Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jewish identity

Recently, at a Chabad center somewhere in the United States, a Russian
immigrant family celebrated the Bas Mitzvah of their daughter. Their family had not
marked a Bar or Bas Mitzvah in over 100 years, as doing so in Russia was impossible.
Before the party began, an American-born Jew approached the Chabad rabbi
and asked: "I don't understand—how did Jews from the Former Soviet Union
succeed in maintaining their Jewish identity? It's one thing to be a Jew in America,
where a Jewish boy typically gets a bris, and then goes to Hebrew school, and then,
when he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, he feels like a complete Jew. But in Russia there
were no circumcisions as it was against the law—doing a bris could get you a few
years in Siberia. And who even dreamed of Hebrew school or Bar Mitzvahs? How
did they succeed in standing strong? What gave them the strength to protect their
Jewish identities?"
The shliach answered him: The first time a Jewish boy in Russia got beaten up in
school because he was Jewish, and was called "Zhid" despite not being sure
whether he really was a Jew in the first place since his parents hid the fact from
him—this beating was his bris. The second beating was his "Siddur Party," the small
celebration typically held in kindergarten or First Grade when little Jewish kids
receive their first prayer book. And the third time was his Bar Mitzvah—after all all
that, he is confirmed as a complete Jew.
In Russia, the shliach continued, it was not hard at all to remember that you're
Jewish. The non-Jews would take pains to remind you at every opportunity and any
In the United States, however, we are liable to quickly forget our true identity:
who we are, where we come from, and where we're headed. In America must we
seek means to ensure that the fact that we are Jews is remembered well, and that
above all, that our children remember it well.

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