Tag Archives: Identity

The Jewish National Pastime

By Aarian Marshall

Some people collect stamps, others baseball cards—Neil Keller collects famous Jews. He speaks quickly, with a slight lisp, and with his red polo and faded jean shorts, looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to a suburban Little League game, though it’s unclear whether he belongs with the throng of eager parents in the stands, or with the overexcited kids in the diamond. Before him is a tableful of binders, each nearly five inches thick. They are color-coded, their titles neatly typed and affixed to their fronts. And Neil Keller is grinning, in a way one rarely sees among men in their thirties.

His website boasts that Neil is the “Expert On Who Is Jewish,” and that his collection of Jewish memorabilia, which includes over 15,000 items, is one of the largest in the world. And that is what’s in those binders—pages and pages of sports trading cards, signed headshots, and personally addressed letters from thousands of celebrities, either confirming or denying their Jewish-ness.

“John Kerry is half-Jewish,” he told me. “His father changed his last name from ‘Cohen.’” So is Katie Couric—through her mother’s side. Blonde, buxom, blue-eyed Scarlett Johansson was raised celebrating the Festival of Lights. And Marilyn Monroe, that other blonde, converted to marry the playwright Arthur Miller. Most surprising? “Probably Elvis Presley. There’s a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone.”

Neil began his project on a whim. He was at a flea market in 1990 when he spotted a Sandy Koufax trading card. “I knew he was Jewish,” Neil said, “and that he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.” As the product of an Orthodox community (though not an Orthodox household), Neil respected that. “I read something about him, learned that his catcher was also Jewish,” he remembers. From sports, it moved onto entertainment, to politics.

With the advent of the Internet, Neil’s research has become a lot easier, but he spends a lot of time corresponding with celebrities themselves. He estimates that of all the celebrities he has written, 90-95 percent have written him back. Robert De Niro sent him an autographed headshot (not Jewish). Madonna reported that she had shared his website with her friends at the Kabbalah center. When Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew wrote Neil to tell him that no, he had not converted to Judaism (despite his taking to wearing a chai in photographs), Neil sent the information to Adam Sandler, whose popular Chanukah Song had included Carew in its run-down of Jewish people. Sandler wrote back to thank Neil, and subsequently changed the lyrics of the song.

Neil’s total investment in this hobby might seem strange, but considering his warm receptions at speaking engagements, it might not just be Neil: this obsession spans the Jewish community. Neil travels to camps and JCCs alike to give short talks, consisting of forty-five minutes of straight trivia. Perhaps short is an understatement—at one talk in Toronto, the audience kept Neil onstage for a full four hours. “People love to hear about this,” Neil says. “They love to know who is Jewish.”

He might have a point—something of a cottage industry has cropped up around the question of who, exactly, is Jewish. Sandler’s Chanukah Song aside, there’s Guess Who’s the Jew, a website that allows users to, well, guess who’s Jewish. The Chicago Tribune inexplicably maintains a website of celebrity Jews, as does Wikipedia. And the blog Stuff Jewish People Like, which occasionally updates a list of things that really get Jewish people going (Florida! All You Can Eat Buffets!), names Famous Jews as its number one.

Which raises the question: Why? Why are Jews so into knowing who is Jewish? For some, knowing whether a public figure is Jewish can become a strange, inexplicable need, the seed of a thousand Googlings. Maybe it’s because there’s something a little goofy about imagining that hot stud on the television chanting at his Bar Mitzvah, kippah slipping off his head. We do silly things for Judaism sometimes, but so do you, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Neil had as much trouble putting his finger on it as I did. “It’s…inherited,” he said. “We all want to know.” Heebz!, a group that maintains its own Famous Jews website, asserts that Jews are “at the center of every creative, scientific, cultural, political and philosophical endeavor,” and while that might be a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that there is this peculiar “Jewish Mystique.” Maybe it’s because being Jewish occasionally veers into the not-so-cool—the hair, the nose, the books—that famous Jews are so thrilling. Think we’re ugly? Take a look at Natalie Portman. Think we’re wimpy? Challenge Bruce Goldberg to a wrestling match.

Maybe there’s a bit Neil’s self-affirming, red-poloed exhilaration inside all of us. Neil wants to find me a picture of Elvis Presley’s mother’s grave, and his keyboard clacks furiously. “Oh!” he stops. “The creator of Google is Jewish!” And that, I decide, is kind of cool.

Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and now Kate Bornstein

By Bonnie Rosenbaum

My introduction to Jewish heroes can be traced back to one amazing Barbie doll.

It was 1986, I was in 7th grade, and my Sunday school class at Temple Sinai had started a unit on “Great Jews.” Carrie Horrowitz marched to the front of the classroom, launched the blond statuette into the air, and began her oral report: “Hannah Senesh was a brave woman who parachuted into Yugoslavia to save the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Barbie quickly crashed to the floor and my classmates and I tried to stifle our laughs. Thus began our lesson on Jewish heroes.

As a 12-year-old girl who spent her lunch hour playing football with the boys, Hannah defined awesomeness through her parachute alone. Only years later did I learn the full story of her life, her poetry, her defiance.

When it came time for my presentation, my friend and I staged an interview between a journalist and Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel and the world’s third female to hold this title. Another kick-ass woman who flaunted gender roles and came out ahead. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion even called her “the best man in his cabinet.” Golda soared to the top of my personal list of Jewish heroes. (I wish I could say that I played Golda, but I was too shy. Plus my friend’s father was a real Israeli, so I reasoned that she had a more legitimate claim to the star role.)

The other Great Jew who made a mark on my consciousness was Sandy Koufax, the award-winning pitcher for the Dodgers who refused to play the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Even then, I understood the public nature of his private decision and joined his legion of admirers.

Now, in June 2011 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Pride Month, I’m marveling at a new roster of Jewish heroes recognized by many and selected by our staff at Keshet to inspire a new generation of 7th graders. We took three LGBT Jewish changemakers who transformed our world—Harvey Milk, Kate Bornstein, and Lesléa Newman—and put their beautiful faces on bold, modern, 18×24 posters for the LGBT Jewish Heroes Poster series. We celebrate their amazing accomplishments and their dual identity as Jews and queer people. And being 2011, we also created a small website to showcase them.

I’m working up the courage to call the rabbi at my old synagogue to ask him to buy these posters for the Hebrew and Sunday school classrooms. Hang them up for the cool athlete who never mentions his uncle has a boyfriend, for the quiet girl who doesn’t feel right in her own body, and for their classmate who is worried what it will be like when both her moms are called to the bima for her bat mitzvah. Hang them up for the teacher who shows up to services with a handsome friend he calls his roommate. And hang them up because we know all too well the feeling of being outsiders, strangers, and a people who need visible role models.

Our deepest hope is that these LGBT Jews find their rightful place alongside Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and Sandy Koufax in classrooms, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, camps, Federations, Hillels, and Jewish organizations everywhere—as educational tools to spark conversation, dialogue, learning, and reflection.

And pride.

Bonnie Rosenbaum is the Deputy Director of Communications and Planning for Keshet

Jewish Ghosts of Budapest

By Merav Levkowitz

On the last evening of 2010, a Friday, about 35-40 (mostly) young adults, gathered in a non-descript apartment in the center of Budapest’s—actually on the Pest side of the Danube river—Jewish quarter. This is Budapest’s branch of Moishe House, an organization that maintains 33 houses around the world in which young Jews can gather for Shabbat, holidays, and activities. I spent the last Shabbat of the year at Budapest’s Moishe House, which had become my brother’s Jewish community during his semester abroad.

Hungary’s Jewish community has a unique, but tumultuous history. Jews have resided in the Austro-Hungarian empire and in Buda, Obuda, and Pest—the three towns that came together as Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in 1873—since medieval times. As in other European countries, Jews in the region experienced waves of safety and success interspersed with those of discrimination and expulsion. Following the Ottoman conquest of Buda, Jews were dispersed throughout central Hungary and the Balkans, where they lived in relative calm until the Habsburgs, the ruling royal family, imposed new restrictions during their late 17th century reign. In December 1867 Jews were granted full emancipation, and the period that followed was one of prosperity and assimilation of the Jewish community into Hungary. During this time, Hungary’s unique Neolog Jewish movement, which seeks middle-ground religiosity and is most like the American Conservative movement, gained popularity. The movement’s majestic and regal synagogue, the Dohany Street Great Synagogue—the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world—hosted major community events and still serves as the emblem and gatekeeper to the city’s famous Jewish quarter behind it.

Today Hungary is home to an estimated 100,000 Jews, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and Budapest houses over twenty synagogues and a hip, vibrant Jewish quarter that is familiar to all who live in the city and is actively advertised as a “Must See” in all travel guides. Yet, it also seems hidden and cloaked in mystery. Many of the Jews we met did not even know they were Jewish for most of their lives.

Both World War II and the subsequent communism eroded the Hungarian Jewish community and identity. While the discourse has long held that Hungarian Jews perished at the hands of the occupying Nazi German forces, the relatively new Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest ascribes distinct responsibility to the Hungarian state, arguing that beginning in 1938 the state undertook a process by which it deprived Jews and Roma, in particular, of their “rights, property, freedom, human dignity, and in the end, their very existence.” Budapest’s Jews were confined to the tragic conditions of the Jewish ghetto until their deportation was carried out. Indeed, the deportation of Hungarian Jews was the fastest and most extensive—437,402 Jews from Hungary deported within 56 days—and one-tenth of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were Hungarian.

After the Holocaust’s devastation, the subsequent communist regime turned the remaining Hungarian Jews away from the religion. Many Jewish families were active communists, but even those that were not kept Judaism under wraps. One family friend, now in her late 50s, told us that as a child, most of the families she knew, including her own, were atheists. Once she learned, as an adult, that her family was Jewish, she discovered that all her atheist childhood friends were also, in fact, originally Jewish. Another adult friend shared that as a child he had been told that his grandmother lived in England. He was surprised, when she came to visit, that she did not speak any English and was told that she lived in an area of England that was predominantly Hungarian. As an adult, he, too, learned that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had, in fact, been living in Tel Aviv. Hungarian Jews of all ages shared similar stories.
Today, Budapest’s Jews seem caught in a tug-of-war. On one hand, Jewish life and culture seems active, alive, and on the rise, especially among young adults. On the other hand, however, many Hungarians expressed fear about the current government, which has censored the press and includes a faction of members of the nationalist, anti-Semitic, far-right party Jobbik. Many Hungarian Jews I met espoused concern for a future and a desire to make aliyah, especially if the political climate continues as is. Indeed, even as I, a tourist, roamed the colorful and vibrant Jewish neighborhood and visited the impressive—but empty—Holocaust Memorial Center, I could not help but feel that the residual fears of the Holocaust and communism had settled over the city and that the Jewish community was, in fact, one of ghosts.

What’s In a Name?

By Gabriel Weinstein

For hundreds of years, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of strolling through Jerusalem’s supposed golden streets and celebrating the Sigd festival in its hills. By the late 1970’s, Ethiopians decided that dreaming of Israel no longer sufficed, and embarked on foot to the Promised Land. Scores of Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of reaching Israel through Operation Moses in 1984 after trekking through deserts, skirting Ethiopian border authorities and toiling in unsanitary Sudanese refugee camps. But Ethiopians never dreamed that in Israel, their utopia, they would abandon their Amharic names.

Journalist Ruth Mason explores how Ethiopian immigrants traded their Amharic names, and ultimately a sense of identity, for new Israeli-sounding Hebrew names in her documentary These Are My Names.  The film, which premiered last week at the Jewish Eye World Film Festival in Ashkelon, Israel, expresses the Ethiopian community’s frustration about changing names through interviews with Ethiopian immigrants who gave up their Amharic names. One such immigrant said, “We  were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past.  We were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’”  A woman interviewed in the film was given the name Tziona by her teacher, because she resembled her teacher’s friend. In a Jerusalem Post article, Mason explains Ethiopians’ names have special significance because “They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”

The importance of names to Ethiopian Jews exemplifies a universal aspect of Jewish culture. Beginning in the biblical era, individuals changed their names to correspond with elevated social status or the completion of a notable accomplishment.  The biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Joshua all received new names during their lives.  The Book of Samuel makes a distinct connection between an individual’s given name and their personality, proclaiming “Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25).

Several biblical figures’ names, such as Jacob, reflected their character traits or events in their lives. Jacob was named Ya’akov, meaning to usurp, because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel (ekev) during birth, and would later steal his birthright.  After a night of wrestling with God’s angel, Jacob became Yisrael, meaning struggle with God.

Ethiopian immigrants are not the first, nor will they be the last, group of Jews to change their names as an assimilation tactic.  During the Hellenist era, Jews forged new aliases by combining Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names. Napoleon made European Jews adopt formal last names, giving rise to common popular surnames like Rosenberg and Silverstein.  Jewish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries anglicized their first and last names to fit in.  In 1938, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews in Germany and Austria would be called Sarah or Israel. During the mass aliyahs (migrations) to Palestine, many olim, such as the writer Dan Ben-Amotz, discarded their European names for modern Hebrew names.

What distinguishes the Ethiopian name change phenomenon from its predecessors is its context: It occurred in the Jewish state, while the others occurred in countries where Jews were a marginalized minority.  Whereas Jews in previous eras eventually embraced their foreign aliases, These Are My Names depicts the Ethiopian community’s ambivalence over their name changes.

The assignment of new names to Ethiopians without their consultation or consent breaches the guarantee of citizens’ right to practice their respective linguistic, cultural and educational practices outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Jews perpetuated a cycle of forced identity change that for millennia was used to weaken Jewish identity.

If renaming Ethiopian Jews was intended to promote integration, it has hardly succeeded.  In 2003-04, the percentage of employed, working age Ethiopian men in Israel dropped to 45, down from 54 a decade before.  Most of the Ethiopian community work minimum wage jobs. In a survey of Ethiopians in eight Israeli cities, 45 percent of adults were illiterate.  These Are My Names highlights just one of the major challenges the Ethiopian community confronts in its integration into Israeli society.

 

Holocaust Not A Part of Young Diaspora Jews’ Identity, Survey Finds

By Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

96% linked family with their Jewish identity

96% linked family with their Jewish identity

JTA reported today that a 12 year survey, conducted among 60,000 Jews aged 15-17 in 20 countries outside Israel, indicates that few young diaspora Jews consider the Holocaust or anti-Semitism a part of their identity.

Only 21 percent of the youth indicated that they are Jewish in relation to the Holocaust. A series of other determining factors was more prominent in determining their Jewish identity, such as family, 96 percent; birth, 90 percent; religion, 72 percent; and culture, 67 percent.

Hmmm. Is this a bad thing? Seems like a an era without an ingrained focus on terror would constitute a positive era in Jewish history. Or does it just signal a new generation of naiveté?

What do you think? Do you consider the Holocaust a part of your Jewish identity? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo by Hindrik.

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