My wife and I have been accepted into the Jewish Federation’s “Peoplehood Project” of MetroWest NJ for 2012-2013. With our 50th birthdays and 25th wedding anniversary coming up, we thought this would be an appropriate way to celebrate (the trip back to Italy for the prosciutto visit is another story, and decidedly along a different axis of peoplehood). We’ll be traveling to Israel to explore what it means to be a member of the Jewish people, and how we can be better ambassadors between, and within, our countries. In 2013 we’ll visit the Ukraine, from where most of my family emigrated in the early 20th century, and something that will force me to learn Russian beyond “Uncle Ivan lives in Brighton” (as far as I got with the cassette tape Teach Yourself Russian). I’m most eager to see how our collective viewpoint rotates from the Jewish American to the American who is also a Jew, and to experience as many points as possible along that curve.
For me, the “peoplehood” question stems from discovering new lights who identify as Stars of David, whether it’s musicians, athletes, or business executives. I adore Geddy Lee (bass player for Rush, son of Holocaust survivors, and Canadian to boot) and know that “Geddy” is his proper name “Gary” passed through his grandmother’s Eastern European Yiddishkeit filter. Recently Geddy commented that the Rush song Red Sector A was based on a story of concentration camp liberation. Trivia like this is one more level of detail below Adam Sandler’s “Hankuah Song.” It certainly makes me listen to the album differently, changing the relative word order of “Jewish,” “prog rock” and “fan.” Internalizing culture is a foundation of peoplehood. That and falafel, I think.
In our last few trips to Israel and when hosting Israeli students in NJ, I’ve been struck by the contrast between Israelis and Americans when it comes to how we identify with popular culture. What I found among Israelis is an attraction to the facets of our American lives that resemble pop culture, rather than the Jewish aspects that put us in a small American minority. Being Jewish is just table stakes for Israelis – doing something that they’ve seen in a slice-of-American life movie is interesting. They don’t need Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” to remind them of Jewish celebrities; but they will gladly go to a local, non-celebrated football game to sample a different kind of Friday Night lights.
One of the themes I expect to come up is that of sustainability – how do we ensure that our diverse, geographically and culturally distant communities pay attention to and look out for each other? The prospective downside – failure to create diverse but thriving communities – makes Neal Peart’s Red Sector A haunting lyrics a rallyng cry.