The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
At my school I am one of the co presidents of our Jewish Student Union. At the onset of the year we had to meet with our student group advisor. Confused, she sat looking at the list of activities we had planned (Shabbat dinners, Hanukah and Purim parties, movie nights) and then looked at us perplexed and asked politely, “Now I have this conversation every year with the JSU. You guys are listed as a cultural clubâ€¦ is that right? Most of these activities seem like religious activities, would you like to be in the spiritualities cluster?” The question made us all skip a beat before scrambling (unsuccessfully) to explain that Judaism was complex in nature, and religion in the traditional sense (ie g-d, prayer, festivals) is woven into the cultural. She stared blankly. It was okay if she didn’t understand it, we told her, we ourselves don’t completely get it, and explaining it is pretty much out of the question. The Jewish Identity crisis, we said, was not about to be explained in that office.
This meeting, and the subsequent ones that are beginning to become routine (ie explaining to her why we always do events with Hillel, explaining that we need kosher catering on campus, explaining why Jews for Jesus coming to our meetings are a problem, etc.) have really pushed me hard to think in new ways. Never before had I had to actually come up with answers for the questions about my Jewish identity, and all the sudden I am expected to answer the question for our entire organization. A collective of Jews. oye. Moreover, in a place like Portland, where the Jewish community is very small one has to be aware of being tokenized. The assumption, wrong but understandable, is that the entire Jewish community has a similar stance on issues. I usually pull out the old “two Jews, three opinions” joke to try and reconcile this confusion. My explanation is often met with a blank stare and an awkward courtesy laugh.
While the trivial issues have been a headache, the issues that run far deeper have truly knocked the wind out of me more than a couple times this term. This was possibly best exemplified at our general membership meeting last week. A campus group, “Students for United Palestine” is putting on a play about Gaza. All over campus are posters yielding faces of scare Palestinian children, the moving borders of Israel and other emotion evoking images. The debate they brought to our meeting had resounding murmurs of this identity crisis, what was our response? What was the Jewish response? Our organization is a wide spectrum of opinions regarding these issues, and we were being asked to have a platform. I left that meeting feeling very powerless.
The cosmos must have known I had been struggling with this concept of Jewish identity in such a secular world and sent a special guest my way. Last week my school hosted author Charles London. In his book, Far from Zion, London leads us on his journey to find different Jewish communities around the world.
“In this spiritual ethnography, he reports on his yearlong journey to countries where Jewish people are thriving under challenging circumstances. Their struggles with multiple identities and cultural historiesâ€”and their ability to create meaningful Jewish livesâ€”inspired his personal spiritual development.”
In a noisy bar on campus we gathered around to hear his moving experiences in Arkansas, Uganda, and even Iran. What I found most significant about his story was that he never felt paralyzed by the lack of cohesion. He instead felt empowered by the diversity of practice, by the fact that all these people felt so committed to the Jewish story, they were willing to do whatever they could to maintain their identity. I highly recommend checking out this book. If you are like me at this moment, it may just help you in a way it helped me; instead of seeking answers, he reminds, we should be seeking better questions.
More information about the book, or London himself, can be found on the book’s website