Jewish Identity

The other day, I happened upon an NPR Tiny Desk concert from 2016 featuring the wonderful Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs fame and since then a successful solo artist). Merchant was accompanied by three musicians: an accordionist, a bassist, and a guitarist. It was an excellent set, and toward its end, Merchant invited the audience to a sing-along. She chose a Protestant hymn, but then she seemed to feel that she needed to assure her audience that it was ecumenically friendly. As proof of this, she noted that neither she nor any of the three musicians was Protestant (she said of herself, “I’m Catholic, so that just shows my open-mindedness”). When she turned to the accordionist, she said: “Uri’s Jewish, the real Jewish, like Israeli Jewish.”
    I immediately wondered what Uri thought of being categorized in this manner. After all, Israeli secular Jews are not known for their strong Jewish identity (Jewishness is implied in Israel and if you are not religious you may identify more as Israeli than Jewish). I was happy to discover that unlike many successful Israeli musicians who work abroad, Uri Sharlin’s home remains in Israel. He lives in Rehovot where, according to his Facebook page, he is a “musician and music teacher.” I whatsapped Uri to see if he wanted to comment on Merchant’s statement (I prefaced my query by writing: “this is surely one of the strangest notes that you ever received”). Uri wrote back in a friendly manner (“Nice to meet you; yes, one of the strangest”), but he said: “this sounds like a question for Natalie and not for me. By the way, I’m not sure that there is a need to delve too deeply precisely into my Jewish identity.”
    Despite Uri’s reticence, and despite the fact that Merchant clearly made her comment in a humorous spirit, I believe that there is deep significance to her words. Merchant’s remark was in essence a classic statement of Reconstructionist thought, as outlined by Mordecai Kaplan in his magnum opus Judaism As A Civilization (1934). Kaplan maintained that Judaism is not just a religion but includes all aspects of the Jewish people’s culture. While the Jewish religion is a crucial part of this culture, other elements include Jewish food, music, literature, sports, languages, and art. This is why Kaplan was an ardent Zionist and why he chose to live out the last years of his very long life in Israel (he died in 1983 at the age of 102): Israel is the only place in the world where Judaism is not just the Jewish religion but is the aggregate of the cultural endeavors of the Jewish people. 
    Natalie Merchant, though unintentionally, validated and proved the wisdom of Mordecai Kaplan. Uri Sharlin is “the real Jewish” because Judaism is not just a religion—and only in Israel is Judaism not relegated and pigeonholed into a narrow religious culture. I think it is incredible that Natalie Merchant identified Uri Sharlin as “the real Jewish” solely on the basis of his being Israeli. Ironically, perhaps Uri has a narrow view of Judaism and so he is not comfortable speaking about his Jewishness.
    But Merchant did not connect Uri’s Jewishness to anything having to do with the Jewish religion; she connected it to Uri’s being “Israeli Jewish” i.e., a citizen of the one country in the world where Jewishness is not tied to Jewish religious ritual or tradition. This is why Natalie could make her statement so assuredly without necessarily ascertaining whether or not Uri observed Shabbat, kept kosher, or fasted on Yom Kippur. It was enough for her to know that Uri is Israeli in order to speak of him as “the real Jewish.” I’d like to imagine that somewhere, at the end of that Tiny Desk concert, Mordecai Kaplan was smiling and singing along.

Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.


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