Friday, January 10, 1997

Of Clan and Country: The Tightrope of Identity

Of Clan and Country:
The Tightrope of Identity

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed Erie, Pennsylvania

I remember, last year, wondering about weighty issues as I packed my bags for a convention in California wondering if,  perhaps, the plane would carry me over the skies of Sacramento.  If so, would I look down, and try to see the streets, and wonder again what stirs the soul to hate?

For Sacramento was, at the time, the scene of a series of attacks by white supremacists on any one who is different. The targets have varied, from a synagogue to an NAACP office to the home of a city councilman - an American born politician with Asian ancestry.

As I write these words, in Libya the fascist hate-monger Farrakhan smiles his poisonous sweet smile. In New York the so-called comedian Jackie Mason telling shvartze jokes at every opportunity. (Make no mistake about it - the term is not merely descriptive. It is divisive. It is more often said with a sneer than not. And it is as insidious as any of the names we have been called. In army barracks of the Special Forces, African American soldiers find swastikas on their lockers.

And last year in a lonely field on the outskirts of Sarajevo, in the days just before a brokered peace came to piece together broken lives, a teenage couple lay holding each other in a final cold embrace, he a Serb, she a Muslim, shot by snipers as they tried to escape to find a place where they could be all they felt themselves to be, where they could look into each other’s eyes and see each other, Bosko and Admira, not just Serb and Muslim.

We look around the world and wonder: why such fractiousness? Why such division? Why do we fall so easily into thinking that a member of any group - racial or national or ethnic or gender - can be assumed to have traits and characteristics and capabilities based only on being a part of that group? We are saddened by Sarajevo, frightened by the forces unleashed in the former Soviet Union, appalled at the results of nationalism unleashed in all its fury.

And yet, and yet...we are also Zionists. We are also active members of our own group. We point with pride to Jewish accomplishments; we cringe in shame at Jewish scandal, as if somehow the actions of others are indeed bound up with our own lives. The very same negative groupthink we apply to others... we see as positive in ourselves. And... in some ways... this is a natural thing to do. Within limits.

I share in the foundational story of Genesis, the ur-myth of our origin as human beings that says that we are all made, Jew and gentile, man and woman, gay and straight, black and white and yellow and brown, each one of us shaped by the hand and made in the image of the Holy One of Being. As human beings we thus share far more than that which divides us.

And as for how to handle the concept of branch of Judaism (the Reconstructionist) simply jettison the idea altogether. I prefer the words in one modern prayer book: "Oh God, you respond to every people in Your chosen way. With your love, you have chosen to respond to us..." through the gift of Torah. Not just the words on a page the lived experience of covenant.

What makes us different, as Jews? We are a people forged by the flame of faith, led in our liberation from bondage by a Divine Midwife through the birth canal of broken waters, joined by our common journey, bound together forever as we stood in the shadow of Sinai.

It was dark in the middle of the day, it was chilly in the middle of the desert. Lightning pierced the darkness and thunder rolled from the mountain top with such insistence that the ground itself trembled and shook, but there was no rain. A single voice rose above the din, calling out, and rams horns blared in response to each call.