What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world today?
When I announced my plans to marry a Jew and convert to his religion, everyone assumed I was doing it for my fiancé. When I told friends that he greeted my decision with bemused indifference, they were baffled: “So if he doesn’t care, and you don’t believe in God, why on earth would you do it?” God, I explained, had nothing to do with it. It was about history. Since Judaism is passed through the maternal line (a fact I admired for its hard-headed pragmatism as well as its feminist implications), there was no way I was going to become the end of a tradition that had made it through Roman sackings, Babylonian exile, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms and the Shoah. And reciting the ancient Hebrew blessings encourages me to notice the small gifts of daily life—the dew on the grass, the new moon, the swift grace and subtle hues of sparrows. Slow down, take a minute, bless the bread and be grateful. This, I tell myself, is what Jews do. This is who I am. What can we offer the world? I think of the poem: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” The world is a tangle of the beautiful and the ugly, the cruel and the gentle, the funny and the tragic. We know from the Torah that it has always been this way and from the sages that it is our business to mend it.
Geraldine Brooks is the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for March.
I’m part of the generation that changed their name so they’d get hired. I went from Kaminsky to Brooks. My mother’s name was Brookman. But I couldn’t fit Brookman on the drums. I was a drummer. So I got as far as Brook and then put on an “s.” There was a lot of comedy when I was a little kid, street corner comics. We couldn’t own railroads, so prize fighting and comedy were open to us. We’re still comedians. Maybe because Jews cried for so long, it was time to laugh. Who knows? I started in the Borscht Belt with terrible jokes. The first joke I ever wrote, I think, was, “You can’t keep Jews in jail, they eat lox.” I’ve seen Jews come through an awful lot in my life, especially the Holocaust. In the Army, I suffered a lot of anti-Semitism. Sometimes, I suffered a lot of curiosity from southerners: “Mel, what’s a Jew? What do you people eat?” There’s much less stigma attached to being Jewish today than there used to be. But it’s still an excuse for gathering hate and anti-Semitism. What can we offer the world? We can still offer what Maimonides and Moses laid down. We can offer the law of human behavior. We astonishingly were one of the first cultures to create this thing called law, what is right and what is wrong, based on the tenets of the Old Testament. And, if they want something tasty, we can certainly offer matzoh brei.
Mel Brooks is a comedian, writer, actor, director and producer.
Jews have a particular model of thinking about the relationship between law and ethics from which there is much to learn. Secular law is a white line—you are either on the legal or the illegal side of it. Jewish tradition is about shades of gray. In Judaism, something can be legal but discouraged, frowned upon but not prohibited. Medical bioethics is about shades of gray and is one area in which Jewish tradition has had an enormous impact on secular American law. For example, in sharp contrast to the stance taken by the Catholic Church, all major Jewish denominations have stood in favor of stem cell research, provided that it is carried out for medical or therapeutic purposes. As Jews we can continue to offer the world reasonable answers to complex biomedical and other ethical questions in the name of religion.
Michael Broyde is a rabbi and law professor at Emory University.