But they go further: “In its strongest definition, it also means “a global community joined by covenant — a definite sense of purpose.’”
Shlomi Ravid, Ph.D., director of the International School of Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv, offers an alternative to such definitions.
“My assumption is that while Peoplehood is a vague and complicated concept, deep down we actually understand it, and some simply feel it,” he wrote in a “Peoplehood Now,” a publication of the Nadav Fund, Haaretz and Beth Hatefutsoth.
“While we may have issues articulating exactly what it means … many of us are able to embrace a sense of belonging to a people that is meaningful, reasonably coherent and one that frames significant parts of our lives as members of the collective,” he wrote.
After spending three days at the GA and then reading “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood,” my most pointed and nagging question became, “So what?” Is this all just intellectual jump rope designed to make us feel vital and useful or does it point to something meaningful and new?
In the universe’s way of providing signals as we need them, I went with my family to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Sinai on Nov. 20 and heard University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee adjunct assistant professor of Jewish studies Rachel Baum, Ph.D.
Coordinator of the school’s Jewish studies major and minor, Baum spoke on the topic, “Is the Tribe Outdated? Challenges to Jewish Identity in the 21st Century.”
She suggests asking questions as a way to engage people in Judaism.
“Focusing on the great questions of Judaism brings us up-close with the great questions of our time — the questions raised by living in a global world. Questions about diversity, mutual responsibility, genocide, identity and God,” she said.
“Different Jews will answer these questions quite differently, but we share the questions, which come out of our long shared history.”
That inclusive approach mirrors Rabbi David Gedzelman’s idea that peoplehood addresses today’s needs for inclusion and depth.
Executive vice president of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Gedzelman wrote in “Peoplehood Now”:
“Young people in North America today want both belonging and meaning, but they eschew the parochial that closes in on itself as well as the idea without body. Judaism limited to religion has no legs; Judaism as a tribe, exclusive, does not inspire. But Peoplehood that is both open and exceptional, of ideas and belonging, is the formula for identity that this age is seeking.”
In spite of its cringe-inducing name, peoplehood matters. It frames our conversations, our programs, the vibes in our synagogues and, potentially, the spirit of the next Jewish generation. It has enormous power to transform Judaism for us and for our children.
If we can listen to our people’s call for transcending the boundaries of denomination and nation, we might create relevant initiatives and welcoming institutions that speak to today’s Jews.
We might craft opportunities for learning, celebrating, serving and giving that go way beyond the outdated question of my childhood.