Jewish identity not a laughing matter

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel (TE), and a blogger on the Jewish Light’s website (stljewishlight.com).   Joel Iskiwitch and John DeMott, authors of the  “What can you do?”  sidebar, are congregants at TE.

By Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh

I recently was at a community function where a speaker made a self-inflicted joke about his lack of Jewish identity. He declared himself “Jewish lite” since he was the product of an atheist parent and a Reform parent. As a Reform rabbi and practicing Jew, I take umbrage as this self-effacing comment.

True. Jews have always turned humor inward as a way of coping with anti-Semitism and mis-understandings of who we are. Jewish humor does not evoke a belly laugh but rather a sigh of “ah ha. I understand only too well.”

I believe we use this “humor” to excuse inappropriate comments. We say, “It’s ok. I am Jewish so I can say this.” But can someone who clearly is on the margin of identifying as a Jew have the right to make fun of Judaism? In light of the recently published Pew Report, I find little humor, if any, if the public comment aforementioned.

I am proud of Jews, of all affiliations, who find the time and motive to practice their Judaism on any level. I am excited to study with fellow Jews who are interested in engaging in our ancient texts. I have a passion for Jews who stand up against injustices because our faith demands that we cannot stand quietly while others suffer. I am proud of all of other brothers and sisters who identify as Jews.

All too often Reform Judaism is misunderstood and misinterpreted. Why isn’t it enough to say “I am a Jew.” Does the label really matter and to whom is it important? It is time we stop defeating ourselves. No more pithy jokes.

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