In a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr to the students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967, King told the students not to be ashamed of their skin color. He encouraged them to develop “a deep belief” in their own dignity and worth and never be ashamed of themselves as black people. He criticized those who were lured into purchasing cosmetics advertised to make black people lighter or trying to make their hair straighter. “Somehow you must be able to say in your own lives, and really believe it – I am black but beautiful”.
When I first heard this inspirational speech I immediately thought of our own Jewish community. How proud are we American Jews of our own ethnicity and heritage?
While there are of course some who truly take pride in being Jewish, too many of us would prefer not to remind anyone of it. The comic Jackie Mason loves to poke fun at Jewish parents who purposely give their kids non-Jewish sounding names: “Tiffany Schwartz, Ashley Lifshitz… I know one kid whose name is Crucifix Finkelstein!” he jokingly remarked.
But this is not a new problem. Having lived in so many other societies and cultures over the centuries, and having tried so hard to be accepted by those cultures, the pride we take in our own Jewish culture has been seriously challenged. The historian Josephus Flavius, writing on Jewish life during the Hellenist period of the Greek empire, wrote of Jewish boys who went to great pains to cover up their circumcisions. Many of the Greek games were played in the neud and many young Jews were eager to appear more Greek than Jewish.
Fast forward to 1930 when Albert Einstein was asked by Zionist leader Chaim Weitzman to go to America to raise funds for a future Jewish State in Palestine. Einstein was then approached by some of the Jewish leadership in Germany and urged not to go with Weitzman so German Jewry would not appear to possess dual loyalties. The leadership, or at least some of them, felt it important for Germany’s Jews to have an allegiance only to Germany and not also to a future Jewish State. Einstein went with Weitzman anyway but the need to feel accepted once again robbed the Jewish community of the kind of pride a people needs to have.
This is why my favorite biblical figure is Joseph. For Joseph, in all his time as viceroy of Egypt, never abandons his Jewish identity. When Pharoh fetches Joseph from prison to interpret his dreams, despite the fact that Pharoh viewed himself and was worshipped as a god, Joseph repeatedly invokes his belief in a transcendental God: “it is not me, but rather God who interprets dreams” (Genesis 41:25). The Jewish Sages assert that Joseph maintained “the image of his father”, an image of the patriarch Jacob from the old country, which guided Joseph’s behavior throughout his years in Egypt.
And it never impeded his success. The more Joseph invokes God’s name, the more successful he becomes. The more Joseph attributes his success to his Jewish values, the more respect Pharoh has for him. This can be seen in the extraordinary reception Pharoh later gives Jacob when he eventually settles with the rest of the family in Egypt.
Joseph treasured the value system in which he was raised. He understood it was the key to his success in life – not an impediment. This is a critical point for our community today: if we truly appreciated the uniquely Jewish value system and recognized how transformative and positively impactful it has been for humankind over the millennia, and if we saw how it could make our personal lives better, the last thing we would want to do is hide those values or our own Jewish identity. Our belief in a humanity created in the image of a loving God; the value we place on life and on peace; on philanthropy and respecting parents and elders; and of course the great emphasis Jewish tradition places on education, Jewish and otherwise, is ultimately responsible for so much positive innovation making this world a much healthier and better place to live. These are just some of the more societal Jewish values, but they should not overshadow the important personal behaviors Jewish tradition also mandates: to recite blessings to express gratitude, to refrain from speaking ill of others, to give charity and perform acts of lovingkindness, to name but a few.
If we took a deeper dive into understanding these and other important Jewish values, we would take greater pride in our Jewish identity and we would see it, not as an impediment, but as necessary and helpful to finding greater personnel happiness and fulfilling our national mission to be a light unto the nations.