Recently a curious friend asked me what does it mean to be Jewish?
My answer, being Jewish means that I reserve the right to be funny whenever I want to be, that humor is the way by which we process pain, that life is about the truth you embrace and the underdogs you champion, that an egg cream is better than a Coke, that irony is more interesting than certainty, that as long as one is oppressed none are free, that it is my right to say blueberry bagels are an aberration, that there are people who think they know what a Jew is even though I don’t, that my parents, grandparents, and probably great grandparents were Jewish even though they were not religious, that Fiddler on the Roof is more meaningful to me than Oklahoma…
It’s a hard question and I might think about it some more. I wasn’t raised to be religious but I was raised to think about things and care about art.
Bob Dylan was asked years ago what he meant by “The answer is blowing in the wind.” He said, “The answer is blowing in the wind.”
I am only one person. There are about thirteen million other Jews so I suppose you will have to ask them what it means. My daughter had a Jesuit priest professor who asked her about her religion. She said “My mother is a Catholic and my father is a laxed (she meant lapsed) Jew.” When I heard that I was amused. I told her I am not a laxed or lapsed anything, that unlike Catholics we don’t have a central authority proscribing what we have to do to be a Jew. I am as much a Jew as any orthodox Hasid but what makes me a Jew are the things I wrote above.
Mr. Hitler, when he was busy eradicating us, defined you as a Jew if your mother was a Jew. It was drop your pants, check for circumcision, then off to the ovens. He didn’t allow any self-identification. So, where does that leave this?
Yes, my Semitic ancestry is part of my Judaism, so though my claim is blood bound, racial purity is always suspect- the world has always had short fences. And perhaps someone who faithfully adheres to the Talmudic decrees (600-700 of them) might sincerely believe they are the real Jew and I am not because I pick and choose. But I don’t spend too much time working on that debate.
In religious matters my my brain defers to my heart, the more honest of the two centers of human existence. As for blueberry bagels, you’ll have to get that bit in person when I can be funny about it.
Below is Lenny Bruce’s comedy bit on “Jewish and Goyish.” It is a big part of how I grasp my Jewishness. I used to carry it in my wallet alongside poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting” which I’m including a link to as well because it is my favorite poem, ever! http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171598 even if it has nothing to do with being Jewish.
Here it is: Jewish and Goyish, by Lenny Bruce
Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish.
If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.
Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish.
Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish.
Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh are celebrating Christmas with Major Thomas Moreland, USAF (ret.), while Mr. and Mrs. Bromberg observed Hanukkah with Goldie and Arthur Schindler from Kiamesha, New York.