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OpEd: On Passover eve, a reflection on the Jewish past & Jewish future

A New York Jewish man, born and raised–that’s me, and it means a lot for the Jewish future. This is not because I’m particularly special, though my Jewish mother certainly thinks so, but because of how my family’s history tells us a little bit about the Jewish future.

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A New York Jewish man, born and raised--that's me, and it means a lot for the Jewish future. This is not because I am particularly special, though my Jewish mother certainly thinks so, but because of how my family’s history tells us a little bit about the Jewish future.

There's an important story in the Passover tradition, the Four Sons. It's a song and tale of the four types of sons that can be part of the Seder. First is the one who does not know enough to ask. I too have been that kind of person, not knowing enough to even ask the right questions about life when I needed to, but often fortunate in having the presence of helpful guiding hands. Second is the simple son, the one who can merely ask, “Why?” I too have known this wondering only to wake up to the possibilities in the dance of life. Then, there is the wicked son, the one that rejects what he has been offered by family traditions. I am this all too often. I have found that this role is not worth the costs. And, finally, there is the wise son who wants to dive into the traditions to experience all that they have to offer through tales like the Pesach story and in ways of being human. I hope to emulate and become this type of person. To be one who receives and learns, and, yes, to question with an intention to gain a deeper understanding.

Most of my great-grandparents came to the United States through Ellis Island during World War I to escape the poor conditions for Jews in Europe and to find the promise of America. They were Eastern European and Sephardic Jews. One owned a candy shop, and the other was a master seamstress. They worked hard, lived in rough conditions, and built a life in the midst of a transplanted European Jewish society in the poor sections of the Lower East Side and Harlem.

My paternal grandfather was a throwback to an earlier Diaspora to Cuba from where he came to the United States as a boy. He ended up owning a jewelry shop in the city. My maternal grandfather was a postal worker and served in World War II in that role (originally, they wanted him for the bomb squad before learning about his pre-war civil service work). Some Jews might consider this a step up from the previous generation, but my grandparents were also less religious than their parents and more open to the secular behavior by their children.

My parents lived in the Bronx. They were city school teachers with two university degrees, participants in the "counter-culture" and far from what one might call “religious.” My mother still kept the high-holidays, and some of my favorite memories growing up are of those family gatherings.

As for my Jewishness, I love eating Matzo balls and reaching for the Jewish penicillin, a bowl of chicken soup when I am sick. I attended Hebrew school at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and had a Bar Mitzvah with enjoyable parties afterward. I can fluently pronounce kiddish prayers. However, until recently, I did not know their full translation. Today, I am living in Israel in a kibbutz in order to seek a better understanding of my roots and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

My current life includes the closest thing to a real Jewish community that I have ever experienced. A kibbutz is like a socialist's dream on a micro level. Families and individuals live on the land and participate in a collective economy. There are people who work out of the kibbutz or work in the kibbutz earning wages through farm tasks like milking cows. People don't earn salaries per se. All the money they earn goes to the kibbutz. We all eat together in a communal dining hall.

The social aspect of living in a kibbutz creates a high level of commitment and richness. The kids all grow up together, and everyone knows each other. The whole community comes out to celebrate each other’s weddings, coming of age, and other commemorations. Each person goes through their life cycle events together with others in the kibbutz. Here, the life cycle is manifested in Judaic form, but this richness of life together is not unique to Judaism. Other religions like Islam, Christian, and Buddhism also can bring people together in their cycles of life. But here, it is with a kind of Jewish lens through which we view life and each other.

Yet, I'm not what many people would consider very Jewish. For instance, I like Buddhism a lot too as do a lot of non-religious Jews. Personally, I think the interest is rooted in the fact that Judaism is practiced as a culture, so non-religious Jews stray away from the religious practices while remaining culturally Jewish. They identify with the culture of Judaism rather with a set of beliefs or a country.

The non-religious Jews retain a spiritual longing as long he or she is surrounded by Jewish culture. But we have an open ended spiritual definition. Buddhism itself contains many aspects consistent with the culture of Judaism. For example, in Buddhism it isn’t necessary to identify with a main icon for one’s practice. So, non-religious Jews don't feel that they're being unfaithful to Judaism because they can practice Buddhism without touching the idols.

From a certain scheme of Jewish history, I am a tragedy of the diaspora. Among my kin—the Jews in New York City, some think that what has happened in the Diasporas is unfortunate. These critics don't consider us in the Diaspora Jewish enough.

Indeed, I have no intention of returning fully to the fold of Judaism. I am both curious and disinterested, and, to a degree, disdainful as well. I am a third generation American, Jewish by birth on both sides, but don't have any attachment to marrying Jewish (though not rejecting of the notion either). I am not Israeli and don't want to become one. Yet, I would be sad if my children had no Jewish education and culture because, when all is said and done, I am happy to be a Jewish man.

I am proud of my heritage and the strength of the Jewish people. Jews are tough, they're survivors. One of the most amazing things about Israel is the standing army. It's not really that big at any given time, but what they're able to accomplish is amazing. There's a certain something about the Jewish culture that makes me feel proud to be a part of it. I am in Israel to better understand that “something.”

I would like to respond gently to the critics: younger Jews do not need to be brought back into the folds of Judaism.The biggest need for Jews is not more Jewish religious practices done in the traditional way. We don't need to start wearing yamakas to be Jews. We are not lost; we do not need to be found; or to “rise again.” The young New York City Jews who grew up in the Jewish culture need not worry about being unworthy Jews. In fact, we are, in some ways, a hope of the Jewish people.

I do not want to see the Judaic culture die out but to grow with the times. It's about having a forward perspective toward creating a progressive social movement that defines what is Jewish.

As long as the global Jewish society does not cast us young Jews out or try to force change on us, younger Jews will create new social movements that will become the vanguard of bringing Judaism into the Twenty First Century. The renewal can start with something as simple as the creation of secular Jewish community groups or laxer provisions for kosher eating. More importantly, young Jews want to connect being Jewish to environmental protection, peace activism, dialog projects, and justice advocacy. Without such a strategy, the future Jews will go down the path that they have been traveling: a general de-identification from Judaism and its history. Passover is a time to reflect on what role we will take as Jewish people.

Each year at my family's Seder, I have reflected on the types of Jewish son that I have been. I remember that I have participated in Passover in Guatemala, Israel, and New York City. I ignored Passover for some of my college years. Then, I reflect that nothing has been more special for me than to think about how we are as Jews and who we will become while taking a bite of the traditional apples and nuts mixture on Matzos with my family.

The past got us to where we are: alive and better off than ever. Now, at this year’s Passover, it is a good time to consider letting go of the old ways and to evolve our Jewish identity. We should love our Passover history not because of who we once were, but because of the strength it gives us to work toward who we might become.

I am a New York Jewish man, born and raised, darn proud of it, and I won't forget. And to be honest, I'm ready for us Jews to go forward with non-Jews to carry our cultures together so that we forge something new together.

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, project manager and media producer.  A recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program, he is completing studies in Israel at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan.  Currently he is leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation, developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth, helping others to do the same.

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