19 May 2009

Which Comes First?

The image of Obama and Netanyahu, the two leaders of the Jews, meeting in the White House this week, had me thinking.

Oh, let me explain.

Obama, supported by at least 80% of American Jewry in the 2008 election and likely more than that now with his steadily high approval ratings, is arguably the most well-known and well regarded and broadly supported leader of American Jewry as a civic component of American democracy. By comparison, Bibi Netanyahu, as the leader of the coalition government in Israel--who actually polled second to Tzipi Livni in the recent elections in Israel (who, by the way, now finds herself in the minority after failing to form a government)--polls less well than Obama among American Jews.

It leads one to all sorts of interesting conclusions, not all of which can be addressed her but one: when working with kids on their bar/bat mitzvah portions, I find it interesting to engage them as American citizens with regard to the Torah texts in front of them.

Today I had two seventh graders who were particularly engaged with their own notions of American universalism and attempting to understand their American identities in the context of their own Jewish particularism. In other words, I think one can generalize that with most kids who come through my office to talk about their Torah portions, they are more focused on their secular identities and their secular educational goals than they are on the abiding Jewish particularities of their evolving identities. The trick, educationally speaking, is in finding ways to make these systems relate to one another. And to the point of Jewish leadership, I began testing kids by showing them pictures of Obama and Netanyahu talking to each other in the White House. This prompted the interesting responses, notably that Obama was more recognized than Bibi. Maybe not a surprise but still, nonetheless, telling.

And so it leaves me asking myself which questions organize the identity formation of these young kids? And how does Torah speak to their own particular identity? To their collective identity? And to what degree are families framing these questions as well? And finally, what does it all say about the tension between the individual and the collective, the self and the community, the American and the Jew?

I wonder, always, am I raising a generation of American Jews or Jewish Americans? Which comes first for us? For you?

1 comment:

Dave said...

I have long posed the question you ask.

Before giving my answer, let me address your observation regarding your students being more able to recognize the president of the United States than the prime minister of Israel. "Maybe not a surprise but still, nonetheless, telling," you say.

Telling of what? That some seventh grade students in Brooklyn are not well versed on the names and faces of foreign heads of government?. (If so, that puts them in the company of then Texas governor Gov George W. Bush when he was running for president in 2000.)

And who or what is a "Jewish" leader. Is Mayor Bloomberg one seeing how he leads the city with the largest Jewish population in the country if not the world? The same question regarding any prominent elected official (exempting those like Simcha Felder, Noach Dear and Dov Hikind) who are Jewish but hold secular offices. Prominent Jews they are. Jewish leaders? Maybe. But maybe not.

You, you are a Jewish leader by virtue of your role. Who else would you be leading? Lutherans?

As for the question of Which Comes First or, which is the noun and which is the adjective, as one who received slight if any sense of Jewish identity in his own home (had to go to Grandma's for it) but was regularly reminded by the Irish and Italian kids he lived among that he was a "Jew" I have asked that question many many times.

Today, and for some time now, the answer is I am a Jewish American. One, who you know first hand, along with his wife and son (the next generation) is a regular temple goer.

And, yes, I could ID Bibi in a picture as I could his predecessor and his predecessor before him. Think any of the Italian kids I grew up with could pick Silvio Berlusconi out of a lineup?