Cultural Identity and the Exodus from Egypt

Galit Lev-Harir is a frequent contributor to the Light. Galit lived in Israel for nine years. Her husband, Elie Harir, owns The Mediterranean Grill, an Israeli-style restaurant in Chesterfield Valley.

By Galit Lev-Harir

On the eve of March 25, Jews across America will celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, which is frequently regarded as the birth of the Jewish people. In the first book of the Torah, the Hebrews are merely a tribe. But in the second book, they become a nation. 

But is it the Exodus from Egypt that was the cornerstone of the Jewish national experience? Or was the reason that the Jews had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years prior to entering the Land of Canaan because they needed time to form and develop a common cultural identity? Once the Jews crossed into Canaan, they were prohibited from mixing with the indigenous people or worshiping their gods. We can assume that the reason for this was to prevent assimilation and to ensure that the Jews would continue to view themselves as a distinct people. Still, how is it that all of those other ancient cultures – the Canaanites, the Ammonites, the Phoenicians, etc. – have long since vanished, yet the Jews still remain? And will the American Jewish experience contribute to our continued existence as a people or – as suggested by the current studies on increasing intermarriage and declining synagogue affiliation – are we doomed to assimilate into the American melting pot? 

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I work for one of the largest corporations in America, with over 100,000 employees nationwide. Our employees represent the diversity of the American population, and are located in all 50 states and abroad. Of course, as with any large company, there is a “corporate culture” that permeates throughout the organization. Several years ago, the CEO and senior executive leadership instituted a culture program aimed at improving the corporate culture. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to send mid- and senior-level managers to attend “Culture Training Workshops” in an effort to build a high-performance culture that supports our mission and values. Additionally, the Jan 7-13 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek reported that many American companies are making “cultural fit” an important part of their hiring process. Likewise, most of the colleges and universities in the U.S. invest tremendous energy and resources to promote a strong sense of cultural identity among their students. 

What does this have to do with Jewish identity? Actually, everything. American Jews spend millions of dollars each year to infuse their children with Jewish cultural identity. And such an identity is essential to maintain the expensive synagogue system that currently exists in America, as well as to encouraging American Jews to identify with and support Israel. In fact, Taglit/Birthright’s claim to fame is that its free trips to Israel are an effective method for building such identity. 

People frequently ask me why I pay synagogue membership dues, why I send my children to Hebrew school twice a week, why I give them private Hebrew lessons, and why I also send them to the Israeli Scout movement. The answer is to cultivate and nourish their sense of Jewish identity.

Most Americans view religion as a personal expression of faith; however, I believe that Judaism is much more. As Daniel Gordis wrote in a recent blog post: “For Israel to matter to Jews, Jews must see themselves first and foremost as a people, not merely as a religion. 

Religions don’t have states; peoples do. The French have a country, but Baptists do not. The Italians have a state, but Methodists do not. As American non-Orthodox Judaism increasingly recasts itself as a religion in the image of American Protestantism, it is inevitable that the Jewish commitment to statehood will wither.”

As we sit at our seder tables and remember the Exodus from Egypt, I hope we will take the time to reflect on our status as part of the Jewish nation, whether our children will view themselves as such, and what we can do in the coming year to nurture and enhance the next generation’s sense of Jewish identity. I wish everyone a joyous Pesach and Chag Sameach! 

Next year in Jerusalem!