By Sara Liss
[COJECO Keystone Fellowship Cohort II graduation speech, Wednesday, December 13, 2017]
I once met a Neo-Nazi on the line for a bathroom in a dive bar in the East Village. I realize this sounds like the opening to a borsht-belt comedy set, but sadly there’s no punchline here. Instead, what happened was that I was waiting for the restroom, turned to the person in front of me, and asked, “excuse me, is it the same line for both the women’s and men’s room?” A man with a shaved head, dressed in black, with symbols tattooed on all of his knuckles turned around and said with a grin, “Yes, it’s the same line for both, SARA.” Puzzled, I looked at him and innocently said, “Do I know you?” He seemed pleasantly surprised and tickled with himself, and turned to his similarly dressed friend and shouted, “Holy [expletive]! Her name is actually Sara!” And the two of them walked away laughing, as it became clear to me that he didn’t know me at all, and had only called me “Sara” because he correctly assumed I was Jewish.
I was certainly a bit shaken up and upset by the interaction, but I didn’t feel fear or any concern for my safety. After all, I was in a bar in downtown New York City in the 21st century. No, my reaction was something else entirely: I felt ashamed and embarrassed that he could tell I was Jewish. That despite my modern outfit and secular education, my 3rd-generation American status, my patriotism and visits to dozens of National Parks, I still couldn’t pass for a gentile. In that moment, I was forced to confront myself as a Jew.
I tell this story because to me, it perfectly depicts the struggle of Jewish identity in 21st-century America. By all measures, we have made it here. Despite being only 2% of the population, we are disproportionately represented in political posts, as leaders in business, arts, culture, and sciences, in the top segments of wealth. Of course there is still rampant antisemitism and hate crimes against us, and this past year’s events in Charlottesville are a reminder that our success and safety here persistently feel somewhat precarious. But the biggest challenge to Jewish identity in 21st-century America isn’t neo-Nazis or tiki-torch wielding morons or radical Antifa socialists. Our biggest challenge as Jews in 21st-century America is to accept ourselves as Jews.
Throughout history, this has never been the case; unregulated, self-defined Jewish identity was never really an option before. For my Polish great-grandparents, there was no question as to their Jewish identities, because they were reminded exactly who and what they were every time Cossacks rode through their shtetels and pogromed; my Hungarian grandparents never grappled with their Jewish identities either; the Nazis and the Arrow Cross helped resolved those questions for them; and for half of my fellow-cohorts sitting here, the Soviet Union defined their Jewish identities by clearly marking it in the fifth line of their passports.
But today in America, no one is deciding the question of Jewish identity for us. Our battle isn’t against the fascists and the communists; our battle is standing in front of the mirror every morning and asking, “Should I be a Jew today?”
We in the COJECO Keystone Fellowship have wrestled with this question over the last year. In our first meeting together, last January, we were asked to bring an object that is meaningful to our Jewish identity and then present it to the group. It was incredible to see the number of people who brought with them relics from their family’s history or objects that survived persecution. I myself brought a necklace with 3 charms: 2 that survived the Holocaust and 1 that survived pogroms. And so the impression I walked away with that night was that even in 21st-century America, we are still defining our Jewish identities in relation to past discrimination and persecution, or as something either inherited from parents or grandparents, or something to be passed on to children. In other words, we still refuse to accept our Jewish identities as something standing on its own, inherently existing within each of ourselves.
I’m proud to report that nearly a year later, I feel confident that we Keystone Fellows have succeeded in accepting ourselves and one another as Jews. And not because we came to any great answers or conclusions, but merely because we chose to engage in the conversation. By virtue of electing to get together and discussing what is Jewish identity in America, we enacted Jewish identity in America. We are a diverse group with differing countries of origin, political beliefs, ethnicities, communal affiliations, religious denominations, and many, many (many) opinions. But together, we studied, analyzed, and debated American Jewish institutions, educational systems, leadership, boards and councils, philanthropy, and fundraising. We spent a weekend together upstate, and we traveled together for a life-changing and meaningful week in Germany. And at every moment, we have been able to look around the room at one another, and proclaim, ‘yes, we are all Jews here.’ Not because of history, or lineage, or persecution, or Halacha, or denomination; simply because we are.
To declare and accept ourselves and one another Jewish – this may seem like a relatively small or obvious victory, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. By and large, we are so accepted in America today that accordingly, it requires a herculean effort and heroic commitment to be a Jew, rather than to just fade into the comfort of the melting pot. And even worse than that, because it often feels like we have no looming external enemies, we so often turn against each other, stealing resources from each other’s organizations, and excluding one another because of denomination or background or affiliation. All of that is easy to do.
So yes, to accept ourselves and each other as Jews is a feat that the COJECO Keystone fellows should feel elated in achieving. It’s a feat we accomplished because we chose to show up, commit, and participate.
Of course, I know I speak for everyone when I say that we owe thanks in large part to the incredible COJECO staff, and to the NYU and visiting professors who brilliantly led us along the way. Irina, Roman, Professor Elcott: We are eternally grateful and appreciative for your vision, guidance, and resourcefulness.
To my fellow cohorts, I am so thankful to have taken this journey alongside all of you. Sometimes, conversations got tense, especially when we discussed whether we should be allowed to use cell phones during class, and in debating who is the better bar-b-q-er, a Jew from Texas or a Jew from Argentina. (We’re still waiting on an answer). But your intelligence, curiosity, humor, and most of all, kindness, always led to insightful and productive discussions. COJECO has left an indelible impression in us that we will no doubt carry forward and spread to the world around us. Together, we have all gained the skills necessary to be impactful leaders within the American Jewish community and beyond, and I look forward to working together in the future from whichever posts in which we end up, and to many more years of the strong friendships we have formed.
Mostly, I know that whatever challenges the future brings, we will never relent in showing up to resolve them, to elect to approach them together, and to engage in dialogue and debate, proudly affirming ourselves and one another, above all, Jews.
Thank you all, and happy Chanukah to everyone!
Sara Liss is a native New Yorker, and a graduate of NYU and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She is a former White House Intern in the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.