This is part one of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Jewish – a concept I have struggled with my entire life. As in – what does it mean to be Jewish? Of course this is a perennial question in Jewish history. It’s never solved once and for all. Each generation responds. Each generation’s response is – their answer. What is ours?
After the Holocaust, the question arose again. Extreme times heighten the “what does it mean to be Jewish” question. Now there is another after, as in after Israel – and what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people.
In Cape Canaveral, I hoped to put this question behind me for a while. After all, everyone needs some time to rest, especially after a harrowing year of fighting against the powers-that-be. But then on my first walk to the beach, I notice that the last house on the street has a huge mezuzah affixed to the door. Later I learned the home is owned by local congregation. The Rabbi stays there on weekends.
Or so it seems. As far as I can tell there isn’t a synagogue in town. The closest synagogues are in Melbourne and Orlando, at least 30 some miles away. But, strangely enough, there is a Jews for Jesus storefront just a few blocks from where I am staying. I pass by it on the way to the grocery store.
The Mezuzah was part of my childhood. Wherever I have lived I affix them to my doorposts. But to be honest, when I see one now – and right on my way to the beach! – I feel a sense of pain. As if violence is about to come my way. I don’t know the rabbi who stays there so it may be unfair, but in my own experience a mezuzah on the door often means that the occupant of the home is an Israel Firster. Most Israel Firsters don’t want the likes of me around. (This, of course, doesn’t mean that Israel Firsters knows anything about Israel. It is the idea of Israel that is the point. No doubt, it makes undying loyalty easier too.)
What happens when a religious symbol of such importance becomes a sign of violence against you – or at least when that is your first thought when the symbol appears? As if the mezuzah is following you!
Perhaps it’s like the Cross for my Christian friends – a sign of historical contradiction. Or what Palestinians feel when they see Jewish sacred symbols. I would think that they experience what I do when I see a Cross. It seems logical since the Cross became a sign of our oppression and things Jewish are signs of Palestinian oppression.
Speaking of Jews for Jesus, I’ve noticed such a strong antipathy toward these “wayward” Jews that blinds our own waywardness. Perhaps this is purposeful. We deflect outward what we don’t want to see within.
Where I lived previously, the local congregations would get up in arms when Jews for Jesus came to town. Voices were raised. On the Israel front, though, whatever was done to Palestinians was alright, even necessary. Arabs in general were included in this “necessary.” I often wondered if their voices would be as loud if Israel dropped a nuclear bomb on Cairo – or, more immediately, Tehran. I wondered but my wonderment was rhetorical. I knew the answer.
That’s how far we Jews have come. What an arrival! After the Holocaust, we needed power. Now we have it. What do we do with it? Want more power. Has power healed the trauma of the Holocaust? Not at all. The trauma festers. Meanwhile Jewish dissenters are confused and often abused by those who wield power in the Jewish community. So much so that the Mezuzah on the door has become a sign of contradiction. To others. To ourselves.