We Are From Judea

I grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s in a liberal Jewish home. My parents and their friends were all quite Jewish and Zionist in their leanings. Yet they also were very attached to Russian culture as well -- my mother was born in the Ukraine. She felt very attached to Russian literature, Chekov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy to name four authors.  My father, American-born and a writer and translator, was less so. 

I remember going to bonfires in the evening on the beach of Lake Michigan in Rogers Park in the far north of Chicago.  Some people sang Russian songs, and others those of the halutzim.  Yet when I was asked where my family was from, my answer was ”from Russia. “Yet was this really true? My grandfather Zev Reuven ‘Velvel” Saposnik was murdered in the Ukraine in 1919, and soon after the rest of my mother’s family arrived in Chicago.  Several brothers had come earlier, and a sister had moved to Buenos Aires. This was a typical immigration pattern of Jews, both Russian and other,  to America in that period.

So, I grew up with a Russian-Jewish identification which never was all that clear in my mind --what part Jewish and what part Russian?  And speaking to friends whose family came from other eastern European countries, I realized their experiences were the same. We were all very happy to just be Americans.  And my mother subsequently wrote a moving book about her life titled Russian Nightmares, American Dreams which Elie Wiesel endorsed.

But in 1977, I had a profound reevaluation in this regard. It emerged from a class I sat in on when I was at Harvard on a sabbatical It was a course on Jewish history given by Yosef Yerushalmi, the esteemed Jewish historian. His mind reminded me of my father’s. He wove a brilliant historical Jewish pattern varying between Israel and the diaspora.  I wondered why I had never been exposed to this level of thinking in college or at any Jewish institution I had attended.  I remembered that at the end of his class that he explained how he had received his surname Yerushalmi.  He said something of the following. 

When the Russians census-takers  came to the town in Tzarist Russian  where his ancestor was living, they wanted to give him the surname of the town/city  he was living in.  Yerushalmi’s ancestor objected, insisting that he saw himself as a citizen of Yerushalaim, whose ancestors had been forcibly expelled from the city by the Romans. He insisted that he was from Yerushalaim and was given the surname Yerushalmi.

Although my family was certainly pro-Zionist, and visited Israel, it never occurred to any of them to declare that they were from Judea.

Over the years, the simplicity yet profundity of Professor Yerushalmi’s remarks have sunk in, especially as our people, at least the Ashkenazi portion, have been more and more accused of being nothing short of colonialists, no different than the Europeans who colonized South Africa. More and more I have come to understand there is only one response to this for an American Jew.  “I am from Judea, and as such am part of the indigenous population of Israel.” This, of course, is the underlying message of Zionism which has been so tarnished along the way. We must reclaim it.

Say after me, “We are from Judea,” by the accident of historical fate, our ancestors were born elsewhere, in the golah or perhaps the diaspora, and even if we have made our lives elsewhere, Professor Yerushalmi’s ancestor was profoundly right and prescient.

One more time, my Ashkenazi (and indeed Sephardic) Jewish American brothers and sisters. Our people came to America from Judea” -- by way of a few stops along the way.  It is time to give up identification with European countries of origin. Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Romania, Germany, Austria., Italy, Belgium,  etc., and even England. and France, let alone the Arab world, have been way stations, sometimes benign and episodically very bloody We are Judean-Americans. Pro-Israel evangelicals understand this -- why do we shy away from this identification?  Why do we shy away from a biblical identification in thinking, trusting in the false gods of Hellenism, in whatever form?

And this is the very honest and best response of American Jews to the growing charges that we are colonialists. Our people came to America from Judea -- by way of a few stops along the journey! And we are “the people of the Book.” Period.

Image: Pixabay

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