Fearing to be ‘too Jewish’

The freedoms America provided were unique; historically Jews were considered second or third class citizens – if citizens at all.

Orthodox Jews sing and dance during the 13th Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of studying texts from the Talmud, the canon of Jewish religious law, at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S., January 1, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)
Orthodox Jews sing and dance during the 13th Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of studying texts from the Talmud, the canon of Jewish religious law, at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S., January 1, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)
Years ago, I visited an immigrant-built, century-old beautiful synagogue in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. The most striking feature was the large wooden American eagle, with its wings extended, astride the Torah ark (in Hebrew: aron kodesh). The message that came across was, “Yes, we are Jews, but we are first and foremost proud Americans.”
The debate over “Are we Jews or Americans first?” was the underlying issue in the controversy or the new Executive Order against anti-Semitism. Mainstream Jewish groups expressed support, the Jewish Left erupted in protest, with one prominent Reform rabbi telling The New York Times that she fears that “yellow stars are next.”
The freedoms America provided were unique; historically Jews were considered second or third class citizens – if citizens at all. The US was the first country to codify the freedom to practice religion in its constitution, including Judaism. Many Jews didn’t overtly express their religious identity, fearing it would spark antisemitism and put those rights at risk. Centuries of pogroms, expulsions and discrimination implanted a deep anxiety in Jews, who wonder if all that can happen again here – the recent rise of antisemitic events only fueling that anxiety further. To quote the famous Jewish theologian Jackie Mason, “You don’t want to be too Jewish.”
This uneasiness propelled the immigrants in Mt. Carmel to erect the eagle over the ark. It inspired the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the seminal statement by the Reform movement which assures America: “We do not see ourselves as a nation, but as a religious community.” The same document claimed America as the new Zion and abandoned aspirations for a Jewish renewal in the Land of Israel. With time, many liberal Jews were open to supporting Israel. Jews on the Left still find discomfort with Jewish nationalism, it animates their opposition to what they see as the strident policies of Israel.
Discomfort over Jewish nationhood is a cause of tension between some American Jews and Israel. The recent Jewish People Policy Institute study explains the pillars of identity for most Israelis as a mix of Judaism and nationalism. The old Mapai Party (Ihud Hakvutzot Vehakibbutzim) dream of a state with secular nationalism replacing Judaism, is fading. At a recent conference in Jerusalem on US and Israeli Jewry this became clear. Lior Schleien, host of the popular satirical show Gav Ha’Uma, unequivocally labeled himself a “secular, Ashkenazi, Tel Avivi” who thought politicians had sold out to the religious parties. Moderator Ravit Hecht of Haaretz challenged him, asking if he would perform a brit milah and circumcise a theoretical son of his. Emphatically, he said yes. Hecht challenged him. “How could a true secular Tel Avivian like yourself perform this religious ritual?” Schleien first tried rationalizing his beliefs, lacking a real answer, he responded with a crude joke.
EVEN THE MOST secular Jew in Israel struggles with their own religious identity. Zionism that started partly as a rejection of religion has created a new paradigm: a Jew who keeps kosher at home, is fiercely patriotic to modern Israel and goes to the beach on Shabbat afternoon. Even for strong secularists like Schleien religion is ubiquitous. Love it or hate it, it’s part of life.
In the US, Judaism is not automatic – most don’t have a religious relative to complain about. Judaism is the synagogue they might occasionally step into. It’s a choice to be made. The Orthodox and traditionalists still retain the idea of nationhood, of Am Yisroel (people of Israel). In the Jewish left, this ideal has been replaced with a new Jewish universalism, Tikkun Olam. Orthodox Jews tend to be more at ease than their liberal brethren, this is reflected in levels of synagogue security. The most protected tend to be the more liberal. The orthodox, while being careful, have lower levels. As one reform rabbi told me when I visited his office and queried him on the tall gates and armed guard checking my car for bombs, “What can I do? My congregants are a bunch of nervous liberal LA Jews.”
This concern about being “too Jewish” was at the core of the battles over the public menorah lightings by Chabad in the seventies and eighties. Jewish groups, led by the American Jewish Congress, launched court challenges to block them, claiming it endangered American Jews by breaching the separation of church and state. This was camouflage for the real reason, opposition to expressing a proud Jewish identity without fear. Professor Arthur Hertzberg was head of the AJC at the time. Decades later, he summed up the battle in a conversation we had in his house. “We thought that you should be a citizen on the street and a Jew at home. The Rebbe’s view was that by being a Jew on the street you would also be a Jew a home. And it turned out that the Rebbe was right and we were wrong.”
This debate resurfaced over the Executive Order. Yes, Jews are a nation and have been for millennia. We are also a religion. We can be both proud Jews and proud Americans. We don’t need to assure others with an American eagle over the holy ark. America’s blessing is the religious freedom that allows us to flourish. When American Jews feel confident in expressing their nationhood and religion, it emboldens the bond with Jews, in Israel and worldwide. When we act with self-respect others will only respect us more.

The writer is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County in California. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com