Finding Joy in Jewish Identity

Sophie Frieden
August 14, 2020

Since starting the endeavour of running Jewish on Campus, our team has been overwhelmed with gratitude at the outpouring of kindness from those who care to address the rising tide of antisemitism on college campuses. As we enter into Jewish Week of Pride, as well as parshot Eikev where we receive the second part of the shema, I want to address what I feel we as Jewish people have been forced by circumstance to throw to the wayside: Jewish joy, Jewish resilience, and Jewish survival. I want to take some time tonight to learn the stories of those who have survived and triumphed in circumstances which we see rearing their ugly heads again today. The way which I believe we pave the road to Jewish pride is not through politics, or hummus and falafel in the Hillel building. It is through awakening the inherent love which permeates every inch of Jewish existence and to nourish the Jewish soul until we are no longer shamed into silence. To quote from Mordechai to Queen Esther of Persia, “maybe you have attained your voice for just such a crisis” (Book of Esther ch2).

In order to illustrate the power of Jewish pride in history, I would like to tell the story of the Book of Esther. To sum up, the story of Purim takes place in Persia, modern day Iran, and begins with the King throwing out his wife, Vashti, in drunken rage. He asks to hold a pageant, in which all available maidens will be paraded in front of him for him to choose a new queen. Esther, niece of Mordechai and undercover Jew, is chosen by the King, and replaces Vashti with Esther as Queen of Persia. Mordechai asks Esther not to reveal her identity as a Jewish woman for her safety while she reigns in power. When an evil man named Haman is given power by the King, he orders for the muder of the Jews of Persia and offers monetary reward for those who will kill Jews. Mordechai, upon pleading to enter the King’s palace to speak with Esther but refusing to bow before the King out of fear of Avodah Zara, is sentenced to death by hanging for outing himself as a Jew. Esther hosts a dinner party in which she pleads with the King to instead kill Haman, for she is a Jew as well. Haman is put to death, and thanks to the power and strength of one Jewish woman, the Jews of Persia are saved.

Queen Esther embodies a concept that Bari Weiss addresses in her book, How To Fight Antisemitism, that “We are not placed on earth to be anti-antisemites. We are here to be Jews.” This is mirrored in Rabbi Meri Solovechik’s commentary, where he revere’s Queen Esther as a “A paradox of Jewish fragility and heroism. A perplexing paradox lies at the heart of Purim, the holiday celebrated this week by Jews around the world. No day is more associated with Jewish joy; yet rightly understood the scriptural source of our celebration — the biblical book of Esther — proclaims a terrifying teaching. Purim thus marks the fragility of Jewish security, but also the possibility of heroism in the face of this vulnerability. It is therefore a holiday for our time. Around the world, and especially in a Europe that should know better, anti-Semitism has made itself manifest once again. As Esther’s example is celebrated, and Jews gather in synagogue to study her terrifying tale, we are reminded why, in the face of hate, we remain vigilant — and why we continue to joyously celebrate all the same.”

I want to also address this week’s parsha; a portion of deuteronomy through which we receive the second half of the shema. The first chapter of the shema, from last week’s parsha, has three phrases which are repeated again in this week’s, as an emphasis on their importance in the daily lives of jews. The phrase “to love the L‑rd your G‑d and to serve Him with all your hearts and with all your souls”, along with “You shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts and upon your souls (…) You shall teach them to your children to speak of them when sitting in your home and walking on the road”. HaShem commands of the Jewish people that we must wear our Jewishness with pride, from the deepest parts of our souls to the tips of your fingers when you wrap tefillin. We must carry our 5,780 years of history in our hearts and teach of this history to our children. We carry pain and agony and beauty and hope and longing and strength and holiness in a Jewish soul. We carry a legacy worth taking pride in.

I am reminded during this week’s parsha of a short essay written by a young Theodor Herzl in December of 1897, entitled The Menorah. Herzl begins The Menorah with the following quote:

“Once there was a man who deep in his soul felt the need to be a Jew. His material circumstances were satisfactory enough. […] He had long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or about the faith of his fathers, when the age-old hatred re-asserted itself under a fashionable slogan. Like many others, our man, too, believed that this movement would soon subside. But instead of getting better, it got worse. Although he was not personally affected by them, the attacks pained him anew each time. Gradually his soul became one bleeding wound. This secret psychic torment had the effect of steering him to its source, namely, his Jewishness, with the result that he experienced a change that he might never have in better days because he had become so alienated: He began to love Judaism with great fervor. At first he did not fully acknowledge this mysterious affection, but finally it grew so powerful that his vague feelings crystallized into a clear idea to which he gave voice: The thought that there was only one way out of this Jewish suffering — namely, to return to Judaism”.

Herzl’s words have awoken something deep within my soul. I came onto this earth as the product of hundreds of years of assimilation, the child of an interfaith family, to no fault of anyone but time and circumstance. To see myself today, in a long skirt and davening towards Jerusalem three times a day, is to see the spark which souls like Herzl’s have ignited within me. A good friend of mine and incredibly holy soul, Hila Oz, once told me that “to fall in love with Judaism is an act of radical decolonization.” I have found that in order to find hope amidst a climate in which antisemitism is rapidly seeping into the walls of academia, government, and friendships, to find wisdom in Herzl’s words, the words of Queen Esther, and the words which HaShem gave to Moshe at Sinai. The word Ba’al Teshuvah, Master of Return, is branded on me with honor. To return, to bring Judaism back, is not necessarily religious, but a shedding of 5,780 years of shame and fear that has burdened the Jewish people. Return is not linear, or surface-level, or easy. To return is to decolonize.

We have done this in part, through the reclamation of eretz yisrael. The existence of eretz yisrael in itself is a reclamation of the holiest of holies, but also a reclamation of jewish safety. When you think about it, jewish sovereignty has always been the safeguarding of jewish existence. It does not demand of jews how they practice, how they show pride in their identity, or how they live. It simply safeguards their right to do so.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Yehuda Amichai, called A Touch of Grace.

“At times Jerusalem is a city of knives,

And even the hopes for peace are sharp enough to slice into

The harsh reality and they become dulled or broken.

The church bells try so hard to ring out calm, round tones,

But they become heavy like a pestle pounding on a mortar,

Heavy, muffled, downtrodding voices. And the cantor

And the muezzin try to sing sweetly

But in the end the sharp wail bursts forth:

O Lord, God of us all, The Lord is One

One, one, one, one.”

Am Yisrael Chai.

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