The Jewish Team

By Robbie Gringras

“The Jews are NOT a religion!”

Pretty much everyone in Israel or Jewish education recognizes this line. Most of us have it ringing in our heads, with the booming adjoinder swiftly following on:

“We are a FAMILY…”

When that wonderful educator and leader Avram Infeld delivers this kicker, his deep voice dropping down a tone to emphasize the truth of his observation, we know that a deep moment of education has taken place.

But I wonder if it works in the same way these days.

It feels sacrilegious to say so, but nowadays I wonder if using the metaphor of “family” to introduce Jewish Peoplehood might even be counter-productive. Unfortunately, tragically, the word “family” is no longer an emotionally unambiguous term. Unfortunately, tragically, the word “family” no longer conjures up ideas of eternity, loyalty, commitment, or even dare we say, love. For some, it’s even a painful word. And as such, I wonder whether it is now too complex a metaphor for introducing young learners to an understanding of and connection to the Jewish People.

It is not that the notion of Jewish Peoplehood suddenly can no longer be likened to the idea of an extended family. It is that now the connotations of “family” bring to mind the problematic, the broken, and the dysfunctional long before they recall notions of commitment and belonging.

I was struck with a different metaphor when working with Dr Sivan Zakai on an Israel curriculum for 2nd to 6th Graders. It turns out that 2nd and 3rd graders in the States do not refer to the Jewish People as a family. They talk in terms of “team.” The Jewish Team. For those familiar with Sivan Zakai’s work, you’ll know that she does a lot of listening. And it appears that our younger learners quite naturally turn to the word “team” to represent their connection to the Jewish People. It’s not our metaphor – it’s theirs.

It strikes me as a metaphor with great potential.

Even first-graders instinctively understand that one must support one’s own team, even if one does not know everyone on that team, or everyone who supports the same team. There is a kinship that is irrelevant to quality: Even if my team loses or sucks, I will continue to support it. I will proclaim my team to be the best in the world, even as it loses again and again!

Unlike the family metaphor, that for some hints of tribal exclusivism, it is entirely possible for my best friend to root for a rival team. It is not at all difficult to instinctively grasp what Kieran Egan names an “ironic understanding” of teams – that while I support my team, it is legitimate for others to support a different team. Even if competing against another team, I can see that everyone is expected to shake hands at the end of the game.

To extend “team” into a conceit, could be similarly rich.

For example, to play in a team requires an unspoken grasp of the tensions between individual and collective freedom. I know that I need my fellow team-members, and at the same time I am occasionally obliged to forego my individual needs to help them. In a team I learn of the value of being part of a collective.

There could be a fascinating interplay between inheritance and adoption when thinking about teams – ideas that might perhaps be too emotionally charged when addressed in the context of family commitments. Some people are born into supporting a team, and some people find themselves in teams because that’s what the teacher decided. There is no choice involved, nor is a choice expected. In this choice-packed society we live in, who has heard of a forced association? Yet almost paradoxically, together with this fateful acceptance of belonging, new-comers are welcomed into teams without a blink. In British soccer it is quite traditional for a player to join a team from somewhere else, and on scoring a goal to kiss the club badge as a sign of an everlasting commitment that began yesterday. Converts are seamlessly incorporated into the team.

Finally, the distinction between playing on a team and supporting a team, is a rich vein to explore. In particular when we think of where Jewish Peoplehood connects to Israel. About half of the Jewish team lives in Israel – are they on the playing field and Diasporans in the bleachers? Do those in the bleachers, like the best of supporters, implicated in the players’ successes and failures, yell both encouragement and curses from the sidelines?

Of course a punchy metaphor does not always establish a water-tight conceit.

I wonder how might we define what “game” our “team” is playing? What might we say is the team’s purpose?

Perhaps the search for a shared answer to this last question, is more important than the metaphors we use to ask it.

Robbie Gringras is working with Dr Sivan Zakai on the Qushiyot program for Jewish Education Project and Makom, funded by UJA New York Federation.