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Standing for Peoplehood: Revisiting Jewish American Identity Post-October 7©

This week, we had the Oscars, but did you know that the Oscars have their own awards, for, the Oscars? 

Like, Biggest Surprise: Emma Stone Wins as Her Dress Tears; and Most Charming Performance: Ryan Gosling, ‘I’m Just Ken’. The winner for most political moment was Jonathan Glazer, ‘The Zone of Interest’, a movie that focuses on an SS family living next to a death camp during the Holocaust as a commentary on the banality of evil. 

Accepting the best international feature Oscar, Jonathan Glazer said: “Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked, an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims, this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

I imagine this was for several audiences, but I want to ask you, as Jews, how does it make you feel? Now, imagine if you were a Jewish teenager watching the Oscars up late on a school night. You’ve been targeted in school for being Jewish, and now, you hear two Jews who won an award for a movie about the Holocaust say the words, “We refute our Jewishness.” 

Those words stuck out to me: "Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness.” Now, I am a big believer in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I am certain that he did not mean that he renounced his Judaism. As some have pointed out, it seems probable that Glazer meant to say something like “we stand here as men who refute having their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked,” but got flustered at the moment. Glazer was also visibly shaking during his remarks.

Taking their words as how they were likely meant to read, they essentially said that Israel is going too far in this war, and doesn’t speak for them as Jews. 

But after October 7, it just feels different to hear a Jew saying these words in front of tens of millions of people. It feels scary to see a Jew use the words ‘resist' and ‘Israel' in the same sentence. 

As I mentioned in my weekly message, I was at a conference last week through the Leffell Foundation, Paul E Singer Foundation, and Maimonides Fund, Zionism: A New Conversation.

This conference was born out of the last year before October 7 where Jewish America was looking on at Israel as it was struggling with its Democratic nature due to the proposed judicial reform. Rabbis were finding it challenging to talk about Israel from the bimah at all, and then, October 7 happened. Some, like me, feel like they can express themselves and how they authentically feel about Israel, but many others could not. These funders were looking to us, wondering: What’s happening in your communities? What are you struggling with? 

And I would say many people are struggling with Jews living in the shadows. The antisemitism we are seeing isn’t exactly the antisemitism of the past. You might be hired if you are Zionist, but will you have friends? And this is what is happening in schools across the U.S. 

Many Jews in America feel, well, alone at this time. And they are being told to choose between Zionism and their place in their social circles. 

In a recent article titled, The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending, journalist Franklin Foer tells the story of Stacey Zolt Hara, a Jewish mother of a 13-year daughter in San Francisco. He tells the story of how their lives changed after October 7. After October 7, her son, , began coming home with stories about anti-Semitic jibes hurled in his direction. On his way to math class, a kid walked up to him playing what he called a “Nazi salute song” on his phone. Another said something in German and told him, “I don’t like your people.”

There have been constant ‘walk-outs’ in their schools, and the only kids left in the room are the Jews, living in the shadows. 

This week’s parashah, Pekudei, isn’t the most exciting in the book. Essentially it is a blue print of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, it contains an accounting of every single piece of the Mishkan. 

אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל־פִּי מֹשֶׁה עֲבֹדַת הַלְוִיִּם בְּיַד אִיתָמָר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן׃

These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding—the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest.

וּבְצַלְאֵל בֶּן־אוּרִי בֶן־חוּר לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה עָשָׂה אֵת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְי אֶת־מֹשֶׁה׃

Now Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, had made all that the LORD had commanded Moses;

What I found most interesting about Betzalel was that he was just thirteen years old, just a boy, when he was tasked with becoming the builder of the Mishkan. Perhaps Betzalel could be a guide for us today as well. 

In the shadows…

The name Betzalel means ‘shadow of God’. It was taken from a story in the Talmud that suggests that Betzalel knew what was in the Mishkan before Moses knew what was there. The rabbis explain that Betzalel knew because he was ‘in the shadow of God’, privy to more information than even the great Moses. 

Betzalel came out of the shadow to show his genius to the world, but how many of our kids will hide their inner Jewish souls, to live in the shadow of society? Imagine how he would feel if he was watching as someone renounced their Jewish souls in public? 

Something has changed - the world for us will never be the same, and so too when it comes to how we view ourselves and our relationship to Israel. 

At the conference, I learned from Dr. Mijal Biton, whom I’ve had the pleasure of learning from before. Dr. Biton is a Latina immigrant with a PhD in Sociology from NYU. She is the Rosh Kehilla (communal leader) and co-founder of the Downtown Minyan in NYC. Dr. Biton gave an incredible speech on October 26, 2023 in Washington Square Park.

At the conference, she told us a personal story, a story of a Jewish cowboy, or as they are known in Argentina, a gaucho - his name was Juan Carlos Sandoval. 

Juan Carlos Sandoval was not born in Argentina but in a faraway land: Morocco. His name in Morocco was Hakovo—or Yakov. 

He came to Argentina as a boy, and he fell in love with what it meant to be an Argentinian, and for him, to be a Moroccan Jew was in tension with what it meant to be an Argentinian. So he left Buenos Aires, the capital and where the Jewish community was, and went to the country's interior. And he became a gaucho, and a singer, and that is when he changed his name to Juan Carlos Sandoval. 

Juan Carlos ended up marrying a Jewish woman. He had a son, who became a rabbi, and that rabbi had a daughter named Mijal Biton. 

His son pledged to become a Jewish warrior, to bring back a vibrant Judaism that he never had. He dedicated his life to bring more Juan Carlos Sandoval’s back to Hakovo - back to their names, their identities - their Jewish souls.

Earlier in the book of Exodus, we read that Betzalel is singled out by name, and he called the son of his father, and his grandfather. 

This, too, can teach us lessons. 

A medieval Torah commentary titled, Da’at Zekenim, notes that Chur is mentioned in this line to remind us of his sacrifice. According to our tradition, Chur lost his life while attempting to stop Bnai Israel from making the golden calf. Therefore, one of the reasons God chose Betzalel in particular, by name, is because Betzalel would atone for the murder of his grandfather and the sin of the golden calf.

This is such a powerful teaching because it reminds us that not only are we connected to our parents, but also our grandparents, and all those who came before us. Betzelel honored the sacrifice of his grandfather with the act of becoming the chief architect of the Mishkan, which many commentators believe was built as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf. 

This is Peoplehood in a broad sense. 

Midrash Tanhuma, likely commenting on the peculiar phrasing that Betzalel was ‘singled out by name’, teaches that a person is known by three names: the name by which that person’s parents call them, the name by which other people call them, and the one they earn for themselves; the most important name is the one they earn for themselves.”

In every generation, a generation of Jews earns a name for themselves. This is our moment, our moment to come out of the shadows and proudly say who we are, and what we stand for. 

For many years, we’ve stood up for many oppressed peoples - in our country, the U.S. in Darfur, in many countries in South and Central America, in China and Burma, and yes, in Israel itself including the Palestinians, but when it comes to Israel, we are asked to stand in the shadows. 

Zionists are not allowed. And so, there is the choice - to be in the limelight, to be accepted but only if you hide a piece of yourself, or, to be in the shadows because of who you are, who your mother and father were, and who your grandparents were. 

As Jews, we have benefited greatly from being citizens of America, and soaring to great heights. We gained great heights, and yes, we’ve some awards or two. We created the Jewish sovereign self to have the power to make our own decisions without any judgment. But we had to give up something we cherished for so many years - peoplehood, our connection to each other. 

It is time for us to reclaim our names and go from Juan Carlos Sandoval back to Hakovo - Yaakov. It is time for us to lean back into peoplehood and to start standing for what we believe in and bringing that into the light. 

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