147 Ways to Be Jewish

By Jesse Tisch


Review of I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl (Jewish Lights, 2004).

Jews are said to be an argumentative lot, but there’s plenty we agree upon. Like which Jewish stereotypes to embrace (intelligence, empathy, generosity). And the fact that without humor, life isn’t worth living. Now there’s a book that proves this: I Am Jewish, a collection of 147 valiant attempts to define Jewishness, once and for all.

No, 147 is not a typo. Despite the length, we’ve needed this book for a long time. If Judaism is hard to decode for outsiders, it can be even tougher to explain–or rationalize–for insiders. What explains why something I happened to be born into–a faith, a culture, a “people”–still defines me as an adult? Is Jewishness a matter of choice? Or is it like our skins, something we can feel more or less comfortable in, but can never shed?

I Am Jewish calls on writers, politicians, actors, and ordinary Jews to affirm and explain their Jewishness. The selection is idiosyncratic (Jon Stewart wasn’t chosen for this collection, but Larry King and Richard Dreyfus were), but so is the idea itself: we may know what Maimonides thought about Judaism, but what about Diane Feinstein, Democrat from California? Or Kerri Strug, the former Olympic gymnast? Or Jim Ball (who happens to be a member of the board of directors of InterfaithFamily.com), who “practices public relations and Judaism,” according to his brief bio.

It helps that these “ordinary” Jews are extraordinarily articulate. Mr. Ball, for instance, writes not only about being Jewish, but about becoming Jewish as an adult. “I had been raised a devout, church-going Presbyterian,” writes Mr. Ball, who found his Jewish soul after finding his Jewish soul mate, author Anita Diamant. “Things became clear: All those Jewish women I’d dated before. Why I loved Lenny Bruce so much. Why I thought Mel Brooks was funny.”

A similar story belongs to Rachel B. Cowan, who not only converted to Judaism, but became a rabbi. “I see clearly not only why I became a Jew, but why I am a Jew,” Rabbi Cowan writes. It began, for her, with the discovery of Anne Frank’s diary. “As her friend, I came to know something of the reality and evil of suffering,” Rabbi Cowan recalls. “That initial perception of the combination of joy, pain, and deep humanity that underlies so much of Jewish life continues to move me.”

For all the Jews in this collection, Jewishness bestows a sense of connectedness: to family, to history, to tradition and, in some cases, to a set of values imbibed during childhood. Some of the most reflective essayists are Jews who either converted, intermarried, or were raised in interfaith households. They tend to eschew static definitions of Jewishness–“Jewishness is?” or “being Jewish means?”–and explain Jewishness as a process–something one becomes. Their stories are more complex, introspective, and, well, I’ll just say it, more interesting.

Take Angela Warnick Buchdahl. “My father is a Jew and my mother is a Korean Buddhist,” writes Ms. Buchdahl, who after years of being told “but you don’t look Jewish,” reaches the hard-won conclusion that, “I could no longer stop being a Jew than I could stop being Korean, or female, or me.” Is Jewishness a matter if choice? “Judaism may not be my ‘race,’ but it is an internal identification as indestructible as DNA,” she writes.

These are words to make rabbis swoon and Jewish parents kvell with pride. But I Am Jewish has a second, more solemn goal in mind than to “attract, engage? and inspire” young Jews (according to the publisher’s mission statement). I Am Jewish is intended as an homage to the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. It was Pearl’s last words that gave the book its title and ensured that Pearl’s legacy would be inseparable from both his death and his Jewish identity.

For Pearl, who was married to a French Buddhist, Jewishness meant curiosity, empathy, and rationality, universal values that he practiced as a son, husband, and journalist. Pearl’s humanism, his humor, and his overall menschiness are present in these pages in the words of his father and mother, who are credited with editing I Am Jewish.

“But why Jewish?” asks Judea Pearl, father of Daniel, in his brief essay. “Why don’t I offer my children the choice of some other subculture to anchor our identity and to exercise our humanity?”

“I would probably make a clumsy, unconvincing father reciting the songs of Hiawatha to my children,” he goes on. “In contrast, I do a fairly decent job of the Kiddush, or Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) or the story of Hanukah.”

Those words attest to another Jewish trait that Jews–including the contributors to this collection and me–can agree upon, one that’s much in evidence in this collection: humility. Sure, many of the essayists are famous, and several are famously polemical when it comes to defending Israel and Judaism. But even the biggest machers in this collection–including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, novelist Cynthia Ozick, and columnist Thomas Friedman–set their agendas aside and pay elegant, eloquent tribute to Daniel Pearl. If anyone still thinks of Jews as the strong-willed, guilt-mongering caricatures that pop-culture still relies upon, I Am Jewish begs to differ.

A final word about Daniel Pearl. Five years after his death, Daniel Pearl’s legacy keeps expanding. There have already been several books about Pearl, including one by his widow and another by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi. And recently there was a movie starring Angelina Jolie, which focuses on Pearl’s abduction and attempted rescue. Will the Hollywoodization of Pearl’s life–and the focus on his death–eclipse the principles he lived by? His career as a journalist? His kindness as a person?

I honestly don’t know. But I Am Jewish will make those admirable particulars a little harder to forget.


About Jesse Tisch

Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.