And so, it seems that we struggle with Jewish identity. Like — who is a Jew? “Vos macht a yid”….what makes a Jew? And once you are a Jew….are you really anything else?
It used to be that Jews greeted each other with this phrase: Vos Macht a Yid? –another way of saying “hey, how’s it going?”. Or…the Jew is Me is Greeting the Jew in You.
This evening we explored Jewish Identity as Essential/Ontological. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a, R. Abba ben Zabda says: Even though [the people] have sinned, they are still [called] Israel. R. Abba said: Thus people say, a myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle, and so it is called.
This of course provides many conversations…that a Myrtle which wishes to be a Reed — wants to secularize into the Reed Community, will always be seen as a Myrtle by the other Reeds. (think “Ugly Duckling” story) No matter how much we polish our Reed-ness, we still look and act like a Myrtle to the other Reeds — and also to the other Myrtles. We cannot change our basic essence — and as is written in the Sanhedrin above, Judaism/Jewishness is part of our Essence.
You can take on Buddhism — and you are a Jewish Buddhist — a JewBu. You accept Jesus as the Mashiach and you are called a Jew for Jesus. The Jew In You cannot be extricated from your being. Even if you are exiled, you are The Jew in Exile.
Daniel Boyarin, a UC Berkeley talmudist. in his book “A Radical Jew” (University of California Press, 1994) has written “Jews in general feel not that Jewishness is something they have freely chosen but rather that it is an essence — an essence often nearly empty of any content other than itself — which has been ascribed — sometimes even imposed — on them by birth.”
This falls under the category of the UnNameable, the Unknowable, Shakespeare’s Hamlet saying “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.
But as Jews I think we are accustomed to the idea that something is just beyond our reach, just beyond our touch, beyond our understanding…and perhaps that Divine UnKnowable spark within makes us a Jew.
Or as I have written previously HERE: “And when we know this part of ourselves, our Divine spark, the for us, every bush, every bush is a burning one.”
So, Vos Macht a Yid? Is it that UnKnowable Essence? Is it kindness and awareness of social injustice and connection and risk-taking? Well, many think that in the world of art, that may be the Jewish calling card — if there is such a thing.
Robert Frank, a 1950’s photographer from Switzerland, came to this country and began to take a series of photographs, grainy in quality, with his Leica camera. Here are a few examples of his work…you can feel, in the pieces, the social commentary, the feeling. The pieces are evocative, provocative…and all at once gentle. In this group of photos…there are many commentaries which can be described on who is inside and who is outside…socially, spatially and emotionally in the photographs.
Take a look below!
And, as a final note, Lenny Bruce on who and what is Jewish and who and what is Goyish.