How to be Jewish in a Non-Jewish World

February 21, 2013 12:58 pm 1 comment

Jewish boy reads Bar Mitzvah. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs.

Unlike a generation ago, today the walls of the ghetto no longer sequester us from the rest of society. We fraternize and do business with non-Jews on a daily basis and have become fully adjusted to western culture. The contemporary question is how do we strike a balance between retaining our Jewish identity while at the same time being citizens of the world, especially when that world may be indifferent or even hostile to our Jewishness?

This week, we read about the pure olive oil necessary for the kindling of the Menorah (candelabra) in the Mishkan (tabernacle), Moses’ Sanctuary and the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that oil holds the secret formula for how to successfully live a proud Jewish life in an environment which may be far from Jewishly conducive.

Oil, you see, is a paradox. It contains conflicting characteristics and puzzling properties. On the one hand, it mixes easily and spreads very quickly, seeping through and permeating the material it comes in contact with. Ever try drying the excess oil off a potato latke? Good luck. Your serviette will be very oily indeed in no time at all.

On the other hand, when mixed with other liquids, oil stubbornly rises to the surface and refuses to be absorbed by anything else. (I remember in my student days in Yeshiva, one of my roommates had no menorah for Chanukah. Rather ingeniously, he collected 8 empty bottles, filled them almost to the top with water and then poured some olive oil into the bottles. I was most intrigued to see the oil remain clearly distinguishable from the water as it floated above the water. He then added the wick, lit it, and his makeshift menorah worked like a charm. A modern day Chanukah miracle!)

In other words, like oil, Jews too will often find themselves mixing in a wide variety of circles – social, business, civic, communal or political. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. At the very same time, though, we need to remember never to lose our own identity. We should never mix to the point of allowing our own Jewish persona to be swallowed or diluted.

When in outside circles, we often feel a strong pressure, whether real or imagined, to conform to the norms around us. Few among us enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. The fact is, however, that other people respect us more when we respect ourselves. If we are casual and cavalier in our commitment to our own national principles, then our non-Jewish associates might worry whether we might not betray them next.

Just one example. Every major city of the world has any number of kosher restaurants filled with Jewish business people entertaining non-Jewish partners, clients, or would-be clients. Some establishments may be more upmarket than others, but everyone seems to manage and the deals get done. One can be perfectly sociable without giving up one’s principles. Most people are quite happy to accommodate individual needs and sensitivities. It seems to me that it is the Jews who complain more about kosher food than the non-Jews. Our apprehensions about stating our religious requirements are often exaggerated and unfounded. Provided we do it honestly, respectfully and consistently, our adherence to a code of values will impress our associates and inspire them with greater confidence in our trustworthiness in all areas of activity.

My dear friend, the late, lamented Dr Rodney Unterslak,  was a young doctor when he was called up for a stint of national military service. He was very obviously religious from his yarmulke and beard. In fact, the beard didn’t exactly meet army regulations and it was only with great difficulty that he managed to obtain special permission to keep it. Far from being a nuisance, he conducted himself with dedication and integrity and at the end of his tour of duty walked away with the Surgeon General’s top award for excellence. That was a Kiddush Hashem – a public sanctification of G-d by a proud, practicing Jew who found himself in a decidedly un-Jewish environment.

Compromising our values and principles is a sure way to lose the respect we crave from the world around us. Dignity, pride and self-respect earn us the esteem and admiration of those around us, whether Jews or non-Jews. It is a time-tested and well-proven method.

Just learn from the oil. By all means, spread around and socialize. But remember your uniqueness. Be distinctive and proud and know where to draw the line.

Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.

1 Comment

  • the oLive branch was given to Noah from a white dove for the assurance of LIFE once again. We too must obtain this kind of Trust and confidence of the symbol behind our Creators methods to sustain LIFE. May His annointing be upon us ALL. Shalom

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.