Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

The Holocaust and the Jewish Identity ; Memeory Is Sacred but Victimhood Is Not the Foundation for Jewish Identity

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

The Holocaust and the Jewish Identity ; Memeory Is Sacred but Victimhood Is Not the Foundation for Jewish Identity

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish candidate for the presidency ever. Its a rare sign of the health of our republic that no one seems to much care or even notice. Least of all, Sanders himself. Which prompted Anderson Cooper in a recent Democratic debate to ask Sanders whether he was intentionally keeping his Judaism under wraps.

No, answered Sanders: I am very proud to be Jewish. He then explained that the Holocaust had wiped out his fathers family. And that he remembered as a child seeing neighbors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. Being Jewish, he declared, is an essential part of who I am as a human being.

A fascinating answer, irrelevant to presidential politics but quite revealing about the state of Jewish identity in contemporary America.

Think about it. There are several alternate ways American Jews commonly explain the role Judaism plays in their lives.

(1) Practice: Judaism as embedded in their life through religious practice or the transmission of Jewish culture by way of teaching or scholarship. Think Joe Lieberman or the neighborhood rabbi.

(2) Tikkun: Seeing Judaism as an expression of the prophetic ideal of social justice. Love thy neighbor, clothe the naked, walk with God, beat swords into plowshares.

As ritual and practice have fallen away over the generations, this has become the core identity of liberal Judaism. Its central mission is nothing less than to repair the world (Tikkun olam).

Which, incidentally, is the answer to the perennial question, Why is it that Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic?

Because, for the majority of Jews, the social ideals of liberalism are the most tangible expressions of their prophetic Jewish faith.

When Sanders was asked about his Jewish identity, I was sure his answer would be some variation of Tikkun. On the stump, he plays the Old Testament prophet railing against the powerful and denouncing their treatment of the widow and the orphan. Yet Sanders gave an entirely different answer.

(3) The Holocaust. What a strange reply yet it doesnt seem so to us because it has become increasingly common for American Jews to locate their identity in the Holocaust.

For example, its become a growing emphasis in Jewish pedagogy from the Sunday schools to Holocaust studies programs in the various universities. …

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