Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama, Hasidism and the Search for Authenticity

I know it’s been a while.

But just because nothing has been written doesn’t mean nothing’s been done.

There was the Maccabiah Games opening ceremony starring 7,000 Jews from around the globe, in which the Prime Minister (in true Zionist style) told everyone that Israel was their home and that they should make Aliyah

There are the Kiddushim and BBQs celebrating a new batch of Olim, which often nudge me into clarifying what this country means to me, and why I’m here.

There are the after-work runs along the beach and sunset dips in the ocean, which I like to refer to as mini Bi-Athlons, although I fear 2km followed by 5 minutes chilling in the sea doesn’t really count.

And there’s also been the ‘Spoken Word’ event organized by Farrah and hosted in the infamous Spinoza 6 apartment.

Spoken word was a new experience for me (isn’t every thing said out loud a ‘spoken word’?)

But it was a real eye opener and hugely enjoyable.

The lineup headlined with the Hebrew Mamita – the sexy oi-veh chutzpah-having non-cheaping, non-conspiracizing, always questioning, hip-hop listening, Torah-scroll reading, all-people loving, pride-filled Jewish girl.

Also featured were the lovely Farrah (torn between her lover New York and mistress Israel), the Puerto Rican, Panamanian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Lithuanian first generation American Ruby (Pujerican for short) and Yael - too Jewish for the black girls and too black for the Jews.

And what struck me was despite the different topics, they all touched on the underlying question of what being Jewish means.

Or what comprises authenticity in this multi- layered 21st Century reality we live in.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m currently working my way through 2 books – Obama’s ‘Dreams of my Father’ and 'The Quest for Authenticity', which discusses the Przysucha (pronounced Pshishka) Hasidism – a group that focused on personal authenticity above all else.

Abhorring routine and imitation, the Przysucha promoted serving God rather than the Shulchan Aruch, preached genuine self analysis rather than self indulgence;

And it made me wonder about how one achieves genuine authenticity.

With our friends.

In relationships.

With God.

And those things that make it harder – the society we live in, our fear of what people may think of us.

And in this context, an extract from Obama’s book describing his first visit to Kenya, leapt out at me;

For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as its supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway.

You could read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate.

Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.

And his prose reminded me of my early visits to Israel, how amazed and excited I was that among the palm trees of the airport were people like me, a land filled with Jews.

And without meaning to be too old skool Zionist a la Bibi, it made me think whether there’s something about this place that facilitates the search for authenticity.

Not that all Jews should move to Israel – Heaven forbid.

But that it’s a place where one can walk the streets without feeling self conscious about the silly hat we wear on our heads.

Without the fear of having a penny thrown at us;

Where one can read about Benny Sela without worrying how it reflects on us;

Where, to paraphrase Obama, ‘the world is Jewish and so you were just you’

Where, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, Jews don’t have to be more German than the Germans.

A place where we can just be ourselves.

Because when all the ceremonies and barbeques are over, maybe this is what life is really about.