With parshat Vay’chi, we reach the final parsha of the book of Genesis. An ailing Jacob prepares to offer a final blessing to his children. He tells Joseph that Joseph’s own sons, Ephraim and Menasseh “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon,” and Jacob therefore will offer them blessings as well. When Joseph brings his sons to Jacob, Jacob says, “Who are these?” The Torah tells us that Jacob’s eyes were dimmed with age. Perhaps this was the problem. Or maybe, as Louis Ginzberg suggests in Legends of the Jews, he didn’t recognize them because, having been born and raised in Egypt, they appeared, acted, and dressed like Egyptians. They didn’t “look” Jewish.
As modern, liberal American Jews, many of us don’t “look,” “act,” or “seem” Jewish. Our Judaism is a piece of our identity, whether major or minor, that we carry inside. Some of us can hide it, if we choose. That is our privilege (one not afforded to people whose minority status is visible on their skin or through clothing mandated by their religion.) But despite our ability to hide it, if we choose, we are a member of a minority group that faces increasing threat around the world and, sadly, here at home.
This past week, sixteen Jewish Community Centers received bomb threats. One of these was at a location very close to home where I and several members of our choir perform annually. This isn’t some far off threat in Europe. It’s not a story from our history. This is now, today. This is happening here. Swastikas, threats, and anti-Semitic hate speech have suddenly blossomed all across the country. Because I know history, I deeply and viscerally want to hide. And because I know history, I also want to cling even harder to my culture and traditions because if our fear leads us to hide and our traditions disappear, the ones who hate us win.
We are American Jews and we are also Jewish Americans. Both halves are integral to who we are. We ask ourselves today as Jacob asked of his grand-children, “Who are these?” I can only answer for me. I am Jewish. I am American. I am proud and strong and defiant. I will cling to both of these identities with all of the strength of my being and will abandon neither in my quest to make both communities better. I hope that you will join me.
Cantor Sally Neff