I never knew Toni Avegael. She was born in Antwerp in February 1926 and lived there most of her life. We were related: she was my father’s first cousin. I well remember her older sister Lily: a tall, sad lady whom my parents and I used to visit in a little house somewhere in northwest London. We have long since lost touch, which is a pity.
I am reminded of the Avegael sisters (there was a middle girl, Bella) whenever I ask myself—or am asked—what it means to be Jewish. There is no general-purpose answer to this question: it is always a matter of what it means to be Jewish for me—something quite distinct from what it means for my fellow Jews. To outsiders, such concerns are mysterious. A Protestant who does not believe in the Scriptures, a Catholic who abjures the authority of the Pope in Rome, or a Muslim for whom Muhammad is not the Prophet: these are incoherent categories. But a Jew who rejects the authority of the rabbis is still Jewish (even if only by the rabbis’ own matrilineal definition): who is to tell him otherwise?
I reject the authority of the rabbis—all of them (and for this I have rabbinical authority on my side). I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I don’t make a point of socializing with Jews in particular—and for the most part I haven’t married them. I am not a “lapsed” Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don’t “love Israel” (either in the modern sense or in the original generic meaning of loving the Jewish people), and I don’t care if the sentiment is reciprocated. But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.
The ostensible paradox of this condition is clearer to me since coming to New York: the curiosities of Jewish identity are more salient here. Most American Jews of my acquaintance are not particularly well informed about Jewish culture or history; they are blithely ignorant of Yiddish or Hebrew and rarely attend religious ceremonies. When they do, they behave in ways that strike me as curious.
Shortly after arriving in New York, I was invited to a bar mitzvah. On my way to the synagogue, I realized I had forgotten my hat and returned home to recover it—only to observe that almost no one else covered his head during the brief, exiguous excuse for a religious ceremony. To be sure, this was a “Reform” synagogue and I should have known better: Reform Jews (known in England as “liberals”) have been optionally topless in synagogue for over half a century. All the same, the contrast between unctuous performance of ritual and selective departure from established traditions struck me then and strikes me now as a clue to the compensatory quality of American …
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