Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be part of a people – not a person, but a member of a group that provides some context for your life. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to provide a respite in the fighting of the Civil War, a much needed break to reflect on a tortuous path to the present.
I became fascinated with the idea of peoplehood five years ago when my wife and I participated in a two-year project to explore where we came from with cohorts from Israel and northern New Jersey. Our group included those of Ukranian, Georgian, Moldovan, Russian, Moroccan, Yemenite, eastern European, western European, Latin American and Israeli descent. For two years we wrestled with the question of “what does it mean to be a people” – not a race, not a religion, not a geography, not any physically identifying characteristic – just a people. It’s a hard question. It gets to the issue of what it means to be part of the American people.
Things crystallized for me over the course of just a few months. In April 2013 we visited Babi Yar, the site of a WWII mass murder of Jews on the outskirts of Kiev. I lost my composure; I could not help but think, as we stood on the side of a ravine while people pushed baby strollers and skateboarded through the park, that I was standing grave side for some members of my family that never left that part of Russia in the early 20th century. Our peoplehood survived that horror.
Two days later, we were back in Israel, celebrating Independence Day, when my Twitter feed lit up about the Boston Marathon bombing, an attempt to strike fear into the very city that had been so critical in defining American peoplehood. Our Israeli hosts, most of whom had been literally under rocket attacks over the previous months, instantly knew how to comfort us. Our peoplehood bridged that horror.
It wasn’t until months later, during a family celebration that involved reading the Torah portion Ki Tavo that the pieces fell into place. Ki Tavo starts with a celebration of all of the wonders that the promised land will bring the Jews, if only they can act ethically and morally. The passage contains a long and Biblically colorful list of curses — not verbal but life-affecting disasters — that befall those who fail to keep their end of the behavioral bargain. The last curse is that you’ll be returned to Egypt – the implication is that you’re reverted to slavery. You have to read the passage in an undervoice so as not to call undue attention to it.
The worst curse in the Torah is that you lose your place in a people, your sense of peoplehood, your personal set of tribes.
That’s why I’m dedicated to standing up and working with those who feel that their peoplehood is threatened. Whether skin color or country of origin or the way you express your faith, your love, your gender, your desire to control your own body, your need for healthcare, your need for chronic care, or just your eating preferences, the most American – ethical, moral, leading the world – thing I can think of is to help protect your rights of being and belonging.
[Ed note: if you want an interesting take on the need to co-exist within peoples of all stripes and shapes, read the interpretation of “exile” in this Torah portion.]
[Ed note 2: I decided to transcribe this into a blog post after reading this piece in the Times (NSFW language), h/t to Alan and others for sharing it]