I understand the desire to have a collectively agreed upon definition of Jewish Peoplehood. But maybe that’s precisely why defining Jewish Peoplehood has proved to be so elusive.

PP13[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By David Bryfman

Over the years many people have attempted to develop a unified understanding of what constitutes Jewish Peoplehood. Much has been written and yet this value proposition still requires clarification and perhaps even definition. Why?

There might be many reasons for its complexity, but as recent events have shown me, despite its collective nature, Jewish Peoplehood is just so darn personal.

Four short autobiographical snapshots:

  1. When I was a young boy I remember the noise in our living room often brought to silence, as we were all commanded to sssshhhh by my parents when a news item about Israel appeared on a nightly news bulletin.
  2. When I used to go to the movies with my buba, a Holocaust survivor, we weren’t allowed to leave the theater until the final credits had scrolled through. She would delight in the number of Jewish names that inevitably appeared.
  3. When I was in high school I remember the absolute joy and celebration when a group of former refuseniks visited us at school upon their release from the Soviet gulags.
  4. Throughout my adult life I have delighted in gatherings of Jews from around the world – from my Ulpan class, to a Birthright mega-event, a Jewish conference on the shores of the Black Sea, and at a Yom Ha’atzmaut dance party in a virtual world.

With these illustrative glimpses into my life it is not difficult to see how both nature and nurture have played a role in developing my own sense of Jewish Peoplehood. But seldom are Jewish Peoplehood journeys so simple. As recent events have reminded me Jewish Peoplehood is also so fraught with complexity, ambiguity and challenges.

I apologize in advance if these disclosures are TMI (too much information), but allow me to share three more recent episodes of my life.

  1. I am walking in Prospect Park and an ultra-Orthodox Jew asks me to shake the lulav. I choose not to. What’s more than that is that I cannot relate to him. I do not feel that he is one of my people. He looks and behaves nothing like me. I feel more at home with my posse in secular Brooklyn, some Jewish and others not, than I do with the black hatted Jew who lives a few miles away in Crown Heights. Does that make me a bad Jew?
  2. In June, 2014 my Facebook feeds included two hashtags calling for action to be taken against kidnappers of innocent children – #Bringbackourboys working toward saving 3 kidnapped Jewish teenagers in Israel (subsequently found to be murdered), and #Bringbackougirls to save the lives of 276 Nigerian school girls taken captive by Islamist extremists (yet to be found). I felt extremely bad for the Nigerian school girls. But my heart wept for the 3 kidnapped Israelis. Does that make me a bad human being?
  3. In August, 2014 I attended a solidarity rally to stand by Israel in her time of need. Between you and me, I loathe Israel solidarity rallies. I am always concerned that somehow I will be connected to the idiotic, if not racist, poster held by a member of the crowd. I sheepishly stay quiet as some politician or communal leader implicitly calls for more blood to be shed. I don’t always like standing together with my fellow lovers of Israel. Does that make me a bad Zionist?

Perhaps you have been in similar circumstances and asked yourself questions like these. For me these challenging questions about Jewish Peoplehood are as much a part of the discussion as the oft chanted slogans – am echad be lev echad (one nation, one heart) or kol yisrael areivim ze ba zeh (all of Israel helps one another). In fact Jewish Peoplehood education should be about asking some of life’s more complex existential questions like, who am I and how do I fit into this world?

I understand the desire to have a collectively agreed upon definition of Jewish Peoplehood. But maybe that’s precisely why defining Jewish Peoplehood has proved to be so elusive. At the end of the day maybe it is not the unified terminology that we need, but the accumulation of all of our individual stories that will determine who we are, and what this Jewish Peoplehood enterprise is ultimately all about.

David Bryfman, Ph.D. has studied and worked in Jewish education in among other places, Melbourne, Sydney, St. Louis, Jerusalem and New York. He is currently living in Brooklyn married to a Jewish woman from Memphis who he met at a Jewish conference in Sweden.

JPeoplehood newThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

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