The Times poll of American Jews (Part I, April 12-13) offers a remarkable window into our collective psyche. Although the apparent goal was to assess the positions of American Jewry vis-a-vis the volatile Middle East situation, it also revealed a basic truth about Jews:
We are a complex people.
The poll respondents overwhelmingly asserted that being Jewish is important in their lives, yet only a small percentage are affiliated in any way with religious or organization Judaism. They care about Israel, are concerned about the conflict in the Middle East, but they don't find Israel central to their concept of being Jewish. With memories of the Holocaust still fresh in mind, they are ever sensitive to anti-Semitism, yet they feel accepted in American society.
So, what is a Jew?
One respondent said, "I am Jewish. I feel it." That emotional connection--intangible, yet deeply felt--is a clue to what makes a Jew.
There are other commonalities that may help articulate the nature of being Jewish in America. Some of these are:
* The sense of being a living link in an unbroken chain of history, of belonging to a people who have survived and thrived through thousands of years and through sometimes insurmountable odds.
* The tradition of study and pursuit of knowledge which began with the ancient sages of Jerusalem and continues through centuries of interpretation and questioning. We have a strong affinity for education.
* The Jewish value system and attendant code of behavior deriving from its religious faith which emphasizes a respect for human dignity and a concern for social justice. As a people who have long been a minority in majority cultures, we empathize with those who seek freedom and equality.
What is a Jew?
As The Times noted, we are a "melange of conflicting emotions, political goals, religious attitudes, and ethical views." While there are some ineffable commonalities, we are a people, composed of individuals, who share a profound history.
We are, like any other religious, ethnic, or cultural group, not easily reduced to common denominators. Though we can all learn much about ourselves through surveys, no pollster, demographer, political or religious leader can ultimately define who we are. That is a job for each of us who wants to forge another link in the chain of Jewish history.
University of Judaism