When I was a child, I thought everyone in the world was, on some level, Jewish. This was probably a strange thing to think, given the population numbers of Jews versus other religions globally. But the thing is, I grew up in Philadelphia, a city with a strong Jewish population, and I went to a middle school that was 60 percent Jewish and everyone I knew at least knew what Judaism was, even if they didn’t practice it. I never had to explain Yom Kippur or Passover to anyone, and so I just figured everyone knew about Judaism and was, in some vague way, associated.
I understood intellectually about other religions, I had read about them in history class, and I’m sure I met many other non-Jewish people, but that just didn’t seem all that real to me. Imagine my surprise as I grew up and realized that not only were most people not Jewish, but many people didn’t know anything about Judaism whatsoever. It is a reality of Jewish life that chances are, with some exceptions, if you live in the secular world you will be a lone Jew in a room, street, city, country and world of non-Jews for most of your existence.
This is, on some level, what it actually means to be Jewish in diasporadic reality. The common belief is that before the destruction of the Second Temple, there was only one place for Jews, the land of Israel, and only one way to be Jewish–by bringing sacrifices to the priests of the temple. This is a lovely concept, but turns out to be a little less than true. The reality is that Jews, like every other peoples of the world, had already begun to spread through the middle east and the Roman empire long before the sack of Jerusalem and the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 A.D., the rebellion that was brutally suppressed by the Roman empire and led to the exile of Jews from Israel and the renaming of the land then known as Judea whose new title became Syria Palestina. There is a prevailing myth of the Jewish people as a unified tribe before the rise of Christianity, but historic evidence reveals that with every invasion and exile, from the Babylonians to the Greeks, populations of Jews became displaced and neglected to return home afterwards.
Given what we know about modern Jewish culture, they probably spent their time mourning the old country and talking about how you couldn’t get a decent flatbread and lamb in their new home, not like the nice plump lambs at home, and so expensive here, 25 drachma for a leg? What are they, made of drachma? But nevertheless, Jews existed outside of Israel for almost as long as Jews have existed. Of course, the destruction of the Second Temple meant that there could be no return, which was new, and did spark a new generation of Jews who had to re-invent the nature of their religion outside of Israel. But still, a religion that refuses to proselytize and includes more restrictions than almost any on the globe is always going to be an outsider, even in its own land. So began a history of the Wandering Jew, and a cultural understanding that to be Jewish also meant to be an outsider, yes, but also it means that the concept of Judaism must be an internal one, something that can only travel within a person and cannot necessarily depend on external validation or structure. To quote the Romans who destroyed that Second Temple and caused all this in the first place, Omnia mea porto mecum, or, I carry all my things with me.
And so we do, don’t we? Chances are, if you are Jewish, you’ve spent most of your life in a place where you were in a minority, unless you’ve grown up in an Orthodox community or in Israel. Chances are if you’ve traveled much and lived outside of the United States that feeling has been magnified. You’ve probably been the only Jew someone has ever met. I know I have. You’ve probably celebrated a holiday or a Shabbat in a place where no one else could share that moment with you, and you’ve probably found your own way to do it based on the resources you could find and needs you had at the time. I personally have celebrated Hanukkah in Moscow (mixed results on continuing Russian anti-Semitism, positive results on latkes!) and Madrid (where two German girls cheerfully informed me that aforementioned latkes are just like this German dish, and then their faces fell when they realized why). I’ve had Passover in Hamburg where my German hosts urged me to “eat the bread, no one is watching!” and enjoyed Shabbat dinners all over the world. I’ve explained any number of things about my religion to any number of strangers, most of whom listened politely and then asked why some Orthodox men have the little curls at their temples.
Everywhere I have gone, I have carried my religion with me, knowing that if I don’t celebrate these things and acknowledge these moments and holidays, that’s one fewer Jew doing so. Because you can’t count on a large population of people doing this somewhere, letting you off the hook. Since Judea became another country every Jew knows in their heart that it’s up to them to keep the religion alive. Moreover, the issue of personal responsibility in Judaism is a huge one. The injunction of tikkun olam, or to heal the world, is a massive and ancient guilt trip, far more deadly than that check from Grandma who just wishes you would call more. You can’t pass the buck, not when with each massive tragedy from the Inquisition to the Holocaust there are fewer and fewer people to pass it to. If I’m not fasting for Yom Kippur, who will?
My husband, on the other hand, hasn’t celebrated a Hindu holiday since he’s lived in the United States. For him, and his friends, at least the ones I’ve talked to about this subject, these festivities feel empty and fake when they are not happening in India, surrounded by literally millions of people doing the same thing. I have no idea what that might feel like, to be standing in a room of so many people all celebrating the same religious holiday. I suppose I will find out, as we are relocating to India this Fall. I don’t know if this will make me feel more or less alone as a Jew in a country that has a dwindling Jewish population and, to the best of my knowledge, no good bagels, but I will learn soon enough. And I will be carrying my own holidays with me, ready to celebrate for myself, and the rest of my diasporadic tribe. I might be the only one, but then, that’s nothing new for us, right?