Questions and Stories

27 March

Questions and Stories

By Daniel Reiser, Shaaray Tefila Rabbinical Student

Originally posted on Daniel’s personal blog, The Great Schnoz

Passover is coming. One week from tonight, Jews around the world with gather around their dining room tables, dorm rooms, and apartments to celebrate “a night that is different from all other nights.” It will be a night of teaching and learning. A night of singing and eating. A night of questions and stories.

This week of the Teen Exchange has also been a week of questions and stories. We have heard our American and Israeli teens, as well as leaders and members of both of our communities asking big questions about what it means to be a global Jewish people. These questions are not simple. You might say that this week—as on Passover—we’ve asked the Four Questions of the global Jewish people. Among the many tough questions we’ve asked are the following:

Israelis have asked Americans:

  1. Why not make aliyah?
  2. Do you think that it’s important for Jews to marry other Jews?

And Americans have asked Israelis:

  1. What role should religion play in the governing of a Jewish state?
  2. What’s the balance between making Israel a state for the Jewish people and a state for all its citizens?

These Four Questions of the global Jewish people have no easy solutions. There actually may not be a definitive answer to any of them. But as on the night of the seder, the Four Questions of the global Jewish people are asked not so that they may be answered, but rather, so that we may have the opportunity to tell a stories. Let’s listen to a few of our stories now.

One of the primary stories of American Jewish life is the story of being a community of immigrants. This is the story—for some—of Ellis Island, of the Statue of Liberty, of the Lower East Side, of Tin Pan Alley. It is the story of Ruth Fuchs-Hallett, who, after sharing her family’s story with our group this morning, accompanied us on our trip to Liberty and Ellis Islands. It is the story of my great-grandfather, Jessoula Cohen, taking the risk of leaving his home of Ioannina, Greece, so that his children, and his children’s children might have a better life. When I ride the F-Train into Manhattan from my home in Brooklyn, and, for a split second, when the train goes above ground, I see “the lamp, lifted beside the golden door,” I know that Jessoula’s story is a part of my story—that even four or more generations removed from that trans-Atlantic journey, we are still a community of immigrants.

And yet, our immigrant memories are fading. Were it not for my occasional glimpse of the Statue, it would be easy for me to forget that there were ever a time that my family lived not in Brooklyn, but in Greece. In his landmark book, The Jews in America, Arthur Hertzberg writes: “American Jews successfully solved the problem of being a community of immigrants, but with this success came a new problem—the problem of holding onto their traditions while erasing any appearance of being an other.” We need look no further than the collective hand-wringing that ensues in Jewish communal life whenever someone mentions—as if it were the boogie man—the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish life, indicated declining levels of involvement and identification among American Jews. As our immigrant story has begun to fade, we are still in search of a new story that might help tell us who we are. Put differently, we have yet to respond to the Four Questions of the global Jewish people.

Let’s consider now the story of Israeli Jewry. The founding story of Israel is the Zionism of David Ben-Gurion—of making the desert bloom, of kibbutzim, of pioneering, of being Ehad Ha-Am, one person who contributes to the collective of the People. This is the story of the “start-up nation,” where an entrepreneurial spirit is somehow wired into the soul of the people. This is the story of the revival of the Hebrew language, where the word for electricity—chashmal—is derived from the word in the Hebrew Bible used to describe an otherworldly fire in the prophet Ezekiel’s psychedelic vision. This is the story of a people returning to its ancient homeland, united by its common yearning to be restored unto the tides of history.

And yet, this story of common yearning is fading. The stress of nearly a century of sustained security threats, plus the ever-present need to assimilate new rounds of Jewish refugees from all parts of the globe, have weighed heavily on the Israelis’ shared yearning. Many commentators point out that in the modern Israeli society, as in ancient kingdom of Israel, there may be Twelve or more Tribes: the tribe of the settler movement, the tribe of the peaceniks, the tribe of ashkenazim, the tribe of mizrachim, the tribe of the ultra-Orthodox, the tribe of the ultra-secular, just to name a few. In his landmark book, My Promised Land, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit writes: “these tribes all have one thing in common—that each one wants something different.” Some commentators wondered if this most recent election might not signal the beginnings of a new Israeli narrative—one based on the shared need of the large middle class to address Israel’s impossibly high cost of living. Election results seem to indicate that at least when it comes to the voting booth, the story of living under a constant security threat remains a dominant story in Israeli life. As the story of a common unity has begun to fade, Israeli Jewry is still is search of a new story—beyond the security threat—that might help define them. Put differently, they haven’t yet responded to the Four Questions of the global Jewish people.

With both the American-Jewish story and the Israeli-Jewish story facing some difficult questions, it seems that now might be a good time to look for a story that might give us hope. And this is where we return to the hagaddah. This is where we return to the story of Passover.

Our story as it’s told in the Haggadah begins with a peculiar phrase: arami oveid avi. It isn’t exactly clear what this line means. It might mean: “my father was a wandering Aramean”—in which case it is a story about Abraham, a story about transience, the story of being an immigrant. Or it might mean: “an Aramean tried to destroy my father”—in which case, it is a story about Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban—how Laban made Jacob serve him for 20-something years for his love. If it is a story about Jacob, then it is a story about the very real threats that exist in the world, the precariousness of all of life, the forces that would threaten many innocents, in particular, the Jewish people.

One story. Two different meanings. Neither one is wholly the truth. And neither one is complete without the other.

When it seems that we have difficultly answering the Four Questions of the global Jewish people—when it seems that the story of American Jewish life and Israel Jewish life are slipping out from under us, it may be not because we are trying our hardest to tell a new story, but rather because we’re looking at the story all wrong. That each community has only half of the story—that a fuller picture of what it means to belong to the global Jewish people is only possible when we see both stories together.

The Four Questions in the haggadah aren’t actually four questions at all, but rather, one question followed by four statements. And that one question we all know very well: mah nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot? So I now ask all of us who are here tonight—Americans and Israels, members of the global Jewish family, celebrating Shabbat together: Why is this night different from all nights?