Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Jew by any other Name?

By Michael D. Hirsch

As is my wont, this morning (Thursday, November 24) when I returned home from services, I sat down at the breakfast table and immediately turned to the sports pages of The Jerusalem Post. My eyes were drawn to a most unusual headline: "'Hebrew Hammer' snags MVP in close vote." It was a story regarding Ryan Braun, the leftfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, who had been selected as the Most Valuable Player for the 2011 season in the National League. The sub-headline advised us that he is the first Jew since Sandy Koufax to capture this prestigious award.

Being a proud Jew myself, I was looking forward to some very satisfying reading with my morning meal, or so I thought. The warning bells in my head began sounding when readers were advised that Braun is "the son of an Israeli-born Jewish father and a Catholic mother." Hmmm, a Jew by patrilineal descent, which I as an Orthodox Jew do not recognize as being Jewish. In the same vein, in January of this year, the press was inundated with stories of the shooting of "Jewish" Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, whose father was Jewish, her mother a Christian Scientist. In the congresswoman's defense, she has been an avowed Jew since 2001 and regularly attends services in a Reform Temple.

As the article continued, we slide from the sublime into the ridiculous. "I am Jewish," Braun said last year. "It's something I'm really proud of. But I don't want to make it into something more than what it is. I didn't have a bar mitzvah. I don't want to pretend that I did. I didn't celebrate the holidays. It's a touchy subject, because I don't want to offend anybody, and I don't want groups claiming me now because I'm having success. But I do consider myself definitely Jewish. And I'm extremely proud to be a role model for Young Jewish kids."

At that point, I lowered both my cereal spoon and the newspaper to the table, and attempted to compose myself, to free myself from the Twilight Zone into which I had obviously fallen. It was not the First of April, so I immediately ruled out the possibility that this was an April Fools' prank foisted on the readership by Allon Sinai or some other member of the Post's Sports Department. There is something missing in this picture, but what is it??

Ryan Braun has a Catholic mother, proudly admits that he did not have a Bar Mitzvah, nor does he celebrate the Jewish holidays, but he is "extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids." Oh, really Ryan? And which Jewish kids might that be? Those without a Jewish mother? Those who did not or will not have a Bar Mitzvah? Those who do not keep the Jewish festivals? Believe me, Ryan, you have nothing to be proud of!

It was another of his statements, however, which proved to me how far removed from reality Mr. Braun has become—"I don't want groups claiming me now because I'm having success." I mulled that one over for quite a few moments. Being an American expat, perhaps I am not as current as I should be regarding the American Jewish community, but unless there is an American Lapsed Jews of Patrilineal-Descent organization, I could not think of any group which would want to claim Ryan Braun as one of their own. With such filament-thin ties to Judaism, Ryan, if I were you, I wouldn't lose much sleep worrying about groups wanting to claim you.

If we step back for a broader perspective of what the Ryan Braun story represents, it is clear we are once again facing the age-old questions of "Who is a Jew?" and "What is Judaism?" As to the former, perhaps there is room to accept the likes of Gabrielle Giffords into the tent. Ryan Braun? Only the most desperate of Jewish sects could rationalize accepting him under their wing. Granted, we are faced with the ever-greater threat of assimilation, intermarriage, and real Jews leaving the fold. But is the solution to so broaden the definition of who is a Jew that American Lapsed Jews of Patrilineal-Descent turns from a joke into reality? I think not.

We are a people, a nation with a rich heritage going back thousands of years. That chain is unmatched by any other people/nation on the face of the Earth. If we sink to the level of broadening the definition of a Jew to the extent of accepting Mr. Braun, then the durability of the millennia-long chain of our people will be tested beyond the bounds of Crusades, pogroms, Holocausts, Hellenism and all the other tests we have faced throughout the ages. Granted, from a purely scientific point-of-view, thanks in large part to the precedent-setting research of Dr. Nir Barzilai and his associates at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the genetic chain of Judaism will not be broken by including the Brauns into the definition of who is a Jew. But from a practical stance, what becomes of the Jewish people as an ever-larger percentage of our nation is in name only?

How much of our rich heritage gets passed on to future generations by Jews In Name Only (JINO, for the SMS/Twitter crowd)? How weak the links before the chain ceases to exist? I shudder to think.

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