What makes a proud Jew?

Most American Jews, if asked, would assert confidently that they are proud to be Jewish. What happens, though, if one tries to probe a little deeper, and asks, "Why are you proud to be Jewish?" To such a question, these same Jews will very likely pause awkwardly, before offering vague generalities about three thousand years of history, or a commitment to social justice. Why are you proud to be Jewish? It's a simple question, but for many of us the answer is elusive.

Looking around at what the nations of the world have created, one would be hard-pressed to make the case that the Jewish nation can stand among them with pride. Jewish composers, yes, but Jewish music? Jewish artists, yes, but Jewish art? Jewish architects, yes, but Jewish architecture? We find no shortage of individual achievements, but where are the achievements of the vaunted Jewish civilization? Despite our extraordinarily long history, with experience in almost every place and culture in the world, our resume of national accomplishment is notably sparse. The self-defined proud Jew can only wonder embarrassedly, what exactly have we done with our three millennia of history and culture? In honesty, the Jewish nation can really only lay claim to one national achievement. There is only one thing to which the entire people has loyally devoted its energies, one thing it can point to as a realm of accomplishment. What is the Jewish people's sole accomplishment over the last 3,300 years? The answer is: holiness.

Fortunate is the Jew who has been given the tools to develop his sensitivity to holiness, for such a Jew has been empowered to perceive the exalted nature of Jewish history. The empowered Jew knows intuitively what there is to be proud of from the three millennia of self-sacrifice for Torah and Yiddishkeit that has produced an abundance of intellectual and ethical giants not found in the world at large. This Jew can understand the simple beauty of unlearned people who labored and sacrificed in order to pass Torah to the next generation, people who strove to sanctify themselves and their own "four cubits" of this world. This Jew can be awed by this nation that never stopped trying to live according to G-d's rules in a defiant world that prefers to make its own. A Jew empowered by his tradition stands humbled before his ancestors, warriors of the spirit, who overcame all attempts to silence the voice of Torah from the world, who dug wells of holiness from which their descendants, even today, can slake their spiritual thirst.

There is another Jew, and sadly this is most of us, who never received the tools to understand Torah. On the contrary, this Jew was taught that the holy texts of his ancestors are a patchwork of fragments, myths and legends, conjured up by primitive Hebrew minds (or, slightly more generously, that they are the prolific literary output of assorted Semitic scribes and poets); that the Divine laws which the Jewish people have literally given their lives for in every generation are simply ancient taboos, clung to in exile out of naive ignorance. Such a Jew has no way to explain why he is proud to be a Jew, because, quite honestly, how could he be? How could he be proud that his ancestors made the study of "old myths and legends" the primary focus of their lives, individually and communally, oddly insisting that the well-being and very existence of the world depends on it? How could he be proud that generation after generation sacrificed wealth, status, and well-being in order to remain faithful to a way of life that was already ancient and "outdated" even in the Middle Ages?

This Jew, who has been taught that Yiddishkeit is nothing but a compilation of man-made legends and vestigial desert customs, will find that his ancestors - in fact, the entire Jewish people - offer little in which to take pride. After all, who in their right mind could be proud of such stiff-necked rigidity masquerading as piety and perseverance? Isn't it time to say goodbye to this nonsense once and for all?

Alas, for a minority of Jews, it is indeed time to cut the roots, and they devote considerable energy to opposing or ridiculing the Jewish religion and its practitioners, which they find to be a painful embarrassment. Others simply ignore ?Jewish? as a meaningful component of their identities, and abandon themselves and their children to the abyss of assimilation and intermarriage.

A considerable number, however, continue to assert that they are "proud Jews," though they rarely pause to consider what exactly it is in which they take pride. Nonetheless, something inside them makes this claim of pride, despite that it runs contrary to what they've been taught, contrary to the demeaning theories that they have been led to believe are the "verifiable truth." Such an assertion of Jewish pride, in defiance of the inability to understand it, is an act of what Chassidic philosophy calls "going above the intellect." It is considered above intellect because it comes from a source far higher than the intellect - from the "pintele Yid," the spark of pure Jewish essence. Like the lone jug of olive oil that escaped defilement at the hands of the Greeks, it testifies to their stubborn inner will to cling to their birthright, their unbreakable connection to the greater Jewish destiny in all its purity and holiness. And like that lone jug of oil, this little spark is miraculously capable of giving light, where before there was only darkness and impurity.

Let such a Jew taste the sweetness of Torah and the wisdom of the sages, or encounter the selfless warmth of a truly pious fellow-Jew, or experience the sanctity of a lovingly observed Sabbath. Let such a Jew commit to sacrifice one television program a week in exchange for sitting and learning about his rightful inheritance, connecting his (or her) soul to the Divine wellsprings which are its source. Let such a Jew re-establish his inner understanding that he is a first-born son of the Creator of the World, that he is the child of prophets and kings, and that his destiny is to lead the world away from its dark self-obsession and to guide it towards the light of G-dliness. Awaken such a Jew to the holiness of the Jewish people, and then he or she will know, with great satisfaction, the answer to that painful question we should all be asking ourselves: Why are you proud to be Jewish?


Yaakov Nathan, a developer of internet applications, lives in the New York area with his wife and three young children. He can be reached at YNathan5763@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2002, Yaakov Nathan.