This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How do Muslims, Christians and Jews see each other?” with guest David Nirenberg. To listen, click here. It is worth noting that while this monologue does not address the main question of the episode, it is preparatory. We can’t see how others see us if we don’t explore how we see ourselves. We must all explore how each of us committed to what we believe.
There’s an old adage that everyone in New York is a little bit Jewish. Anyone who lives there understands this. With the ubiquity of Yiddish phrases, deli cuisine, and wise-cracking argument, sometimes it seems like the whole city is just one big Beastie Boys video.
But if it’s true that everyone is a little bit Jewish, then it must also be true that the Jews who live there have to work harder to distinguish themselves from the crowd. When being Jewish is no big deal, it’s also no effort, and it isn’t until Jews leave the city that they understand exactly what is and isn’t theirs.
This was certainly my experience. Growing up in New York didn’t really make me the Jew I am today. That happened when I moved to Austria, taught for a year in a neo-fundamentalist Christian college in Kentucky, and ended up in North Dakota. It was the absence of Jewish communities that pushed me closer to my religious and ethnic roots, not the matter-of-fact Judaism of my hometown. It was the stuff I had to work for that ended up meaning the most to me, and I only identified it by living in a world of behaviors that I found unfamiliar and, sometimes, repellent.
As human beings, we define ourselves as much by what we don’t want to be as what we do, and these beliefs are codified by the cultures that house us. Our myths, text, expectations, opportunities, and rewards and punishments all conspire to give us a sense of how we describe ourselves, how we describe others, and how we describe others describing us. There is no identity in isolation, only in relation to. And yet, I am struck by the fact that while my religious identity is the most rigid, my political identity is much more flexible. I’m much less willing to hide my identity as a Jew than as an American.
When I am abroad, I like to look local. I would never travel through Europe wearing sneakers or a sweatshirt, stereotypical American clothing. Instead, I want to mimic the locals, fit in, demur to local customs, and play at being someone else. I slink away when I hear groups of Americans speaking English loudly and acting like they own the place. It feels rude to me, aggressive and arrogant.
This isn’t to say that being American is any less important to me than being Jewish. I’m a patriot with deep affection for my country. I am also very aware that my being American increases the liberty I have in the world while being Jewish significantly limits it. Yet, it is almost impossible for me to jettison my Jewish identity when I travel. Being a Jew means always being under threat, but I won’t let go of it.
But maybe that’s the reason. Maybe I won’t let go of being a public Jew because doing so is too threatening. If I don’t hold to it tightly, it won’t be there when I want it back. There is no place in the world where it is less threatening to be Jewish than New York City, so I guess there is no place in the world where it feels less important.
All of this is about how we constitute ourselves; how we create who we are. It is also about our relationships with our larger cultures, how we discover what is important to us in the face of powerful historical and sociological forces. It betrays the great philosophical negotiation between the individual and community, between cultural determinism and personal freedom, between what history has given and what can be crafted for the future. And the thing is, all great religious traditions share in these anxious questions. All of them fear being disappeared, all of them craft their laws and traditions based on their opposition, and all of them only have meaning in relation to that which they are not.
This is what today’s episode is about: the often violent dialogue between the three great Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all come from the same place. They share the same origins and overlap in many of their beliefs. They have much the same history, but interpret it to radically different ends. They see themselves, they see others, and they see how others see them and they build their theologies to meet their needs.
I have been talking about my experience as a Jew. A different host would talk about her experience as a Muslim or as a Christian. How that monologue would differ, I can’t say. What I can attest to, though, is it would be as personal to her as this one is to me. Religious commitment is intimate and intimacy is also relational. We can’t open ourselves to others if there are no others to open ourselves up to.
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