Each year at the High Holidays, I choose a book to read – walking to and from shul and during times in services when my mind might wander.
No, I don’t choose a mystery or a romance, but rather a book on Jewish practice, belief or thought. This year, I chose “A Passion for a People – Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator” by Avraham Infeld. For those of us who have heard him speak, this wonderful book has many of his stories. For those who have not had the experience of learning with him, I recommend this book.
One of the most important concepts that Infeld presents is the Model of the 5-Legged Table. Infeld is all about Jewish peoplehood – how do we all connect and intersect? The 5-Legged Table gives everyone a chance to define our own Jewish Identity. Infeld says that the ideal is to have all five legs, but for the table to “work,” you must have three. As you read this brief synopsis of each leg from Infeld’s book, think about where you identify.
• Memory: Our collective memories provide us with the values, beliefs, and rituals that are the foundation of our shared peoplehood. “Jews have memory, not history.”
• Family: Being part of the Jewish people means having an ever-shifting sense of belonging, and belonging to an extended family means having connections and, most important, responsibility for other members of the family.
• Mount Sinai: The idea of Mount Sinai includes the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. Here is where we received the values and rituals that govern our behaviors, our role in the world and our contribution to humanity.
• The Land and State of Israel: The land of Israel is a warehouse of Jewish collective memory, and it is now the place where the laws of modern nationalism were activated in order to create a state. Israel is the place where the Jewish people can express their national identity.
• Hebrew: Language is a way of transferring culture across generations. Hebrew is our shared language, embodying our values, our memoires and our aspirations for the future.
For those of us trying to define our Jewish identity, this idea is one that is both powerful and helpful. Do all five work for me, or perhaps only three truly speak to me? There are many entry ways into our Jewish identity – for some it is through synagogue attendance, for some it is Torah learning, for some it is involvement in Jewish organizations.
We can also simply be “gastronomic Jews” – defined by the foods we love – and that connect us to Jewish memories. My favorite is “cardiac Jews” – I don’t do anything Jewish, but I feel it. That is good enough – we are all part of the Jewish peoplehood, and together we will keep Judaism alive. That is the hope for the coming year.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.