What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world today?
The Jews are known as “the people of the book,” but we could have been “the people of the body,” too. It’s the body that carries the books. It’s the body that remembers the stories. It’s the bodies that touch each other when we stand in a circle. It’s the body that stood up to the pogroms. Our bodies are sources of knowledge, memory and deep connections that are inexpressible through language. But we decided to define ourselves as the people of the book and that has been both fantastic and difficult for us. The difficult part is being addressed today with a renaissance of artistic activity in the Jewish community. We can offer the world our notion of survival. We’ve absorbed massive amounts of beautiful things from the cultures in which we lived, visited, even were oppressed by. I am interested in the compromise that emerges from these influences. I don’t see compromise as a bad thing but as the border where we negotiate what we’re going to keep and what we’re going to let go of. Being Jewish is a daily act of creation. We can’t keep out our creative impulses because they’re so-called “not rational.” You cannot survive unless you keep and let go, keep and let go. And that is painful and sad—and very inspiring.
Liz Lerman is the founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
What it means to be Jewish today is what it has always meant to be Jewish, which is to bring together memory, the past and the quest that is part of the Jewish sense of life. Being Jewish is not just a one liner. It’s a complex tradition with many different strands, both religious and secular. The challenge and meaning of being Jewish today is to bring together the various, often even contradictory, threads of the Jewish tradition into the future. It’s to assert the very deep Jewish values that are always under threat in any contemporary society. What Jews offer the world today is to question the world. The fantastic thing about being Jewish is that Jewishness offers freedom of discourse and imagination in all directions. There’s no limit to it; that’s the eternal. That’s the Jewish mind. It’s very important for us to bring something positive to the world in which there is so much negativity. Ultimately, despite all that has befallen the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition is a tradition of joyfulness, of celebration. Above all else, that is a key to what Jews can offer to the world: to be the leaders against dark shadows.
Daniel Libeskind is an architect and artist.
To me, being Jewish today means what it has always meant—a covenantal responsibility to honor and enjoy God’s creations (natural and human), and to do whatever we can to protect and improve their existence. But being Jewish today also means something unique—being blessed to be alive at an extraordinary time in Jewish history, when so many of us have the privilege of being citizens of the United States, which has provided Jews with more freedom, opportunity and respect than any other country in history, and when the State of Israel has been re-established after centuries of praying and working for that result. As Jews, we can try, each in our own way, to advance and implement the great principles of ethics, justice and humaneness that were given at Sinai.
Joseph Lieberman is a United States senator from Connecticut.
What it means to be Jewish today is to be an African-American-Jewish woman. People need to understand that the choice to be Jewish cuts across different racial identities. We are not looking to be integrated and absorbed. We are a manifestation of what Judaism has become. We are the Jewish community. If I lined all of us up as a Jewish people in terms of color, we would look more like the United Nations than the United Nations itself. Yet what binds us together is deeper than skin color. Our morals, ethics and values have impacted the world. The Exodus was the model the Founding Fathers used to found our country. The United States of America was supposed to be the next Zion. The idea of freedom that permeates the Bible is what helped to create the Constitution of the United States. Care for the stranger is the model that Jews can give to the world in a graceful way. We must understand that it’s not those who have and those who don’t, it is who we all are when we stand before God.
Yavilah McCoy founded Ayecha, a Jewish diversity resource organization.