When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, my professional goals hovered somewhere around journalist or public servant. I spent a semester writing at the Daily Cardinal, another semester serving as a student senator, and two years working in the State Capitol for then Wisconsin State Senator Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge. Adelman’s family ran Milwaukee’s most successful dry-cleaning business, and by the time I was a kid, Adelman Dry Cleaning stores were all over Milwaukee and the Adelman name was synonymous with Jewish and broader communal philanthropic endeavors. Lynn Adelman sat across the aisle from Russell Feingold, a Rhodes Scholar and future United States Senator whose sister Deena Feingold had the distinction of being the state’s first female rabbi.
It was thrilling to learn at their feet and watch the way they wrote, spoke, cajoled and campaigned for trying to do the right thing. As a young searching Jew at the time, I was also interested in their Jewish roots, their motivations for why they did what they did and if something about their Jewishness compelled them in the late 20th century to choose public service over Jewish communal service. My own great-grandfather came to Milwaukee from Minsk and supported his family by purveying a junk business into a burlap bag factory. In the Jewish ghetto of Milwaukee he founded a Jewish orphanage, was president of his Orthodox synagogue, and raised funds for the Zionist project in British Mandate Palestine “from the largest number of the poorest residents” of his area of the city, according to obituaries that appeared when he died.
But this lion of the Jewish community in fin de siecle Milwaukee had sons who became doctors and a daughter who married a doctor. His grandchildren went into business. And as I looked across the landscape of my own friendships in high school and college, while my world was mostly Jewish, very few of my friends had any interest in Jewish service per se. They were doing, to a large extent, what American Jewish communities had meant for them to do: go to Hebrew school; celebrate B’nai Mitzvah; get into the best college they could, followed by a successful career; and be the best American citizens they could be.
For better or worse, therefore, what arguably defined what it meant to be a Jew in America was support for Israel and a commitment to remember the Holocaust by fighting anti-Semitism wherever it reared its head on the social and political landscape. By the 1980s, synagogue affiliation was already waning as a principal marker of Jewishness. Assimilation and the “threat” of intermarriage became the critical priorities of American Jewish leadership. A friend’s mother even went so far as to tell me at one point that intermarriage was “another Holocaust.” How fun to explain to her that though my mother wasn’t born Jewish, I was thinking of becoming a rabbi!
In an odd way, what began to define Jewishness was a kind of negative valence of identity. “We have to stick together because we are under threats both internal and external,” was a mantra of sorts and for many of my and subsequent generations, this was not really a very compelling message. Something felt wrong. There was a distinct misalignment of my understanding of history and the choices people were making about being Jews. And while it is true that choice, debate, argument and the celebration of difference is essential to Jewish civilization’s ongoing development, that ought not to make being Jewish a negative experience. Why be defined by the negative, by conflict, by threats or oppression when the greater canvas of what it means to be a Jew is a palette of colors, shades and hues that are both the work of art itself and an unlimited reflection as seen in the eyes of each who behold it?
The Hillel director at Wisconsin was Dr. Irving Saposnik. A scholar of English literature by training, Irv was also a Yiddishist, a student of the American songbook, a great teacher, and a mensch. We studied Torah every week, one-on-one, for two years. And at this time of year, every year, when the Jewish people in their weekly readings transition from Genesis, the foundation narratives of Jewish beginnings, to Exodus, the arch narrative of our servitude and redemption, I remember what Irv taught me one Friday afternoon in his study.
In Exodus we are introduced to two theories of the Jewish People, he said. In the first, Pharaoh sees his Jews as a threat to Egypt. “Behold the people of the children of Israel are too many for us and too mighty for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and it come to pass that in the event of war they join with our enemies.” The Jew as the Other, the Stranger, the Enemy Within. Pharaoh’s word choice of “people,” is in fact the first such time in the Bible that the Jews are referred to as a people. I was stunned when Irv pointed this out. “What defines us as a People, as a Nation, is our Otherness,” Irv said, leaning forward for emphasis. “Here, at this stage, we don’t define ourselves but others declare who and what we are.”
Who among us hasn’t felt the raw dissonance of that pernicious sentiment these past few years with anti-Semitism on the rise, bearing witness to violence against Jews merely for our Jewishness, our Otherness, our “threat” to the status quo.
“But,” Irv said, “There is a second definition of Jewish Peoplehood that emerges in the Exodus story as well and it is inextricably bound to the notion of what it means to be a ‘chosen’ and ‘choosing’ people.” Standing at Mount Sinai after our liberation from slavery, Moses the messenger of God implores the people to accept the Torah, to follow its commandments, to live lives of goodness, kindness, compassion and justice as an expression of our “servitude” to an idea greater than the borders of nation or race or ethnicity or gender. In effect, to define ourselves through the construct of what it means to build rather than tear down; what it means to make peace rather than make war; what it means to love rather than hate.
This was the decisive moment for me. I realized then that my writing and my public service would be for the Jewish people. I was fascinated by the need to find a new language for what it meant to be Jewish in the 21st century and as is often the case, the language might seem new to its practitioners but its foundational values would be eternal. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Be kind to the stranger, the widow and the orphan.” “Justice, Justice thou shalt pursue.” “Do not steal.” “Do not kill.” “Revere your parents.” “Keep Shabbat.”
In Jewish civilization, the chain of tradition invites us not to merely ape our ancestors’ Jewishness but to make, in every generation, a Jewish community responsive to the complexities and demands of life in our age. From ancient Jerusalem in 1000 BCE to Babylonia and Persia in the 6th century BCE; from Roman conquest in 70 CE to the Spanish expulsion in 1492; and from Spinoza in Amsterdam to the first Jews who came to America in 1629, the Jewish people are ever-evolving and yet always deeply rooted in the words, values and ethics of our tradition that both animate and are reanimated by our very existence.
We are shareholders in the enterprise of what it means to be a Jew, more so than we are dues-paying members of the community. There is no dividend to be paid for our investment of time and philanthropy in the Jewish people greater than the privilege to touch eternity.
As a matter of personal interest, it reminds me of what it means to be a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers. I own one share and when someone asked me recently what it pays, my reply was “In truth, I get to own part of a great legacy that is in fact owned equally by all of us.” And that’s good enough for me as a fan. As a Jew, the dividends are in seeing my own children make their own Jewish choices, in watching them reify Jewish values and identity for their generation and, with hope and strength, continuing the chain of tradition for generations to come.