The Many Hues of Jewish Peoplehood

VILNIUS, WINTER 1994: This elderly woman, a widow of a General, was struggling with the reason why some young French Sephardic Jews were concerned enough about her People, past and future, that they had traveled all the way to Vilnius to hear her story. And we were surprised to discover how ill she thought of Sephardic Jews!

I grew up in France in a half-Moroccan, half-Tunisian family. From childhood on, I had the opportunity to interact with many Jews from other countries. Each time, I was surprised to discover that many of the values and concerns that I had as a Jew were the same as those of any other Jew. And this was not only a matter of religion or connection to Israel. It was more profound than that.

We know the complicated history of the Jews in Europe and around the Mediterranean. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, after centuries of ambivalence, distrust and frequent hostility, Jews obtained some rights and duties of regular citizens in most European countries. However, as the French revolutionary Count of Clermont Tonnerre said regarding the citizenship of the Jews in 1791, “Everything for the Jews as individuals, nothing for them as a Nation.”

Henceforth, one was no longer a Jew in France, but a French citizen with a Jewish faith – an “Israelite.” In the Twentieth Celery, many of these Israelites did not want to be associated with “the Jews” from Eastern Europe who came fleeing the Nazis, and yet they perished in the same camps. Peoplehood has a way of clinging to you even if you try to escape its clutches.

Things changed in the 1960s, after the end of the French colonial era, when Jews left North Africa for France en masse to bring new blood, practice and ideas; a new pride in being a Jew, in the words of my grandmother Gaby Yarhi, in “the Country of Victor Hugo and of Human Rights.” Also, in 1967, the Six Day War installed a political conscience about Israel and the importance of keeping it safe.

Today, the largest Jewish communities in Europe are in France, England and Hungary. Other communities struggle, with a few thousand Jews, to maintain a Jewish life. How do we keep alive the richness of our traditional culture while remaining in the countries of our birth?

For years, it has been said that it was thanks to religion that Jews remained Jews.
But these days, with so many Israeli Jews opposed to religion, and with so many Jews throughout the world choosing to live secular lives, this claim is less reliable. There was also once the claim that thanks to the creation of Israel, Jews would at last be safe. But Israel has not solved the problem of anti-Semitism, nor has it been chosen as a homeland by much of world Jewry. Now more than ever, we must articulate a new, inclusive notion of Jewish Peoplehood that might help us overcome the challenges of assimilation and the loss of Jewish values.

Rene-Samuel Sirat, former Great Rabbi of France, has summarized the issue beautifully:
“What is mandatory for both Jews from the Diaspora and Jews from Israel is the feeling of being part of the same People. The notion of Jewish Peoplehood is difficult to understand. This notion does not fit into the usual norms of thinking. For thousands of years, Jews did not live in the same territory, were not subjects of the same king, did not speak the same language. However, in the suffering of the exile, in the imposed ghettos, in the necessity of leaving everything behind in order to save their lives and practice their religion, they always considered as a fundamental value their belonging to the Jewish People.” (Rene-Samuel Sirat and Martine Lemalet, La tendresse de Dieu, Nil Editions, 1996)

Some European initiatives have been taken to revitalize European Jewry. Some, such as Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden; the European leadership program of Israel Connect; or the range of activities organized by the European Union of Jewish Students, aim their efforts at young European leaders.

Other programs are meant for broader participation. 1n England, a new concept has revolutionized the notion of Jewish Peoplehood, bringing it within everyone’s reach. Limmud, the Festival of Jewish Learning, was created in 1980, and began to spread around the world in 2000. It now reaches about 40 countries on four continents, and it continues to grow at an amazing rate.

One of the reasons for Limmud’s success is that it reinforces a feeling of being part of the Jewish People; no matter whether you are Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular or completely unaffiliated; no matter your age or your country, you are part of the Jewish People. Furthermore, the organization is run entirely by volunteers, giving each of us the opportunity to actively do something Jewish: learn, share and give.

Limmud’s conferences succeed in attracting many Jews who would otherwise have left the community, thus enhancing future Jewish leaders and presenting the full diversity and values of the Jewish People.

I now live in England, with a British Ashkenazi partner, and the Jewish community is almost like at home. The food is different, the melodies are different, but so is England. And I know that if we decide to move elsewhere in the world, we will always find this warm feeling of discovering another branch of the family – whether it’s in Italy, Argentina, Israel, the United Stales, Australia or Lithuania. Wherever we find ourselves, we will also find new dimensions of Jewish Peoplehood.

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