I could start by telling you about Helen. I’ve known her and her parents since she was a toddler and a favorite playmate of my oldest girl, Lilah. I can still see them walking their “babies” in miniature carriages, with Helen in her perpetually knotted tangle of hair and Lilah in a pair of high heels. Helen kept the hair, but it’s now in dreadlocks.
Or, I could start with Natalie, another playmate of Lilah’s, who in the pre-teen years would routinely leave half her clothing at our house after an overnight of constant costume swaps. Years later, when interrogating Lilah about a pair of girls’ underpants that turned up in one of my file cabinets, she replied: “Oh, they’re probably Natalie’s.”
I mused: “Well, I guess it’s too late to return them.”
Or Ben, the chubby little kid at shul who, eventually, grew up into a stunning, muscular six-footer, who just recently announced his engagement.
Or I could start with at least a dozen others, all of whom I’d known as kids in the Jewish community, and who, at college age, wandered into one or more of my classes at the University of Washington, seeking to enter more deeply (and from a rather different point of view) into the mysteries of Jewish identity that form such a rich mine of meaning at the center of their lives.
One of the great pleasures of being a professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion here at the UW has been to see these young people, some of whom I’ve known for most of their lives, mature and grow into a committed, and highly articulate, Jewish selfhood. On the recent celebration of the 61st year of Israeli independence, I saw all of them — and many more whom I shall not name, but who are much like them — display a casual courage, cheerfulness, and delight in their Jewishness that both astonished and humbled me. Let me tell you a bit about it.
For years now, various campus Jewish groups have cooperated in throwing an on-campus celebration of Israeli culture on Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. After all, “diversity” is a big deal at the U, and what society is more diverse than Israel’s? Usually the party involves setting up a few booths on the commons outside the HUB, playing Israeli music, and in a recent, brilliant innovation, serving up some fairly decent falafel for free. Now it has come to be called “Israelpalooza,” (not the name I’d have chosen, but whatever). Everybody, Jew and non-Jew alike, shows up for a schmooze, a bite, and for whatever else happens.
This year, what happened was a “counter-demonstration” sponsored by a group called “Democracy Insurgent.” This is a campus student organization, with an office in the HUB. Its mission statement represents it as a “Middle East Solidarity student interest group…animated by principles of anti-racism, democracy and Third World Feminism [whose] purpose is to engage the UW community on issues relating to Middle East Solidarity.”
On this particular Yom HaAtzma’ut afternoon, Middle East Solidarity was expressed in signs protesting “Israeli Apartheid,” “Racism,” and “Genocide.” It included encircling the kids celebrating Israel’s founding and hurling megaphone enhanced chants like “Long live the intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”
It included an attempt the break into and disrupt the Israel celebration that, were it not for the efficient action of UW campus police, would have surely yielded a violent confrontation. This is “Middle East Solidarity!”
Now here’s the story I want to tell: The response of kids like Helen, Natalie, Ben and many others. Instead of breaking and running from a threat; instead of responding in kind with idiotic counter-threats and taunts, what did they do? They ordered the little klezmer trio on hand to crank up the music. Then they gathered into circles and, hand in hand and arm in arm, proceeded to dance. Wildly, joyfully, full of the love of life and the optimism that is the privilege of youth. Am Yisrael chai! Od avinu chai!
When it comes to dancing, I like to watch. So I watched. In my mind’s eye, I saw in these glowing young adult faces the chubby baby-faced children I’d known, it seems, forever. But they were no longer babies, but real, adult Jews, taking up the freely chosen burdens and pleasures of being an American Jew in a new century. Free from the past, and also deeply connected to it. And telling all the world, “Love it or hate it, love us or hate us, we’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere, except perhaps to Israel!”
I hope some of them get there. But I also hope many of them stay among us as inspirations to the rest of us. They are our treasures. And it’s great to know that, in the immortal words of The Who: “The kids are alright!”