June 15, 2009

Why Be Jewish

Some posts write themselves. I pick the topic and the words flow straight from the keyboard onto the cyber canvas you read them upon. Sometimes it is much more challenging. Sometime it feels like a war in which I engage in multiple battles to produce a post that is worth publishing.

This particular post has been part of the latter. I have tried to write it many times but have consistently been disappointed in it and consequently deleted and started over. But I decided that perhaps I was over thinking it and so I sat down and banged out the copy that you are reading now.

Religion is a funny thing. Some people cite it as the source of all that is good in their lives and others blame it for every possible ill. I have had more discussions than I can count about Israel with people who blame the conflict upon religious/ideological warfare.

So it got me thinking about a number of things such as why do people believe in whatever faith they believe in. Adult converts are easy. At some point in time they decided that they were not satisfied with whatever they believed and made the decision to change. But the question for those of us who did not convert is why.

Why be Jewish? Why are you a Jew? What makes you want to do it? Is it only because you were born into it or is there something more. So I conducted an informal and unscientific poll in which I emailed somewhere around 100 bloggers from the Jblogosphere and asked them to answer the question.

I received back from very interesting responses and thought that I would share them with you. In the interest of confidentiality I'll share their words but I am not going to identify them. It will be their choice to step from behind the curtain.

I'm Jewish because I was born Jewish. I have to be honest, if I wasn't born Jewish I don't know that I'd have become Jewish. I tend to be the sort of person who goes with the flow. If I had been the product of a mixed marriage, I really don't know which way I'd go. Though I suspect in such circumstances I'd probably choose one or the other religion.


I am Jewish because it is my heritage.


I am Jewish because having a purposeful life is imperative.Because of all of the purported purposes in the world, this one makes the most sense to me.There is no "dead space" in a well-lived Jewish life. No "killing time."

There is nothing that doesn't matter, from when we wake up until we go to sleep -- and even our sleep time can be sanctified.

When I was young, "free, white and 21" was a popular explanation for why I could do whatever I wanted to do. And that was freedom.

As I lived a while, I realized that freedom like that is only the freedom to screw up. I think I felt truly free for the first time in my life when I understood what the boundaries were.

Adults are not so much different from children, after all. We also play with the most joy and abandon when we know where the walls and the cliffs are located, and that they are clearly marked.


Judaism connects me to my father. His memory is what caused me to seek out Judaism.
I thrive on the structure that the Jewish calendar imparts
Keeping Kosher makes me think about God every time I eat.
I love how the world melts away when I light Shabbat candles.
I love that every week, we have a reason to celebrate.
I have children who remind me daily that there is something bigger than me in the world.
The music and liturgy of Shabbat morning services soothes my soul.
I love the Jewish community and sense of extended family that I have found.
My heart sings when I hear my almost 5 year old son singing Ma Yafe Hayom at the top of his lungs while showering. Or when my 9 1/2 year old asks the Hazzan if she can lead part of the service.
I have the world's most precious gift that I can pass along to my children.
Oh. And because I was born that way.


The fact of it is that I am Jewish because my parents are Jewish and I was born Jewish. Maybe that goes without saying but if I were not born Jewish, there is no reason to believe that I would have sought out Judaism because the values so deeply resonated within me.

I happened to go to Jewish summer camp and fell in love with the friends and community I made. Years later, you could insert "Israel" into that sentence. It sounds a bit odd and irrational to say something is such an important value when I don't feel like I ever really CHOSE it but that's life.

How many Amish, Catholics, or charedim would have chosen their lives if they hadn't been born into that world?


I am a Jew because I believe I am part of something bigger than myself that is real. I grew up in a non-religious home and have become more religious on my own. I have felt a connection to HaShem if my life and my travels to Jerusalem. I am a part of something special, and I am proud of my heritage and the future of my people.


I grew up with it, in a watered down religious way, and in a home of immigrants who had been persecuted because they are/were Jewish. I had lots of my own experiences here in the States, both as a youngster and as an adult. One fine day I realized that I owe my very existence to Jew hatred - without it, presumably, my parents would have never fled their home countries, and presumably would have never met, thus obviatingmy conception. Can you believe it Jack; I, a Jew, owe my existence to Adolph Hitler?

And people think I'm weird. Anyway, as I've grown older, Judaism has grown in and on me. At this point in my life, I can't do without it.


Why am I Jewish?The answer goes beyond the simple accident of birth, that chance fusing of DNA from the son of Polish Ashkenazic immigrants and the daughter of Russian Ashkenazic immigrants. That alone would suffice, but it would not explain why I - a devout skeptic - put on tefillin and a tallit and say my prayers almost every day.

To be a Jew means more than to be an ancestor of the people who escaped Egyptian slavery and who stood at the base of Mount Horeb. Those stories go to the heart of our nation-building experience, but they do not completely explain the curious combination of deep moral vision and common sense that are the essential components of the Jewish belief system.

We Jews are, ideally, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a light unto the world - who would not want to be a part of such a nation? That is why I am Jewish.

Our national history teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to not shun the stranger - for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Who better than to carry the torch of social justice, to set a positive example?

To us Jews, faith is important - but deeds are much more so. That is why I am Jewish. I am Jewish because I am the descendant of people who were not content merely to pray to God, but had the chutzpah to bargain with, argue with, and cajole Him.

I am Jewish because we need no intermediaries between us and the Almighty, an ineffable Spirit who does not need to incarnate Himself in order to understand the deepest thoughts of His creations, who created them without sin or blemish (and without perfection) - but with Free Will. That is why I am Jewish.

Plus...gefilte fish!


Why am I Jewish? Birth. That's all. I mean, ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu, etc,


Birth for a starter. I wasn't raised in a religious home, but we knew we were Jewish. I could have turned away into an American universalist. In my childhood days, most people had religion, except for the rare intermarried family.

Today no religion is more common.

I'm the type who likes to be part of something, and if I'm part of something I take it seriously. So, today I'm a Torah Jew, aka Orthodox.


Quite simply, I AM Jewish because I was born into a Jewish family with Jewish parents. It doesn't take much more than uterine luck to be a Jew in many cases.

It's what one does with that birthright that defines his or her Judaism. I've written about my belief that every Jew is a Jew by choice, but I've never really gotten into the why, so here we go.

I am a practicing Jew because the basic concepts work for me. Observing commandments like keeping kosher make me feel connected to something much bigger than me; it connects me to thousands of years of heritage and to all kosher Jews around the world today.

On a more theological level, I like being part of a religion that allows its adherents to question everything and often encourages the practice. I could not be in a faith where such grappling is not a core value. I mean, we've devoted whole books to wrestling with core ideological questions and they'll never be done.

Judaism is a living thing unto itself and that's pretty damn cool. We infuse everything from mundane tasks to sublime revelations with holiness. Who else makes a religion out of eating but the Jews?

More than that, we have crammed a holistic way of life into our faith without being absolute.

Finally, I'm Jewish because it resonates with me. I find comfort in the memories of my home during holidays, of the friends from various youth groups and Hebrew school and college classes, and of the incredible hospitality I've encountered in my travels.


You could look at painter Marc Chagall's reply when he was asked 'who is a Jew?'. He defined a Jew as anybody the world treated as one.

It's certainly one answer, even for those totally assimilated 'progressive' Jews on the Left who may one day find out exactly how Jewish their political allies see them as.

We are a religion and a nationality at the same time, the only group of people whom I can think of for which that can be said.

Why am I a Jew? Because it is part of whom I am. It is as natural to me as breathing.

To deny it would be an act of self-hatred. The simplest answer, of course, is that I am a Jew because Hashem made me one, and it was not an accident.

Embracing that in all its facets without apology or second thoughts is a fascinating experience, especially if you believe, as I do, that G-d has a special purpose and plan for the Jewish people.


Born Jewish. Went to Jewish school. Went to very non Jewish university. Didn't know how to be Jewish on my own. Dated non Jewish men. Parents rather angry. I didn't really get way, because we weren't strict in our Jewish practice, did the eating non Kosher thing when we were out and about and didn't keep Shabbat at all.

In fact Shabbat was spent shopping.

Anyway, eventually married non Jewish man. I had a bit of a life eye opener a couple of years back when, i nearly died. Emergency surgery and a couple of years of "finding myself" and i found myself back (sort of) where i started practicing my religion once more, only more strictly (and more seriously) than i had with my parents.

Why am i Jewish? Because after years of not behaving Jewishly, "being Jewish" is a better fit for me spiritually.


I was born to a Jewish mother. they tell me that that makes me Jewish. Recently this issue has been bothering a student I've been working with in school. It comes down to trust in the oral tradition, to the idea that the written Torah is shorthand.

I was once a witness for a friend before he got married in Jerusalem. A large, tough looking rabbi asked me if my friend was Jewish. i said yes. Then he surprised me by asking, "Eich atah yodeah?" My basic answer was "homina, homina, homina," but included some details like the fact that my friend went to day schools/yeshivot his whole life, his father was a rabbi, and (my favorite) everyone assumed he was Jewish. The big man bought it.

As far as I know I am Jewish. My understanding is that this can not easily be undone, and maybe it can't be undone even with great effort (G-d forbid). We are called G-d's children, and there's no divorce for children. The question asked was why am I Jewish, so I guess that answers that.

One could wonder why am I or my compatriots actively Jewish. What compels me to be a Jewy Jew? To me, that's a more interesting question than why I am technically Jewish and a much more difficult question to answer. I think so much in life that we present in life as ideology is actually largely sociology. Why we hold the opinions and beliefs that we do is very much about what we've experienced in life. Pursuant to that point I feel that I can never thank my parents enough for having sent me, from Kindergarten on, to Jewish Day Schools.

I could go on and on with this question, expanding it, branching it out into related question upon question: why am I Orthodox (and what does Orthodox mean?), why am I the kind of Orthodox Jew that I am (and what kind is that?), why am I a rabbi? , why do I teach Jewish Studies, what do I believe are the important actions, elements, beliefs of a Jew?, and on and on and on.

I'm going to close this answer up now. I'm not sure if it fits so much as I'd like it to, but I'll end with an analogy. In Gadi Pollack's Once Upon A Tale (translated by Devorah GoldshmiedtI the following moshol is presented in the introduction.

A man was staying with a close friend of his, in an inn, in a foreign land. He was dependent on his pal, because he did not know the language of the country they were visiting.

One day, during a rare moment our protagonist found himself alone in his room. The innkeeper stormed into the room and began shouting in a his language. The star of our story didn't understand a word.

The other gentleman started screaming more frantically, pointing at the clock on the wall, motioning to the door.

All the guest could think of was that he was about to be thrown out if he didn't pay up. he offered the owner money to no avail The scene replayed itself in a perpetual loop until the other guest returned.

He immediately understood that the proprietor was warning them that there was a fire at the other end of the hotel and that it could spread and that they'd best get outside right away.

A lesson from this story that we can glean is that often in life messages are being sent our way from G-d.

This I believe.

We sometimes misinterpret messages based on our own biases and lack of knowledge of the language of G-d. The messages I've been sent in my life, and continue to receive have made clear to me that a traditional Jewish life is the path of truth.


I was born Jewish, so evidently it is God's will that it be so. I bend to his will and do the best I can to keep the traditions alive and pass them down to my children and to my students. But had I been given a choice before birth, I would have chosen not to be Jewish. I think that life would be easier without all the burdens that Judaism places upon us.


I'm non religious. My Dad was raised in an orthodox orphanage in 20s/30s Berlin; my Mom was raised by her Christian mother and her assimilated Jewish father. Both converged in Palestine, though.

My Dad was lucky enough to have a teacher who was making Aliyah take my Dad with him. He ended up helping found a kibbutz in 1935. He also became a Marxist, abandoning his religion. He died a Reagan Democrat, with a respect for religion, but he never went back.

My Mom's assimilated Jewish father was profoundly affected by Herzl's Zionism. He made his first journey to Palestine in 1912, or so, along with such other Austro-Hungarian Zionists as Stefan Zweick.

He eventually moved the family to Tel Aviv in 1935, and my Mom, at 13, started school there.

My Mom had good religious training in the schools, but was never religious herself.

During WWII, my Dad was in the RAF; my Mom was in concentration camp in Indonesia (long story).

After the war, both were repatriated to Palestine, and both fought in the War of Independence. My Dad, for about 5 minutes, until a bigger fish came along, was the first Jewish commander of Jaffa since the Roman era; my mom was a draftsman for the Army.

I am, therefore, deeply connected to Israel.

When my parents came to America, they continued to be nonreligious. They didn't realize that it's one thing to be a non-religious Jew in a Jewish country, and a non-religious Jew in a Christian/secular country.

So religion isn't my Jewishness. And yet I still feel Jewish.My parents friends were, without exception, Jewish. My parents social reference points were, without exception, Jewish.

My Dad's jokes were, with few exceptions, Jewish. Our sense of empathy was tied to Jews -- those who died in the Holocaust and those who lived in Israel.

I know I'm Jewish and I make sure my kids know they're Jewish.


Oxmyx said...

Nice job, Jack! That was a lot of work on your part.

The Real Shliach said...

That's a really powerful post-make sure to send it in to this week's HH!

SuperRaizy said...

Very interesting post. This was a great idea.

Benji Lovitt said...

Nice post, Jack.

Jack said...


Thanks. I enjoyed working on this.


I'll try. But remember you can always grab submissions on your own.




It works because it is packed full of chumus.

rutimizrachi said...

Chumus??? Just to pander to Benji, you call us a bunch of squished beans???

A lot of variety there, Jack. Thank you for the toil. ("Effort" seems too mild.) A nice window into the collective home of this complex family.

shavuatov said...

Thank you for this post, Jack. I'm a firm believer in things happening for a reason and this is perfectly timed to coincide with one of my more introspective periods on the 'Why be Jewish?' question. As a person on her conversion path, some of the answers come easily and some are harder to justify to my logical mind! It is intriguing to read the very different approaches that born-Jews have to this question.

Toda raba!

FlyingBubbie said...

Wow. I can't breathe.

westbankmama said...

Great post Jack!

Lvnsm27 said...

These are very inspiring :)

Shtetl Fabulous said...

Thanks for including my own musings in this post. Great and comprehensive work!

Jack said...


Benji pays more than you do. ;)


You have some advantages over the rest of us as I am not convinced that many people have put much thought into this.


That is the problem with the air in chicago. ;)




I thought that there were pretty interesting.


Thanks for participating, couldn't have done it by myself.