Except for the strictly “Orthodox,” frum, religious folk, who carry the torch of traditional Judaism on into the 21st century, most American Jews find themselves somewhere along a great spectrum of Jewish practice.
For some, their Judaism is mainly expressed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and maybe on Passover. Others admit to their Judaism on Saturdays and holidays. Some just say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter.” Others do celebrate Christmas, but also Hannukah and Yom Kippur.
Differences between Jews abound. There is an internal struggle to set ourselves apart as Jews while at the same time trying to fit in to the secular or largely Christian America in which we live. From this struggle was born the Reform movement (due to a similar struggle in 19th century Germany), the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionists.
We dress like our Gentile counterparts. We go to restaurants with them, attend their schools, watch their television shows and movies, benefit from pre- and post-“holiday” sales in the stores, enjoy our day off on December 25. Some of us even date Gentiles, marry Gentiles, raise our children as “half-Jewish” or both Christian and Jewish, or with no religion, to save them the same struggle.
But on the other hand, we want to be different. We have our own jargon, some of which has worked its way into common usage. We have our own foods, like gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. And we want children to sing Hannukah songs in school (as if teaching “I Have A Little Dreidel” counts as sharing Jewish culture) and to see the “Rugrats” Passover on TV. We laugh about Ross’s Hannukah Armadillo on “Friends”, we revel in Adam Sandler’s spoofs. We have an innate desire to seek out our own kind, to share that which makes us different from the others, just as we long to participate in all those things which make us the same as those others.
Thus, we end up picking and choosing from the codes of Jewish Law, the halacha. If we’re not going to do it all, then we are instead going to figure out how much we “can do” and still be comfortable in our own American skins. We’ll keep kosher in our own homes but not outside. We’ll go to services on Saturdays. We’ll fast on Yom Kippur, light Hannukah candles, and eat matzah on Passover. But it’s just too hard to pray three times a day, every day, or never to eat out at a restaurant, and how can we explain to our kids that they can’t play soccer because the games are on Shabbat?
I’m not here to pass judgment on those who pick and choose. I’m guilty of the same. I am of a mind that every mitzvah a Jew does adds to the holiness of the Jewish people and encourages the perpetuation of Judaism. I am also of a mind that the more mitzvot a Jew does, the more likely he is to continue to do mitzvot and to pass along Judaism to his children.
But there’s that desire, that need, to be the same: to be able to discuss the Oscars and what Meryl Streep was wearing, to be able to go out for lunch with our coworkers, to buy those cute jeans on sale in J.C. Penney, to have our kids participate in the extracurricular activities that call to them, to attend the company retreat.
The only thing I can say, then, is that it is important, too, to be different, and it is good to be different. Because being different from others makes us the same as each other. And the more we assimilate, the more obligations we cast off rather than undertake, the faster our 3000+-year-old religion, culture, heritage will die out. And I fervently hope that no Jewish person honestly wants to see that happen.