Our story as American Jews began in September 1654, when 23 Portuguese Jews from Recife, Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdam, now the city of New York. Ever since then, ours is the story of our double identity as Americans and as Jews.
This double identity was highlighted on Nov. 28, 2013, when an extremely rare quirk of calendar brought together the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving and the widely celebrated Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On that “Thanksgivukkah,” we American Jews were called on to ask ourselves a series of questions: Who are we as Americans? Who are we as Jews? What is the relationship between our Jewish selves and our American selves?
It has been decades since Rabbi Jacob Neusner, for many years a professor at Brown, warned us that we American Jews should not base our identity primarily on Israel and/or our memory of the Holocaust.
Our fellow Jews in Israel, 6,000 miles from the large Jewish population on our East Coast, live lives far different from us American Jews, most of whom have not visited Israel even once. Many of the life-and-death issues that Israeli Jews face day after day have no parallels with our own struggles here in the United States of America.
The Holocaust is certainly a central event of the 20th century; we owe it to the Six Million to preserve and honor their memory in perpetuity. Nevertheless, we do a disservice to them by making the Holocaust the singular event by which we define ourselves as Jews.
We can turn to our Torah for a fuller explanation of who we are. Focusing on our Book of Exodus, Neusner insists that ever since we left ancient Egypt 3,200 years ago, we Jews are, at our deepest level, “slaves who have been liberated by God.”
As our Passover Haggadah tells us, “Avadim hayinu; atah b’nai chorin” – “Once we were slaves; now we are free.” To be “slaves who have been liberated by God” is an all-encompassing notion – however one may interpret it – that embraces the Holocaust, Israel in all its complexity, the soaring heights and the catastrophic lows of our millennial history.
I confess that until my retirement, I was focused on our collective story as Jews rather than as Americans. (My primary focus on the Jewish part of our identity would seem to be obvious for someone who has devoted his entire career to serving our community as a rabbi.)
At the same time, until my retirement in the summer of 2007, I confess that I had taken my American identity for granted. While I have been a lifelong Democrat, until the past several years I believed that our Republican leadership offered a reasonable balance to the excesses of the Democratic Party. In short, I was comfortable with my unexamined belief that our system of checks and balances would keep our nation chugging along with only some occasional minor hiccups.
The rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism has now convinced me that our democracy, which I had naively assumed runs on autopilot, is now in need of our immediate and intense help. We can no longer call ourselves the United States, for we are now so utterly disunited. Today, we are living in a country where a minority of our population is seeking to disavow the democratic principle of majority rule.
It is now time for us Jews who care about the survival of our country, which has been the land of opportunity for most of us, to call on our prophetic tradition to restore the prophetic element within our American tradition.
Like the vast majority of my fellow American Jews, I support the effort to secure and expand the voting rights of every one of my fellow citizens. Many of us draw our inspiration for this viewpoint from the social idealism of such biblical prophets as Amos, who more than 2,700 years ago proclaimed, “Let justice well forth as the waters, and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”
And many of us also draw inspiration from the prophetic vision that permeates Israel’s Hakhrazat HaAtzma’ut, or Declaration of Independence, which makes explicit that “The State of Israel …will uphold the full social and political equality of all citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex.”
We American Jews have two collective stories to tell: our evolving and compelling story as Jews and the evolving and equally compelling story of our identity as Americans. One of our stories began in 1654; the other began 3,200 years ago, when, during our exodus from Egypt, we discovered our primary identity as “slaves liberated by God” – an identity that has shaped us to be pursuers of justice! justice! throughout the ages wherever we have happened to find ourselves.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.