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December 14, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

On being Jewish in America

By RABBI HOWARD SIEGEL Congregation Kol Ami, Tampa

As an officer in the US Navy, I was warned never to engage in discussions about “politics, sex, or religion.” Politics were all about debate and disagreement, while the military was meant to be a united force. Discussions of sex were not befitting an officer, and discussion of religion may appear threatening or coercive to others. So, we talked about the only things we could talk about in a secular setting – mother, hot apple pie and Chevrolet.

America is a strange and wonderful place. As Jews, never have we lived as free and open as we do in America. The growing number of interfaith marriages is more a tribute to our acceptance into American society than our failure to pass on traditions. The “good old days” weren’t so good. The intermarriage rate during the late ’40s and early ’50s was only 8 percent, but there were very few Jewish day schools, no professional cadre of Jewish educators, a small scattering of Zionist youth groups, and only a handful of Jewish summer camps. Today, almost every good college or university has a program in Jewish studies and every denomination has day schools, youth programs and Jewish summer camp experiences, not to mention trips to Israel. So, where’s the problem? Our success at being accepted into every aspect of American society has become the source of our failings.

Can we be both Jewish and American at the same time? The answer? A resounding “Yes.” The late Louis Brandeis, Associate Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, said, “we must learn to be better Americans by first learning to be better Jews.” America desperately needs us to contribute not simply as Americans, but as Jews.

The separation betweenchurch & state” has been an important protection for all religious minorities. It has also contributed to the secularization of American society. America teaches us to treat reverence irreverently. Memorial Day, commemorating those who gave their lives to defend this country, is more often associated with the Indianapolis 500 car race. The 4th of July, celebrating America’s independence, is less about the historical struggle against colonialism and more about shooting off fireworks. Christmas is a national indicator of the health of our economy and President’s Day weekend is a midwinter opportunity to take time off (are we celebrating all past Presidents or just a few? Who knows? Unfortunately, who cares?)

American culture is reflected in how one looks and how one smells. This profound observation was made by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (two good Jewish boys) in their famous 2,000 Year Old Man recording. Brooks noted, “everybody smells like a strawberry!” The obsession with working out and staying fit is as much about good health as it is maintaining good looks. America is about being young. If you can’t be young, look young. If you can’t look young, get a car that makes you feel young. Whatever you do, don’t get old, and always seek the proper scent. If you can’t be Michael Jordan, at least smell like him. America – ya gotta love her!

Enter the Jew. Jewish values teach that the wealthy person is he/she who has come to terms with who they are and who they are not. Jewish tradition introduces compassion, care and concern not as good deeds that are nice to do, but as mitzvot (obligations); required actions.

A colleague, Rabbi Bruce Diamond, observed that Jewish tradition even has its “Valentine’s Day.” He writes “It is a supremely erotic festival, a time when men and women are encouraged to stay home and enjoy each other. It is a time of music and delicacies, a time of lazy afternoon naps and romantic spring and summertime walking hand-in-hand, when Scheherazade-like ancient oriental love poetry is chanted, so that each man might sense himself a Sultan in his own home, and each woman a Queen of Sheba. It is a time of Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyatic jug of wine, loaf of bread and thou. … Of course, it’s the Shabbat properly celebrated that dances circles around Valentine’s Day’s paltry cards and cellophaned candy!

Judaism is about discovering fulfillment through moral and ethical living. No day is without holiness, no moment is lacking in the sacred. The American Jew’s responsibility is to invest this meaning into the activities and celebrations of daily life.

It’s all right to sip from the pleasures of America. The holy compliments the secular. Be wary, though, of becoming intoxicated; of mistaking the secular for the holy.

As a Jew and an American, we do have something to say about “politics, sex, and religion” and we live within an open society willing to listen. Our challenge is to speak up and act out. … as a Jew.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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