SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I was on a train from Paris to Antwerp. The only other occupant of the compartment was a man who was busy reading a book. So friendly me looked over at the book and realized it was Hebrew. I said, “Hebrew!” He looked up immediately and asked if I spoke the language to which I replied I could read it a little. He closed the book and we had a lovely conversation about where I was from, my background and why he was traveling to Antwerp. I had met an MOT – a member of the tribe.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suggests that we are family – more than a race, religion or ethnicity – a family. It has certainly felt that way whenever I have met other Jews while traveling. While this idea may seem new, consider that we are referred to in the Torah as Children of Israel, which refers to the fact that we are children of our patriarch Jacob who became Israel. So, indeed we are one big family, even those who have adopted that identity.
Most American Jews identify as cultural Jews; and when they think of culture, they think of food, Yiddish, holiday observances and certain values around education and social action. However, many of those aspects reflect Ashkenazi Jewish culture. A Sephardi does not think of bagels and chopped liver, or chicken soup and latkes as representing their Jewish culture.
However, the many cultural traits and behaviors that are shared by many Jews in the world allow us to feel more comfortable when first meeting them. Yet there are many Jews who do not share the same traditions and experiences. So what is it that makes a total stranger on a train look up from his reading at the mention of one word – Hebrew.
Well, that is why Rabbi Steinsaltz’s appellation of “family” is very appropriate to describe the connectedness between and among Jews. Have you seen the television commercial for DNA testing? They stress the joy in finding family members they never knew. But, like a family, members may have different points of view about everything from the best restaurant to Israel. How we communicate differences can determine the health of the family and its ability to accept and support each member.
And another way we resemble family: Consider how we react when the lists of Jewish Nobel Prize Winners, or notable legislators or artists are recited. We “kvell” – burst with pride – proud to call them “our own;” and how we cower with embarrassment and shame when “one of us” commits a crime or is revealed to be a fraud. That’s how we react to family members. But there is another side to this as well.
Often, we don’t want to see the not so positive characteristics or aspects of a family member. We seek to deny or excuse inappropriate or just plain bad or criminal behavior. After all, we feel it reflects on us and how we are perceived by the community at large – a community we may feel is not always ready to be there for us. So while we may support family members in their struggles, we must not close our eyes to acts that do not reflect our Jewish values. Remember the instruction about those values and commandments: “Take to heart these instructions, which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.