Do we own our Jewish history?
I read something from an unlikely source that struck my deepest core as a Jew, and came to a full stop at a passage from the first chapter of “How to be an Anti-Racist”, a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m sure Dr. Kendi did not intend this outcome, in fact, I feel guilt at even sharing this, because I personalized a phrase he used to illustrate a core issue of his, one that influenced his childhood and his present thoughts about racism.
Perhaps in writing this, I am part of the problem he was writing about: maintaining my narrow vision; not seeing the entire picture he was portraying and co-opting a phrase instead, one that relates to my world. But I am compelled to write this and soon, will return to the book when I can focus my proper attention on the larger issue of racism.
For now, as a Jew, I am not able to move past the part where he writes about how his parents came to their revelatory understandings about Christianity.
Dr. Kendi’s description of his parents’ journey to Christianity was stated so simply and powerfully, and I was struck by its truth and how for me, it applies to Judaism, to our own history. And I wondered why we don’t own our own reality.
Kendi writes about his parents’ college years as Black Americans, when his parents began to crystallize their thinking—defining Christianity on their own terms:
“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” …… Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation.
Christianity was about struggle and liberation.
Oddly enough, in the instant when I read that description, it resonated with me. I feel that we share that story, even if not in the same way. It seems to be our story too.
Let me say first, that I don’t want to play the comparison game about who struggled more, blacks or Jews. It’s like asking who suffered more, someone who survived the death camps or someone who escaped from slavery?
Some things defy comparison. Our compassion needs to be for ourselves and others. It’s in our Jewish DNA.
So we can pay attention to our own history, and begin to actually own it.
The Jewish story, our history, could be distilled in that one sentence….Judaism is about struggle and liberation.
From slavery in Egypt/mitzrayim to freedom in the desert/bamidbar—our freedom came with even more challenges.
Throughout our history we struggled to be free.
From the destruction of the First Temple to the riches of Babylonia. From the Crusades to the Golden Age of Spain. From the destruction of the Second Temple to a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish. From the death camps to Israel.
The times when we were truly ‘liberated’ during our thousands of years of history are minuscule (click here to read our history in more detail).
Our very name, Yisrael/Israel is derived from the Hebrew root Yud-Shin-Raysh which means to struggle with, contend with, be upright with—and the ‘with’ is none other than God.
We are truly Children of Israel/B’nai Yisrael when we sit with the struggle. When we challenge and when we obey.
Struggle and Liberation….
And it is often a struggle to come to terms with liberation.
Thousands of years of disgrace, discrimination, and hatred seemed to disappear ….until now. Now, we are dealing with hate speech. Antisemitism. Death threats. BDS. Academic Freedom. Muggings. Killings.
In North America, it is a struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity in a free society. It is a struggle to be different. It is a struggle to have faith.
Israel’s challenges are borne in part, from her liberation as a free state, which seems to foment hatred by others.
Freedom has a price. It demands our attention and not taking anything for granted.
May we be strong enough to struggle, may we be able to appreciate our freedom while being strong and bold enough to stand up for ourselves as Jews. May we stay the course, not to survive, but to thrive.