Growing up, I remember my father’s Rosh Hashana ritual. He read the story of Rabi Amnon of Mainz, who had his tongue, hands and legs cut off for refusing to convert to Christianity – for choosing to remain a Jews. I would run away from the table sobbing in terror. Even at the tender age of six, I knew that being Jewish made oneself a member of an endangered species.
As I got older, martyrdom for Judaism seemed more remote as I found myself intellectualizing what it means to be Jewish as my way of life – without invoking life or death. In the free and open world of New York, dying for one’s faith seemed as likely as a shark attack.
Then it happened. Ten years ago, Daniel Pearl uttered his last words. “I am Jewish. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish,” he said proudly before he was brutally murdered by terrorists.
As a sixteen-year-old burgeoning writer who had previously considered a career in foreign journalism, I didn’t understand how any one could murder someone who was so profoundly innocent.
Daniel posed no threats to the terrorists who savagely murdered him. He was not a soldier, he carried no guns, he came to meet them with a pen and an open mind. Daniel was a gentle and good human being who came to them in good faith, to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. Instead he was abducted, humiliated, and slaughtered, and it seems the only reason for that is that that Daniel Pearl was murdered for being Jewish. The horrors of the past were alive today.
Yet, I found, amidst my anger and sorrow, a sense of wonder. Instead of simply dying for being Jewish, Daniel faced his death and made his last words a declaration of faith. And in that moment, I found myself challenged to figure out what it meant to end one’s life the way he did, what it means to say them with all of one’s heart, all of one’s soul – indeed with all of one’s life. What does it mean to be Jewish?
I asked my friends this question and received varying answers – from “eating kugel” to “accepting others,” to a particularly brilliant answer of purposeful living by famed Jewish educator Allison Josephs. Yet, I still didn’t see how any of that was worth dying for.
My thoughts became darker as I considered what other people are saying Judaism means. College professors openly call for the end of the Jewish state in the name of Judaism, and use their podium as a platform for indoctrinating students to hate Israel – based on lies, distortions and false moral equivalency. The Jewish people must be saved, but the Jewish state must be destroyed. So, what does it mean to be Jewish? Zionism is not the same thing as Judaism, but one cannot divorce the child who says “Next year in Jerusalem” from the state where I hope to spend the next year in Jerusalem.
Many professors declare that being Jewish means being “Jews of conscience,” as Cal State University Northridge mathematics professor David Klein says. According to him that means one must oppose Israel’s existence entirely – he refers to it as the “most racist” state in the world. I’ll happily give that news to Christians in Saudi Arabia, Coptic Christians in Egypt, women in Saudi Arabia, and Kurds all over the Middle East. I do not like arguing that we’re better than brutal despotic regimes, but to paint the freedoms that minorities in Israel enjoy would take twice this article length.
What baffles me is that these people say these things in the name of their faith. How could it be Jewish to undermine the place with the largest population of Jews? I refuse to believe that to be Jewish means to fight other Jews tooth and nail, to likely endanger their lives. If being Jewish means national self destruction, count me out.
Sadly, this seems to be a prevailing thread of thought on the left of the Jewish world. I read people like “anti-racist” Tim Wise who calls the ADL and the Des Moines Jewish Federation “charlatans” for arguing against his right to speak. Wise, you see, has argued that “Zionism has made world Jewry less safe than ever,” and that Israel has a right to exist, “in the sense of not being violently destroyed” but not to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, we have a right to exist, but not as ourselves, as Jewish people. That definitely wasn’t something worth dying for and I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Chillingly, for some, being Jewish is seen as something to be ashamed of. One Jesse Lieberfeld won the Martin Luther King essay competition by describing Judaism as believing themselves “greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time,” and that Jews today live in a “world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic.”
In his essay, he says he was unable to “escape” Judaism, how he was forced to hear “how important it was to remember where we had come from” and how Judaism is “intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world.” His road to self-discovery made him decide to leave the “Self-Chosen People,” as he calls his former religion derisively. So, does being Jewish mean something negative that needs to be overcome? I couldn’t imagine Daniel Pearl’s words being defined in terms in this ugliness and self-hatred.
I am using the most extreme examples. Some have described Judaism’s “primary value of seeking justice,” as what makes them Jewish. Others describe the sense of community they gain – that of a shared culture and history. Some discuss the love of education, or a sense of tradition. My favorite was a shared history of survival. All of these are nice things, but they don’t recall something so profound that a man would choose to speak of them before his death.
I love being Jewish. I love the history, the literature, the special relationship I feel I have with the world of Holiness. I feel tied to the Torah as my inheritance. I love Israel as my home. It’s something I never had to question because it is as integral to me as my own heartbeat, pumping away without me noticing. I am Jewish. It’s me.
Yet, if I push myself against the preverbal wall, I am still left wondering. What does it mean to be Jewish so profoundly that one would declare it before death? Unfortunately, I can’t ask Daniel what he meant.
So I will have to define that for myself. I am Jewish. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am the descendant of people who have said those words at the cost of their rights, their property, their freedom and many times, their lives. There is something essential that the statement “I am Jewish” has, and it’s not something that the mind can understand.
It is the language of the soul, and it is an answer that takes an eternity to learn. In essence, I am Jewish is not a destination, but a journey. Where it goes is beyond us, but we know where the destination is – the destination of a martyr like Daniel. It leads to the supreme source of truth.
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