Parshat HaShavua

On Identity (Sermon for Shemot)

I just returned this afternoon from Seattle, where I was spending a week with my fiance’s family. Laura and her parents and her brother all enjoy reading, so we decided to give family book club a try. Anxious to make a good impression, I decided to suggest a collection of short stories that had come to my attention, entitled “Love Songs for a Lost Continent,” by Anita Felicelli.

Little did I know what we were getting into. The first sentence reads: “Sita’s family married her to a Bengal tiger…” These little vignettes explore South Indian identity, from the folktales of the Tamil past to the complexities of immigrant life in Palo Alto. None of the stories that we got through were particularly uplifting; some of them were quite bizarre.

So there we were, gathered around a large wooden table in a cafe by Green Lake while the rain sputtered outside. At first we shared some reactions to the stories, a few questions, some criticism of literary style, good stuff – what you’d expect from book club. Half an hour later, Laura’s father Bill told us he had been reading up about the author, who herself is a South Indian immigrant living right here in the Bay Area. She talks in an interview about having taken her non-Indian husband’s last name, Felicelli.

“When my daughter was born six years ago, I had my first identity crisis related to being a Tamil immigrant. Because I’d taken my spouse’s last name and dropped my original last name, nobody online recognized me as Indian anymore. At first, I thought this was hilarious, but after awhile it made me feel insecure. I had spent my whole life taking my Tamil identity for granted.”

And suddenly our family conversation pivoted, and we talked on and on about our specific family lineage and our larger cultural and ethnic heritages, and how they have shaped our identities, our interests, our aspirations, and whether we feel proud or confused or uninterested or fascinated by the many storylines converging through the generations to create our unique selves.

At the airport this morning I learned that Amos Oz, a literary giant in Israel, had passed away. I must confess I’ve never read a single one of his novels, although that says more about how much I read fiction than it does about his novels. But I have read two of his books. My first year in rabbinical school I read his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, tracing some of his steps along the cobblestones of Jerusalem. And more recently, I read his fabulous meditation on Judaism and community that he wrote with his daughter Fania, called simply, Jews and Words.

As I read some of the eulogies and remembrances online, I was reacquainted with his reflection on heritage and identity as a Jew.

He writes, “I see myself as one of the legitimate heirs [of Judaism]..I am free to decide what I will choose from this great inheritance, what I will place in my living room and what I will relegate to the attic. Certainly our children have the right to move the floor plan around and furnish their lives as they see fit. And I also have the right to ‘import’ and combine with my inheritance what I see fit… That is…pluralism…” (from Jews and Words, Epilogue)

Oz, as a very secular Jew, denied the rigidity of tradition, in fact redefined tradition as a conversation, often rowdy and rebellious, around the core texts Jews have read for centuries. As he puts it, “Ours is not a bloodline but a textline.” There is no one right way to be Jewish. Oz says we get to decide what we use in the living room vs. what we store in the attic. Rabbi Jeff Salkin adds that this does not mean we get to throw our heritage out on the streets. And in fact at some future time we may revisit what we want to use and what we want to store.

As we enter into the secular new year, I want to encourage every one of us to take Amos Oz’s message as a New Year’s Resolution, specifically in three ways.

First, let us explore our identities and heritage more, sharing what we know with family and friends, doing a little research, holding with compassion and curiosity the tensions that come with containing multiple stories. We are Ashkenazi, we are Sephardic, we have chosen to become Jewish, all of us are choosing to be active in our Judaism, we are not Jewish but here in community, we are white, we are Jews of color, we are queer, straight, men, women, nonbinary. We are cultural Jews, religious Jews, we are liberal, we are conservative, we are insiders, we are outsiders, we are Americans, we are immigrants, we are young, we are old, we are similar, we are different, we are magnificent.

This leads into my second hope for a new year’s resolution, that we expand our assumptions and understandings of Jewish identity. One great opportunity coming in the next few months is an exhibit we are hosting at Temple Isaiah called “This is Bay Area Jewry”, opening the last day in January. When you think of Jewish community, who comes to mind? This photo gallery of Jews reminds us that we are diverse.

My third hope for a new year’s resolution is to experiment with your Jewish identity. Rearrange the inherited furniture, see if something unexpected might fit more than you thought it would. Be bold in showing up and trying out new practices, new spaces, new faces. And don’t be afraid to put something back in the attic if it just isn’t your thing right now.

This is a moment of opportunity to reflect on where and who you’ve been, and to redirect your energy for the coming year. We begin the book of Exodus this week, and we meet the main hero of the rest of the Torah, Moses. Moses, like us, has a complex identity. Born to slaves, given an Egyptian name, raised by two mothers, living in privilege until he becomes a refugee, marrying not just a non-Israelite woman but the daughter of a Midianite priest, and eventually becoming someone who can inspire a whole community to seek liberation from a narrow place.

May we too channel our diverse and complex identities for freedom, for purpose, and for peace.