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What Does It Mean To Be Jewish Today? What Do Jews Bring To The World?

A Moment Magazine Symposium

Last Year We Asked 70 American-Jewish Thinkers,Scientists And Artists Of All Ages These Questions.
This Year We Zoom In On 15 Rising Jewish Stars

Ezra Klein

Blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

For me, Judaism is not a choice. I was born Jewish, and I plan to die Jewish. It’s as simple as that. There’s no “why” involved. In some ways, mine is an annoyingly and typically Jewish response: I disagree with the premise of the question. But my disagreement comes laced with gratitude. There have been other times when the Jewish experience was perhaps more unified, though usually in tragic ways; being Jewish—or at least presenting oneself as Jewish—required more of a choice, because there was danger and disadvantage in being a Jew. But in my generation, Jews are all over and doing far too much to distill into a sentence or two. I never have to ask myself, “Why be Jewish?” I can simply be Jewish. I have the luxury of refusing to answer for the rest of my tribe and of taking my membership in it as a given.


Nicole Krauss
Author of The History of Love, Man Walks Into a Room and Great House.

I once heard Shimon Peres joke that the greatest Jewish gift to the world was dissatisfaction. Well, the Jews are not the only ones, but I see what he’s getting at. We’re taught not to take things at face value. First, we have to take them apart, turn them inside out. Soon enough we find the cracks, the flaws, the problems. These cracks—these ambiguities and uncertainties—are where Jewish thought has staked its tent. The Talmud may be the only sacred book in all of world culture that invites its followers to doubt. And it goes even further: If the rabbis finally refute an argument, it’s considered a form of failure. The point is to keep the argument alive—not just to withstand the discomfort and tension of uncertainty, but to make a life there.


Franklin Foer
Editor-at-large of The New Republic and author of How Soccer Explains the World.

I didn’t crack open the Talmud until after my bar mitzvah, but my father suggested that we study together. He was hardly a yeshiva bocher himself, but his thought was that we could do a little bonding through study and arrive at a dilettantish understanding of the Talmudic style. Like most Jews of our demographic background, we had a sense that the collective intellectual power of the Jewish people was born in these volumes—that even if we hadn’t studied a page from them, we owed the writers a debt of gratitude for the profound way in which they had reshaped the hardware of the Jewish mind. After I study Talmud, I can hardly stand; I’m so dizzy from my amateur attempts to follow arguments. But I do always stumble away with a sense of profound appreciation that what Jews bring to the world is a theological tradition and therefore an intellectual tradition—and sometimes, even, our own revolt against that tradition. Whatever else we have contributed to the world, we have revolutionized the mind of the western world, not just gifting new ideas, but new styles of thinking.


Shaun Jacob Halper
Ph.D. student of Jewish and LGBT history at Berkeley.

They laugh, they cry, they eat; if you prick them, they bleed. Jews, Shakespeare reminds us, are first and foremost human beings. They bring the same capacities, strengths and weaknesses—constructive and destructive—that all human beings bring. And yes, they love to talk about them. For me, being a Jew is always second to being secular, human and a humanist. Jewish history and culture—like all history and culture—enrich and broaden the vocabulary with which I make meaning of my life, of human experience and of the world. That vast storehouse of Jewish culture does not begin and end with religion (thank God!), yet it includes all the genres human beings have used to elevate, to beautify and to add pleasure to their lives: literature, art, film, song, theater, comedy, historical writing and ritual. Also, as a humanist, I recognize that I was born into a specific family, whose culture enriches my life, and, as a result, I support the right of my family to exist—that is, to live securely as Jews—wherever they may be. Who is part of my family? Anyone who identifies with it, cares for its physical welfare and uses its culture in her or his life.


Sarah Benor
Linguist at L.A.’s Hebrew Union College.

Without Jews, the English language would not have words like klutz, pastrami, maven, shpiel, shmooze and chutzpah, as well as phrases like “money shmoney” and “enough already.” Words and phrases like these entered the English language because bilingual Yiddish/English speakers used them in conversation and the Yiddishisms eventually became part of the English language. Some, like “klutz” and “enough already,” are so entrenched that people tend not to recognize them as Yiddish. And some have changed significantly as they have become part of English. For example, “shmooze,” which originally meant to gossip, has two meanings. For older Jews and those with mostly Jewish friends, it means “chat” or “shoot the breeze,” whereas for many Americans, it means “network,” or “talk with the goal of working one’s way up the social or corporate ladder,” and is even used transitively. (“You just shmoozed him for over 20 minutes” or “She spent the whole party shmoozing up the vice president.”)


Eric Lefkofsky
Chicago-based co-founder and chairman of Groupon and head of Lightbank, a fund that provides seed money to start-ups.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about being a Jew. I think about how to be a good person, how to build a good business, how to be a good father. I think of myself first as an American and then as a Jew. That said, I am absolutely connected to Judaism. Being Jewish is simply woven into my fabric, and it’s hard to separate it. Ultimately when we think about raising our kids, we want to make sure they have a connection to Israel and Judaism. It’s important, but it’s just not something easily touched or described. Jews bring a lot to the world. From a historical perspective, we bring examples of overcoming tyranny and religious persecution. From a modern perspective, we have a remarkable set of accomplishments for such a small population. It’s amazing that just 13 million Jews have contributed so much to society in business, cultural achievements, civics, in almost every category. We have a determination and a work ethic that is unique.


Rob Kutner
Writer for “Conan,” won five Emmy awards for his work at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Being a Jew today means you look at everything in the world through a specially enhanced filter, like the Terminator. Our tradition gives us an awesome amount of firepower we can bring to bear on day-to-day questions, but we’re often unaware or unwilling to make explosions. Details and processes take on an extra level of interest (see: the Talmud, every episode of Seinfeld). What Jews bring to the world is the constant perspective of the outsider, the “stranger in Egypt,” the nerd at the pep rally. Governments and institutions are ephemeral shadows; we’ve outlasted them all. We also bring the idea that thorny questions can keep getting debated for centuries, if not millennia, and that it’s the process of seeking truth and justice that exalts us as human. Finally, we exemplify the powerful notion that the world needs all of us to repair it. We’re cosmic contractors for whom the job keeps taking “just a little more time.”


Sheril Kirshenbaum
Research scientist at the University of Texas, is the author of The Science of Kissing and Unscientific America.

I marvel at the rich history of the Jewish people and feel a shared spiritual connection through tradition and music. Jews weave our stories, songs and experiences into the colorful tapestry of life. I am awed by the strength, courage and perseverance of those who came before us, and recognize that they are responsible for the opportunities we have today. The mingling of the past and present provides a sense of continuity, while the future will undoubtedly bring thoughtful new interpretations of Judaism as well as ever-more creative means to express ourselves.


Rapper and former protégé of Sean “Puffy” Combs, has a new album, Gangland.

Being a Jew today is being an engaged human being with a moral code. We must study and understand our values. Judaism must enter into us, and we must work with that knowledge through our individual prisms. We will take away different lessons and project what we understand back into the world, trying to do Tikkun Olam, to make it a better place for everyone. We bring no more and no less than what the ancient prophets brought: a call for justice, for people to listen and love each other, to protect the weak and the widows and the poor and the hungry. Each of us can contribute to these needs in different ways as Hashem has created us. Look at King David, one of my heroes. He was a poet, a musician, a general, a warrior and a hugely successful king. In my case, I want to use musical expression to follow in King David’s amazing footsteps.


Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO)
Entrepreneur, philanthropist and the first openly gay man elected as a freshman to the House.

The Jewish experience is different for every Jew. For me, it has raised awareness regarding the plight of minorities. It is important that even those with a smaller voice be heard. Tikkun Olam, or “healing the world,” is a Jewish concept that has always been important. By working to repair the social and environmental fabric of my district, I believe everyone can look forward to a brighter future. The Jewish experiences of slavery and discrimination have helped inform our values and our opinions. Jews are an ancient people who still survive on the planet. This long legacy, grounded in a history of several millennia, makes us very unique. Jews also have a good sense of humor. Having gone through what we have, you sort of have to.


Rachael Neumann
Founding board member of Repair the World, organized the 2009 African First Ladies Summit to address health issues in Africa.

I think being a Jew today means pretty much the same thing as it always has: responsibility. Responsibility to give back, to look forward and be an example of a community that serves others before themselves. Jews today, more than anyone else, are bringing quirky, cool innovation to the world. For the large part, we’re accepted, we’re integrated, and so we’re struggling to find a way to connect to our past and reconcile it with what we envision for our future. In this desperation to keep our history and culture relevant, young Jews are coming up with some amazing and innovative mediums to connect with their past and the rest of the world.


Spike Mendelsohn
Chef and restaurant owner. He has been a contestant on the reality shows, Top Chef: Season Four and Top Chef: All-Stars.

I tell people I am “Gruish” because my mother is Greek and my father is Jewish. I am very close to my family, and we celebrate the holidays together. My Jewish heritage has given me a lot: Jews bring resistance, will and commitment, and I apply that to my everyday life. I have a will to succeed in life, and when things are bad, I march on forward.


Michelle Citrin
New York-based singer/songwriter, whose “20 Things to Do with Matzah” was a viral hit on YouTube.

Being a Jew means living a life committed to “doing the right thing,” inspired by the idea that we are all one, created in the image of God. It means to walk through this world knowing that whatever I do to my neighbor, it’s as if I’m doing it to myself.


Loren Galler Rabinowitz
Competed in the 2011 Miss America pageant. She is the reigning Miss Massachusetts and a U.S. Figure Skating Medalist.

As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I am constantly reminded that I belong to a legacy of survivorship and resilience that has existed for thousands of years. My grandparents’ wartime stories were infused with a deep faith and a commitment to ending intolerance. Being the only Jew in most of the arenas I enter—be they skating rinks or the Miss America stage—has forced me to confront, head-on, the positives and negatives of being different in a world where there is a high premium on fitting in. By bravely taking up the work of our predecessors, that is, the fight against bigotry and prejudice, my generation of Jews is redefining success on its own terms.


Ike Davis
First baseman for the New York Mets.

I’m proud to be Jewish. I lost a great deal of my family on my mother’s side during the Holocaust. That’s given me a clear understanding that no matter how bad you think you might have it, other people had it worse.

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