Friday, January 31, 2014

A Symbolic Gesture

Several years ago, as I neared the entrance of the FedExForum, I felt a number of eyes staring at me. Perplexed, I surveyed my body in an effort to ensure that nothing was out of the ordinary. When I arrived at my head, I wrapped my hand around my kippah. I noted that it was the cause of those confused, unwarranted gazes. And, for the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed to be a Jew. I scrambled to take it off before any other passersby could find reason to perceive me as different. Without my kippah on, I could escape into the crowd; I could go unnoticed. 

As time passed and I delved deeper into the more secularized Jewish community of Memphis, I continued to neglect my kippah at non-school functions. I had grown tired of the questions, the gazes, and the probing. I found wearing it to be both a physical and social hassle. I felt disconnected from observance, and I wanted my physical appearance to reflect that disconnect.

But, as I grew older and began to develop a more mature understanding of Jewish pride, everything began to change. Though I am admittedly not yet fully observant, and still grapple with fundamental issues of faith, I feel very strongly that wearing a kippah serves as both a personal reminder of how to act and as a symbolic gesture to signify the Jewish peoples’ distinction. 

With the kippah on my head, I become so much more than Gabriel Goldstein. I step into the role of the representative of the Jewish nation. For those who do not regularly come into contact with Jews, my actions may serve as their only indication of what our people are like and how we interact with others. With that in mind, I behave in such a way that will create a respectable, admirable perception of our people. I no longer shy away from the questions or the probing; I embrace them because they give me a chance to establish the reputation of a strong, intellectually driven people who recognize that there is something greater than themselves. 

When I look back at the night on which I removed my kippah to avoid embarrassment, I question whether the person who did such a cowardly thing was truly me. At that point in my life, I was engulfed by religious resentment. I knew not about the history of our people, and I saw us as mildly unique. However, after years of study, I have come to understand that our mere existence is the most unlikely, incredible, and miraculous thing to happen throughout the course of history. I no longer fear being pegged as distinct; I unequivocally embrace it. You better believe that I’m unique. You better believe that you’re unique. Despite pogroms, persecution, and the Holocaust, our people have thrived and contributed to the development of mankind in ways that no nation of even remotely similar circumstances have. We should be forever proud of our past and eternally eager to boast the fact that we belong to a people whose existence is so beautifully breathtaking and incredibly mind boggling. 

I may never resolve my struggles to understand our faith, but I will continue to boast my kippah with immense pride. I want everyone to know who I am and what I stand for. I want the chance, with a kippah on my head, to treat others with utmost respect, for it will create a positive reputation for the entire Jewish nation. 

The Star of David rests in the center of my white, knitted yarmulke, and it will continue to serve as a reminder that I come from a nation of tremendous resilience, might, and, above all, pride. 

Religious or not, I encourage you to consider wearing your kippah as a means of expressing said pride. I encourage you to respond to those questions and confused gazes with dignity and respect. I encourage you to keep in mind how lucky you are to be part of a people with the most illustrious history of all the nations of the world. Do not escape into the crowd; be a shining light, a true role model, for all to marvel at. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

An Open Letter to the MJCC

Dear Memphis Jewish Community Center administrators, 

I am a proud Jew. I am not a strictly observant Orthodox Jew, nor am I an indifferent, assimilated cultural Jew. I have devoted years to strict textual adherence, and I have devoted years to firm religious rejection and inaction. Throughout my life, I have found myself on all points of the religious spectrum, thus granting me a unique perspective from which I view the current debate regarding the opening of the MJCC on Shabbat. 

Though my ideals have changed and my level of observance has fluctuated, I have forever held the belief that to be born a Jew is not something that should be taken for granted. To be born a Jew is to inherit the illustrious history of a people that has time and again refused to submit to assimilation. To be born a Jew is to inherit a sense of pride that is distinct to Judaism. We are members of the most incredible, improbable people that the world has ever seen. As Mark Twain put it, “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.” Despite the plethora of reasons to feel unique, we are nevertheless losing the sense of pride that once fueled our unlikely existence.

With the release of the Pew Study on American Jewry, we were rudely awoken by the realization that American Jewry is in peril. Many are proclaiming their detachment from Judaism and accepting their fate of absolute immersion into secular culture. We are losing our sense of individuality. 

As a Jewish institution, it is expected to lead by example in reaffirming Jewish pride. Though the Jew is an advocate of equality and a champion of acceptance, we must forever be mindful that we are different than those around us. We live among them, but we do not live with them. I speak not as a close-minded isolationist. Rather, I speak as a Jewish youth who would prefer to die than to see his people assimilate because of sheer indifference. I am not a rejectionist, I am cautious. 

Despite its underwhelming size, the Memphis Jewish community is one of the most vibrant communities in America, boasting an exceptionally high affiliation rate. You may disagree, but I firmly believe that much of that success is owed to the fact that we act as a unit to consistently reaffirm the aforementioned pride that we are at risk of losing. 

The MJCC is one of the last Jewish Community Centers in America to remain closed on Shabbat. Though a large portion of the Center’s membership is either non-observant or non-Jewish, closing on Shabbat has served as a symbolic gesture since its founding in 1949. We are different. We are not superior, per se, but we are special. We have a culture and a history that is awe-inspiring, and certain fundamental Jewish principles ensure that we never forget that. Shabbat sets us apart from the rest of society. It gives us a day in which we come together to focus on Judaism, on growing as a community, on ourselves. It reaffirms that sense of pride on a weekly basis.

Alarmed by growing assimilation, fully believing that the opening of the MJCC on Shabbat will signify an unprecedented, dangerous level of assimilation, guided by immense Jewish pride, and believing that the success of this community depends on a collective effort to affirm Jewish pride and distinctiveness, I wholeheartedly oppose the opening of the MJCC on Shabbat, and pray that you see the merit in my argument. 

With the utmost respect,

Gabriel Goldstein ’14


Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Year That Was

A dead spider is pressed into my bathroom ceiling. I don’t recall the exact date or cause of death, but it’s my understanding that it’s been resting peacefully above my shower head for some time now. One would think that I’d remove it, but it’s become somewhat of a symbol to me. With each passing day, people die, future leaders are born, humans weep and smile, animals graze and feast, and things change. But the spider remains.

With the birth of a new year, I can’t help but reflect on all that was in 2013. It was a year of cultural progression, triumphant tales of courage, and collective communal growth. It was a year of acceptance, inclusion, and coexistence. It was a year of untimely deaths, military operations, and the growing prospect of the impossibility of peace in the Middle East. It was the most notable year in my short time on this earth, one that I will remember for its magnificence rather than its monotony.

We said goodbye to one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the modern age, a sage who stood firm in his beliefs, even when faced with controversy and opposition. We were elated to celebrate the 65th birthday of the Jewish State, a nation that has grown prosperous far beyond expectations. We failed to notice and tactically combat the growing anti-Israel sentiment within America, primarily on college campuses. We were rudely awoken by the discovery that the state of American Jewry is in peril.

We witnessed history, as California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, furthering the rapidly growing progressive movement in America. We gasped or celebrated, depending on personal opinion, as the recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Colorado. We watched as one of our own overcame debilitating fear and liberated himself from an encircling closet constructed by societal norms; then, for the most part, welcomed him with open arms. We came together as a community to recoup after a devastating and frightening assault on our holy objects and our religion. We united, divided, accepted, rebuked, and compromised, but in the end we spent the past year growing as a community, becoming appropriately progressive, while still remaining true to our traditional ideals.

We saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likkud Party remain in power. We held high hopes when news of continued peace negotiations surfaced. We cried, fumed, and sympathized when convicted Palestinian terrorists were released from Israeli jails. We held our collective breath as Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, for we feared a land war was imminent. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as a cease fire was reached just as Israeli soldiers were preparing to enter Gaza. Our hope for peace faded as negotiations proved relatively futile. We failed to pursue and promote peace, for we often found ourselves exceedingly enamored by the blame game.

We continued an academic reformation aimed at correlating 21st century resources and modern academia. We celebrated both the collective success of the school, and the individual success of its students in a year in which we said goodbye to an incredibly impressive senior class. We recently received news, both exciting and saddening, that a true pioneer in Jewish academia, the orchestrator of our aforementioned academic reformation, and his wonderful family will be leaving us upon the conclusion of the school year. We failed to do more, to delve deeper into Judaism and its fundamental questions, to adequately educate our children on the history of Zionism and the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was a year of immense highs and gut wrenching lows. Of incredible success and bitter failure. Of exceeded expectations and disappointing shortcomings. No year yields all that is desired. However, that absolute truth is not a justification for stagnancy. A new calendar year gives life to fresh beginnings. There is more that we can do - that we must do - as individuals and, more importantly, as a community.

It is imperative that we take it upon ourselves to inspire an everlasting fervor for Judaism, a love so strong that secularization and assimilation become impossibilities. We must abandon our often isolationist attitude and help revive Jewish pride within the other denominations of the greater Memphis community, beginning with leading by example. It is our duty to ensure that our children are sent off being adequately informed regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are ready to confront and combat the anti-Israel sentiment that is taking college campuses by storm. With the departure of a communal leader, we must band together to ensure that the work begun by the Perl family perpetuates, and that the coming change in power serves as a minor bump in a long, relatively smooth road toward academic excellence. We must make a concerted effort to keep ourselves well informed about the contemporary issues that face the diaspora. We must, at all costs, discontinue the blame game regarding the Middle East, opting instead to promote and endlessly pursue peace. We must continue to unite, divide, accept, rebuke, and compromise, for it will continue to facilitate the growth that is so imperative in making this community as wonderful as it can possibly be.

One year from today, I will be immersed in an entirely new chapter of my life. I will be living by a standard set right here, in Memphis. I will act as a man who reflects his upbringing, and I genuinely hope that man will be respectable, progressive, well-informed, and considerate. I hope that man will reflect the community in which he was molded - a man who cares about being a Jew above all else, and defends the eternal existence of the State of Israel.

Unlike us, the spider will remain pressed into my bathroom ceiling, forever fixed in 2013, incapable of progression or evolution. Some things will never change - can never change - but it is, by the grace of God, in our ability to change those alterable elements of our community that desperately need reformation.

With immense gratitude for the year that was, I thank you all for reading, for being receptive, for being progressive, and for continuing to ensure a bright future for this community. We’ve done so much, and yet we’re left with more to do. Let’s do more. Join me in making this next year the best one yet.