A man who has always been a smart dresser wears a tie that doesn’t match his suit.
A woman who would never go outside without her hair done and her face looking just right walks into a store without make-up.
An aunt who was always fastidious about financial matters sends you a birthday check written in pencil. Little things; nothing important. But signs that the person is losing his or her identity.
It’s horrible for the people, when they see the rest of their lives as a tunnel that is getting darker and darker.
And it’s horrible for their loved ones, for the spouses who try to compensate for each other so that the kids won’t make them move, for the kids who would do anything but are powerless to stop the process.
Many of us have lived through this; we grieved for the people we loved long before they passed away. As they lost their identities, day by day, piece by piece, we grieved, as if they were dying over and over again.
The lady my kids call Bubbi New York has lived at our house for a number of years now, and so my family has watched it all happen. We’ve lived the process with her and for the last few years, without her. For some time now, she hasn’t known who she is, or who anyone else is. There’s nothing else wrong with her physically; in fact, she’s doing very well in every other respect. She does like to eat, and now she even eats pizza, something she never ate before, because she doesn’t remember that she hates cheese.
As I watched helplessly as the process unfolded, I noticed that there were a few things that were so at the core of her identity that they would emerge for a moment from somewhere deep in her consciousness. She loves babies; someplace deep inside her is the maternal instinct which was operative in her life. She still hates schmutz; she’ll take five minutes to search and destroy pieces of lint on my kids’ clothes. And she remembers pieces of some of the most famous Jewish songs and prayers; Kol Nidre, Dayyenu, Mah Nishtana, Had Gadya, the Motzi. Someplace, deep down at her core, are those expressions of Judaism.
When she used to tell me about her childhood in Munich, Germany, in the 1930s, she would talk about walking to shul with her parents and sisters, holding her father’s hand, as Nazis jeered at them and insulted them.
But she was Jewish,
when she was put on a train that went to Poland but then came back,
when she and one of her sisters won the lottery of the Kindertransport to go to freedom in England,
when she eventually found out that her parents were alive and well after being hid in a monastery in Italy,
when she came to America and married a Polish Jewish man who had survived Auschwitz,
when she lived to see her six grandchildren have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony and a granddaughter married under a chuppa.
And now she sees a Jewish great-grandchild, even though to her it’s just a baby, like one of her dolls.
So the disease has stolen her identity, but there’s still something left, and most of that identity is Jewish.
At one point a couple of years ago we discovered something that added insult to the injury. A criminal had stolen her identity and was writing checks using her name. It boggled my mind; it was as if an insidious disease and an insidious person merged to steal her name.
I was forced to learn about identity theft. I learned that in 2003, 5% of adults in this country suffered from identity theft of some kind. Since 2003 it’s gone down to around 4%, because people have learned how to monitor this sphere of their lives better. A lot of us have learned that there are things that we can do to prevent identity theft. And yet young people, who are so cyber-savvy, are, ironically, less likely to use such methods. They are less likely to take basic precautions to prevent the theft of their identities.
So I think about Bubbi, victim of double identity-theft. And every time she says or sings a word of a prayer or a song, I am grateful that there’s a little of her left. You get to a point where you are grateful for hints, the tiniest clues that she’s still there.
Identity is a vague term. Jewish identity means different things to different people. That’s fine; we can be Jewish in different ways.
What I’m asking tonight is: What does Jewish identity mean to you? It obviously means something or you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
Still, many of us would have trouble answering the question. We would be hard-pressed to articulate what our Jewishness means to us.
We can’t remember our mother’s Hebrew name.
We can’t remember how to say the blessings when called to the Torah.
We can’t remember what the holiday a few days after Yom Kippur is called.
Little things, you think, nothing so crucial. But signs that we are losing our Jewish identities.
No disease took our Jewish identities away.
No criminal took our Jewish identities away.
But just as in criminal identity theft, many of us do not do what we need to, basic things, to prevent the loss of our Jewish identities.
And just as in criminal identity theft, it is our young people, otherwise so savvy about so many things, who don’t realize how likely they are to lose their identities.
Almost everyone here tonight is Jewish. Let’s be very basic and talk about what this means. We have to differentiate between two aspects of Jewishness.
First, it means to be a member of the Jewish people.
Jewishness also can mean adhering to the faith and observing the practices of the religion called Judaism.
Jewish people do not necessarily identify with both of these aspects of Jewishness. I know many, many people who are legally Jewish, identify as Jewish, but care not a bit about Judaism, its beliefs or practices.
Daniel Pearl was such a person. Some of us saw the movie A Mighty Heart about the abduction and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan on February 21st, 2002. His tormentors defined Daniel Pearl as Jewish. Why did the Muslim thugs kill Daniel Pearl? He wasn’t religious. It had nothing to do with his practice of Judaism. But Pearl agreed with their definition of his identity. His final words were “I am Jewish.” He rose above the hopelessness of his situation with incredible courage and asserted his identity in the bravest way imaginable. In the end, just as at the end of a life of a person who has dementia, his Jewishness was at his core. He freely claimed his link in the chain of his family and his people. He connected himself with that long list, that horribly long list of Jewish people over the course of history who lost their lives simply because they were Jewish.
After Daniel Pearl was executed, his father, Judea Pearl, edited a book called I Am Jewish. Various famous Jewish figures wrote essays about the meaning of Jewishness. They point out that we have the choice whether to be Jewish or not. If you are born Jewish you can say that one or both of your parents were Jewish but you can ignore your roots and be whatever you want.
And yet, your Jewishness is at the core of your identity.
This is Kol Nidre, when we speak about obligations. We usually think about our obligations to others. Tonight, I am not speaking about your obligations to anyone else, not even your loved ones or your community. I am speaking about your obligations to yourself, to the inner you, to your core identity.
You know your identity, but what are you actually doing to identify yourself as Jewish, to promote and nourish what is at your core?
I can’t speak for anyone else in this world but I can speak for myself. So let me tell you about my core, why I’m Jewish. I’m not just Jewish because I was born that way.
I am Jewish because wherever and whenever there is suffering, the Jewish person cries. We do not just weep for other Jewish people; we weep for every human being who suffers, from the hungry child in New Haven to the victim of rape in the Sudan to the oppressed women throughout the world to the victims of brutal and senseless murder at Virginia Tech or in Cheshire, Connecticut or the victims of negligence in New Orleans or a bridge in Minnesota. My Jewishness, from my very core, demands that I care about everyone, that I am not just so wrapped up in my little comfortable world that I can ignore and dismiss the horrors that go on in our world.
I am Jewish because I believe that the Jewish people has a destiny to promote morality and peace in this immoral and violent world. My Jewishness will not let me stay quiet in the face of injustice.
In February, I went to New Orleans with a group of rabbis and helped to clear out rooms that, a year and a half after the hurricane, due to the ineptness and negligence of the local government, were still in disarray. And in the afternoon we stopped and gathered in a classroom and davened mincha, we sang the afternoon service, and the kids of that inner city school watched and gawked in amazement. But I was never so proud to be Jewish as when I stood there as a rabbi covered with dust and sang the kaddish, the prayer in which we express our yearnings for a better world. You have to get your hands dirty in this world if you’re going to help clean it up.
I’m sure that your Jewishness calls to you in the same way. You can’t just cry about the suffering of others. So I was proud that many of our members answered my call and became members of a New Orleans synagogue that is in trouble.
And I’m proud of what our congregation does, all the time, to help people. So many of us have helped, and I’m proud of that. But the requests will not stop because the needs are so great. I am Jewish because to be Jewish is to respond, and then respond again.
I am Jewish because Judaism does not mean that I have to leave my brain at the door. I don’t have to dismiss scientific evidence in order to preserve the truth of my faith. Judaism teaches me to use my mind and use it well. And Judaism itself evolves, as we learn more and more of G-d’s truth.
And so I am Jewish because I believe that all human beings, males and females, are created in the image of G-d. I reject any religion or any movement of any religion which raises males over females in any way.
And we continue to grow, understanding more about what makes people tick. And as we learn more, Judaism will change, because we do not believe in prejudice of any kind and we must acknowledge our lack of knowledge when we learn more.
I am Jewish because, as in the message of the High Holidays, we acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we can make up for our mistakes and that there are second chances.
I am Jewish because, as in the message of the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, I believe that the earth is the Lord’s and that human beings must not destroy it out of greed.
I am Jewish and I support the State of Israel in its courageous fight of self-defense. You will nod in agreement. But in the last year, what exactly did you do for Israel? I know that you watched the news and in the privacy of your own den rooted for Israel. But I mean, what did you concretely do for Israel? We had two wonderful synagogue trips to Israel in the last year, one in March and the other in July. Every one of those seventy-three people can say:
I showed my support by being there. While the rest of the world scorns Israel, I was there.
I asserted my identity as a Jewish person by walking in the footsteps of my ancestors.
I was touched by the spirituality of the Holy Land.
I saw the fulfillment of the promise of the Promised Land.
For many who came on the trips, who had never been to Israel before, it was a way of fulfilling a personal dream of a lifetime. For a lot of us, it was life-changing in what it meant for our Jewishness.
Including the people on those trips, around a hundred people in our shul went to Israel in the last year. For every one of these people, the trip was an unmistakable assertion of their identity.
If you’ve never been to Israel, and you can physically and financially afford to go, you must go at least once in your life. If you haven’t been there in a long time, you wouldn’t recognize the place. It’s beautiful and prosperous and green and vibrant. Don’t let the negative propaganda fool you. It’s the center of the world.
The best moments on the Israel trips for me were on Masada, the ancient fortress. We had two group Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in which a total of seventeen people became a Bat Mitzvah. They said the blessings at the Torah, often with another person. And now they’re working on the next step, and many of them are going to have a more substantial Bat Mitzvah ceremony here on this bima. With lots of trepidation but great joy, they are fulfilling themselves as Jewish people. And I could not be prouder of them. But I’m also just plain happy for them, because they are doing something for their very core.
I want to say something to all of our young people. You cannot imagine what it means to your parents and grandparents when you act on your Jewishness. We take nothing for granted. We never assume anything. I know that when I see my youngest child, my Sarah, active in her youth group, bringing other kids into Judaism, I‘m happy in ways that I can’t express. You’d think: Well, sure, Rabbi’s daughter, Ezra Academy, recently administered two successful synagogue trips to Israel, of course she’s active. But that’s not how I see it. I see Jewishness in my family going on in the next generation, and I feel gratified in my core. Sarah sits every evening next to her Bubbi on the couch in the den. Bubbi is staring blankly at the television. Sarah is multi-tasking: Doing her homework, watching TV, and IM-ing and texting BBYO members. I feel that Bubbi’s identity has gone into her granddaughter, and I feel comfort. So to use the language of the younger generation, I want to give a shout out and say to every young person sitting here tonight: Thank you for being true to your family and to yourself.
Let me explain what I mean by being true to yourself. Over twenty years ago, I wrote a doctoral thesis about Biblical lists, all of the boring passages in the Bible. It was a perfect topic for me: I’m a very boring person and I found the topic very exciting. But then my life started and I had a job and kids and I was busy and it took years for me just to make a few changes so that it could be published. When I sent it in for publication, I noticed that the end of the book was really the beginning of the next book. There was an idea there, a really profound idea, better than my thesis, and I said at the end of the first book that I’d soon be writing the second one. And guess what? I’ve never written that book with that great idea. I have terrific excuses, and I’ve written other books, but somehow, I’ve never done that one that is so close to my heart. The publisher waited, year after year, for me to fulfill my contract, but then things were getting nudgy. So last year, after Yom Kippur, I sat down to start typing, and you know what? I no longer had a real grasp of my own idea. So I decided to get into it by writing the first chapter which is on a text in an ancient language you’ve never heard of called Ugaritic. Only a few people in the world know Ugaritic, but in my day, I was great at Ugaritic: I could read it and translate it at sight. But now, I could only recognize some letters; I no longer had the tools to write that chapter. That’s what happens, ladies and gentlemen: Use it or lose it.
But if I try, I can get the Ugaritic back. I have to do it. If I don’t write that book, no one else in the whole world will care. But I’ll care, not just because it’s a really good idea, but because it’s an expression of who I am, down in my core, where ideas matter. To leave that book unwritten would be a sin against myself. I have to be true to myself. I have to fulfill who I am.
For many people sitting here, Hebrew has become Ugaritic. At your Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the rabbi said that you were the greatest thing since Wheaties. Now, you can sing along with the familiar and famous songs, Kol Nidre, Adon Olam, but that’s about it. You have the general idea, but you can’t articulate it or express it. It’s as if you’ve retreated into dementia like Bubbi, with your Jewishness only re-awakening for moments at a time.
But if you tried, you could get your Hebrew back. It takes some patience and time and energy. I see people, week after week, coming up on this bima and participating in new ways. Every time a person comes up on this bima, even if it’s to lead a reading in English, he or she is asserting identity. On the High Holidays, we are fortunate to have a Guest Cantor. But throughout the year, day after day, and week after week and on every other holiday, our members lead the services. This creates a certain culture in which everyone is able to participate. Early last Shabbos morning, I counted, and 60% of the people who were here have led a service.
To me, that’s why I’m Jewish, to be part of a religion where everyone is equal and everyone can participate fully.
So these are some of the reasons I’m Jewish, the reasons I am who I am, the bases of my identity.
Identity is one thing; identification, the ways by which we express our identity, is something else. But none of this is so hard. Identification is done by doing easy things, going to a service, reading a Jewish book, taking a class, joining the Sisterhood or the Men’s Club.
I keep thinking about all those movies where an official demands: Stop and identify yourself.
And I keep thinking about Bubbi, who can’t identify herself, who has no idea who she is, but somehow, down at the core of what’s left, in the fragments and the pieces of memories, still is what she is, and that’s a Jewish person.
For everything that she’s lost, she still is what she is.
I hope that none of us lose our identities the way that Bubbi has.
It’s true she’s not suffering, and so many of us go through such unspeakable suffering and pain. But how horrible not to be yourself any more.
First a disease and then a criminal stole her identity.
But nothing and no one has stolen your identity.
You’ve just let it evaporate into the air.
You’ve been like me, not writing the book that means so much to you, not keeping the contract you signed. You have a contract, a sacred covenant, with G-d, with your ancestors, and with yourself. You’ve been putting it off, year after year. Nobody will care if I write that book. But a lot of people will care if you assert your Jewishness.
This is Kol Nidre. Remember your obligations to yourself.
You have your memories,
you have your knowledge;
you know who you are.
You have an identity.
Please, this year, stop and identify yourself.