During the 2016 Hartman Summer programs for community leaders and rabbis, several evening programs were held with Hartman and affiliated scholars discussed Challenges of American Jewish Identity and Challenges of Israeli Identity. (HART Talk).
Article below is adapted from a HART Talk given by Mishael Zion at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem on June 28 10, 2016.
I’d like to share with you two stories about my grandfather, as a way of reflecting on the two greatest experiments of the Jewish people: Israel and American Judaism, and the tension between them.
I’ve told these stories before, but it’s a special honor to share them as part of this night, since my grandfather used to love coming to the summer learning program here at the Hartman Institute.
My grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Sachs, was the Jewish Forrest Gump. He participated in all the BIG moments of Jewish history – always playing a totally insignificant role. One of my favorite jobs as a kid was walking home with him on Friday nights.
In the cool Jerusalem air, he would tell of his life spent between America and Israel – which all began with his first road trip…
The year was 1947 – and he had just returned from serving as a US Army Chaplain in Okinawa, on the Japanese front of World War Two.
He was met at the San Francisco Harbor by his wife, Frances, my grandmother. They got into a Ford Deluxe Super Sedan and renamed it “Mizrachi,” Hebrew for “eastbound.” They drove the classic American road trip, Route 55, going through Minnesota, where Frances’s family worked in the cattle yards, and all the way to Baltimore, where my grandfather was born. America was their home, and they had served her proudly in the war. But their trip “Eastward” would not end on the coast of the Atlantic: they took a boat to Palestine, where they would pursue their future in the Land of Israel.
My grandparents’ journey between east and west, America and Israel, captures the blessings the Jewish people have experienced in the second half of the 20th century. For two thousand years, Jews had two dreams –
(1) To be united and sovereign in their own historic homeland
(2) And to flourish as free and equal citizens in the lands in which they reside.
Both of these dreams have come true. Today, a remarkable 85 percent of Jews live in either Israel or America. And they’re both Zions. They’re both Promised Lands. In both of these countries, Jews are deeply, fully at home. They’ve arrived. The thing is this: Neither sees the other as a promised land. Israeli and American Jews behave like distant cousins who, forced into a family reunion, hug and kiss at the outset, but then spend the rest of the time looking straight past each other. They tiptoe around their differences and obsess about the other’s existential threats. You’ll find American Jews either talking about Israel’s extreme vulnerability, or wringing their hands about how it wields its power. Israelis – on the other hand – reject the idea of a promised land outside Israel and trumpet headlines about the disappearing American Jew who falls prey to intermarriage and assimilation.
In truth, many of these cousins – on both sides – have long since given up hope for their embarrassing relatives. They’re not interested in engaging with one another, simply because they used to be part of the same family.
So we’ve arrived in the Promised Land, but turns out there isn’t one, but two. Can we tell a tale of Two Zions?
Instead of trying to meld the Jewish people into a superficial unity, I believe we must grasp the crux of this tension between the two Zions. The basic truth is that these two communities represent two very different projects with very different moral intuitions – which undermine, challenge, and critique each other. But Jews have always known how to make the most of a good argument – and that is our challenge today.
I didn’t always think this way – but two of my grandfather’s stories changed my mind – one that I heard a hundred times, and one that I never heard until the day he died. I’d like to share them with you tonight.
On those special Friday nights walking my Grandfather home, we would sometimes take a detour, walking through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mekor Hayyim. At the entrance to the neighborhood is a sign, describing how the Haganah defended this isolated Jewish enclave in 1948. Standing in front of the sign with my grandfather, he’d tell me how he had single-handedly saved the neighborhood. A few years later, my bus route to school would drive by that sign. I’d proudly tell my friends: you see that neighborhood over there? That’s Mekor Hayyim, which my grandfather and I single-handedly saved in 1948.
Now I knew that I was not around during that battle. In truth, I know that my grandfather didn’t single-handedly save anything in 1948. He was the Haganah’s welfare officer, kept at the back to administer to soldiers’ psychological needs. But all this didn’t matter. I had heard that story so often that it had become a part of my DNA, part of who I am. I too had defended Mekor Hayyim in 1948.
My grandfather’s Haganah unit epitomizes for me what the Israeli Jewish project was all about: seeking to take Judaism out of the synagogue and into the streets. Jews were returning to history, taking responsibility for themselves in their ancestral homeland. Israel turned Judaism into a secular civic project, which embraced power in order to build a model ethical society, where they could live full-bodied Jewish lives, speaking a full throated Hebrew language. Their creed was best summed up in a question Hillel asked in the Mishnah two thousand years ago: “If I am not for myself – who will be for me?”
For years, this story animated my life more than any other. Mizrachi! To the east! Israel is where the Jewish story takes place, where the Jewish civic project is actualized, and everything else seemed no more than a backdrop. But my grandparents’ story didn’t end there. In 1949, they got a telegram from the American Midwest: “Daddy had a heart attack. Come home.” And they did.
This decision always baffled me. The car named “Mizrachi” drove in one direction only – east. My grandparents’ retreat westward seemed a moment of weakness; they were leaving the Promised Land. All those years in America, had they forgotten Hillel’s question?
Fast forward to 2009, my grandfather’s shiva. After three decades of serving as a Conservative rabbi in Chicago and Minneapolis, my grandfather had returned to Jerusalem, where I was born. When he passed away, I had just left Jerusalem for the first real time in my life. I was studying in New York, living on the same block my grandfather had when he was a student.
At the shiva, going through old files, we found an envelope with rolls from an old Dictaphone and a small political button. They told a story he had never told me – about a trip he took in 1963. It was the height of the civil rights protests in the South, Against the advice of his synagogue board, my grandfather decided to join a delegation of rabbis to Birmingham, Alabama. Standing outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, he met a group of African American high school students selling buttons which read: “I believe in human dignity.” He asked if they were for sale.
“Mister,” the African American kid challenged the tall White man in front of him, “do you believe in Human Dignity?”
“Maybe…” my grandfather teased with his eternal half smile.
“If your answer is just a “maybe,” well then, you are not entitled to the button, Mister, not to the button that says ‘I believe in human dignity’. You gotta be certain.”
So how did he get the button? It was too late to ask. Back in Jerusalem, holding it in my hand, I realized how much Jewish life in America was also a project. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews were empowered to dedicate themselves to Hillel’s second question: If I am only for myself – what am I?
Like Israel, American Jews were engaged in a secular civic project, but its focus was not just themselves, but all Americans. Jews had fled the ghettos, because they wanted to be at home among non-Jews and Jews alike, putting boundaries aside and together building a promised land.
They embraced the creed of “I believe in Human Dignity” – not only because it allowed room for them, but because it resonated with one of the basic teachings of Jewish tradition: that every human being was born in the image of God.
In Birmingham in 1963 and as a Rabbi in the Midwest all those years, this is what my grandfather was doing: He was taking ownership of his Jewishness in service of the American project, framing his activism through Judaism to create a better America. My grandfather was taking Mizrahi – home.
Mekor Hayyim and Birmingham are two symbolic stories which inform me as I shape my life. But they also represent the tension between the two great Jewish projects – the two Zions – which Jews are engaged in today.
The first Zion is unabashedly particularistic. It takes place in the ancestral land of Israel, with Jews as its main constituents, Hebrew as its main language. It feels organically Jewish, even as it is a total revolution in Jewish existence.
The second Zion is unabashedly universalistic. It is about a new land, America, which belongs to all its citizens. In America, Jews go beyond the us/them dichotomy that had defined so much of Jewish experience, and their project takes place in English, the global language. Jewish creativity is played out at the center of the world stage, where it is often much more uncomfortable to give a Jewish-specific frame.
Each in their own way, these two Jewish projects are playing out the questions asked by Hillel 2,000 years ago:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Obviously, life in Israel and America is more complex than these simple statements. But as we face our “If not now?” moments today, the other Jewish Promised Land keeps us uncomfortable, challenged and questioning, even as we have “arrived.” And it is in discomfort that we are most creative, in tension that we tell our own story best, in challenge that we dream our best dreams.
America and Israel are the “Yin-Yang” of the Jewish People.
“Yin-Yang” describes how contrary forces in nature are interconnected and interdependent: hot and cold, fire and water, light and shadow….Such must be the dynamic system between the Israeli and American Jewish projects. They push, pull, criticize and inspire each other – head on. They are totally different, and yet each contain an aspect of the other inside them as well.
This dynamic is playing out today in various ways:
American Jews in their commitment to universal human dignity increasingly wonder why be Jewish. They are confronted by an Israeli Jewish project which declares that the first step to universalism is caring about the particular. That Judaism thrives when immersed in its own language, history and geography. That we learn love and dignity – ethics – from our families.
Israeli Jews, on the other hand, in their commitment to in-group loyalty, are struggling to find room for the individual’s voice. They are challenged by an American Jewish project which declares that the dignity of the individual is a supreme Jewish value, for Jew and non-Jew alike.
That a healthy Jewish identity rests on strong, free individual choice.
These are just a few examples of how, when we face the other Promised Lands, we are inspired to make our own home better.
Before my grandfather died, he got to hold his first great-granddaughter in his hands. My daughter Zohar, born in the Israel he helped found, raised in the America he loved. What will be her dreams, I wonder, the Jewish projects she will dedicate her life to?
We live at a time in which our dreams have come true. Jews are powerfully living two success stories: “Eretz Tzion, Yerushalayim,” and the “New Zion” in America. As I look back at my grandfather’s escapades in Birmingham and Mekor Hayyim, I feel a twinge of jealousy. It seems the struggles in his day were stark, the choices were clear. Today’s struggles seem less clear, the ethical choices more muddled. But he – the Jewish Forrest Gump indeed – never knew which events would be no more than passing anecdotes, and which would shape world history. He stuck true to his story and his values, and was always eager to learn from those on the other side. I hope I live up to that creed myself.