A Case of Identities — Necessary Stories column, Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

All year I work hard to reinforce my Jewish-Zionist-Israeli conception of myself and to instill it in my children. I talk to them about the importance of serving their country, by serving in the army or by going to college in Sderot; about how we must preserve our heritage and traditions. And about why you need to know who you are as an Israeli and a Jew.

And then family and friends send their kids to Israel for the summer on Birthright and other youth group trips and the boundaries fade and the walls of identity tumble. My niece from Atlanta came with a program from the Reform movement. My best friend from high school’s daughter came with a National Conference of Synagogue Youth (Orthodox) group, in which almost no one was observant. And then my wife’s nephew, Alexander Levy, who’s not even Jewish, arrived for a visit.

Alexander is a dark-haired, fine-featured, 19-year old French rugby player and aspiring entrepreneur. He wears a Star of David pendant, has a great-uncle who is a Shas teshuva (return to religion) preacher, and is the son of Momi, a Yom Kippur War tank commander. His mother is Veronique, nominally Catholic, born in a small town in southeastern France to not particularly church-minded parents.

Along with his sister and his father (Veronique was kept at home by her job), Alexander spent the weekend at our apartment. He hung out with my younger son and his friends, kicked a soccer ball around, slept a lot.

On previous visits, I’ve itched to talk to Alexander about what it means to him that he has family like us in Israel . . . [Read the rest on the Jerusalem Report website–come back here to comment!]

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5 thoughts on “A Case of Identities — Necessary Stories column, Jerusalem Report”

  1. Haim, I always find it the idea of human ‘identity’ pretty fascinating, as well as the why some identities are or are not considered mutually exclusive. Maybe your nephew is a still a ‘little Jewish’ even if he doesn’t go around calling himself a Jew. I think for a lot of Jews, being Jewish isn’t an either/or kind of question, but rather has these sort of vague and indistinct boundaries that defy categorization that is neat, unambiguous and easy to verbally express.

    However, I do commend him for having what I would call a more advanced and sophisticated sense of self that I wish more people in the world shared.

  2. As mentioned before, my sister converted to Judaism, my brother-in-law is Jewish. Their 3 children consider themselves Jewish. As far as I know, none of them practice the articles of the faith. I think that because my sister is their mother, a convert, many Jews would not accept them as Jewish. All of them have visited Israel with Birthright. The eldest breathes fire in defense of Israel. The others less so.

    Though I have never interviewed them as you did Alexander, I suspect they have taken to Judaism because it is a distinction. I’d be the first to admit that “my” side of their heritage doesn’t offer them such. If they were to ask me to give them a clear definition of my heritage, I couldn’t even identify anybody beyond two of my grandparents and even they were gone before I was ten years old. Where did “my people” come from? Again, beyond my parents I really don’t know…the Old South in the 19th century probably and then somewhere in Europe.

    If they asked me what I use as a guide in life, I’d tell them that they are their own persons, free to choose what they want to be. The common way is to continue with what you have been given by your upbringing, but no tradition has a lock on the truth and most traditions have many features that have little or no relevance to modern life yet are followed automatically.

    Take as you see fit from whatever you encounter and live the resulting life such that the result of your choice will be seen by all just as you can see the results of theirs.

    The most powerful influences in my life have been those of my father and a former boss (yes, a boss, incredible as it seems!).

    My father, born in 1898, was a liberal Protestant, a biblical scholar who went so far as to travel to Germany to get a degree from the University of Marburg after WWI. He had an admirable character but, though I was raised in the church, I never saw theology as anything but fantasy.

    My former boss was not religious in any way yet he was such an admirable humanitarian that I constantly observed his actions in relation to others and talked to him continually about life and human behavior. He was the wisest man I’ve ever known yet never said a word about religion because he (and I) considered it irrelevant to a good life and being a good person. So it remains.

    Religion to me is dangerous because of the absolutism to which it is prone. Let wisdom be taken and the theology left behind. Buddhism has a particular appeal to me because the things the Buddha said are independent of eschatology, addressing how to live a life as it is. Yet, even with Buddhism, a thick layer of what I consider irrelevant religious practice has almost buried it. The Buddha would no more recognize Buddhism than Jesus would recognize Christianity. I never could read the headline “Christian Forces Launch Attack in Beirut” without a reflective pause.

    As for Jesus, he had some good things to say. It doesn’t matter that it was Jesus, maybe it wasn’t. It’s the good things, the practical ideas for living that should be taken and they would be equally applicable and of equal weight to me if said by my neighbor.

    As for “let us tell you what was done to us” there isn’t a group of people in the world that can’t go on at length on that topic. I’m more interested in what are you as an individual doing now?

    On this blog we have two individuals who are doing their best to answer that question and that’s why I’m here, because I admire that and hope to learn from it.

  3. Thomas Hilborn arrived in the American colonies specifically in New Jersey with a certain number of other English non-conformists called Quakers in 1657 who immediately made themselves heard because of their abolitionists and pacifistic ideas.They were rather unpopular with the majority for most of the next two centuries , many of the Hilborns .anglo-saxons all, ended up in St.Thomas Ontario at the end of the “underground railroad” making life bearable for escaping slaves.

    Now my grandfather immigrated back into the US via Detroit and married another anglo-saxon and my father married into another anglo-saxon family but I broke the mold .I married a girl whose paternal grandfather was a Jew from Minsk and a paternal grandmother who was a German protestant and a maternal grandfather from Parma,Italy and a maternal grandmother from Ireland,both Catholics.My children have stirred the pot more by marrying women who are of Jewish/ Phillipino hertitage and mainland Chinese. We have yet to get Islam in the mix but there are two to go. No one but my wife and I have any religious affililiation and we could be considered liberal Methodists. As you can see there is no place in our life for ethnocentrism but their is a history of humanitarian causes which I teach my grandchildren as part of their family history

  4. Cliff, your post reminds me of that great encounter in “Casablanca”.

    Major Strasser: What nationality are you?

    Rick: I’m a drunkard.

    Captain Renault: That makes rick a citizen of the world.

  5. Haim – I always enjoy your blog even when I may disagree. It’s an excellent advertisement for Israel.
    I too habe a complex identity. I am born of two Jewish parents and had a bris. But my mother was intensely secular and Anglicised (though with a clear sense of Jewish identity) and I did not have a Barmitzvah. I have remained totally secular, though certainly not anti-religious in the Dawkins mould. I always had a Jewish and “soft” Zionist identity but fell automatically into the broad peacenik camp. The kind of ill-informed and outrightly malicious anti-Israel material in the South African media together with much more intensive reading on Jewish-Israeli history and affairs (plus reading in a host of related fields) has converted me into a much more conservative/realist position. On some matter I veer left, but in international politics, especially involving Israel, I would place myself as centre-right. I write to the media when not blocked by editorial censorship and have a blog, Solar Plexus – see URL above.

    I would like to keep in touch and I advertise your blog on my site. Possibly that could be reciprocated.


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