Happy (17th of Tevet) New Year

When the New Year comes, some celebrate in an uproarious fashion: some just change the calendar. What about American Jews? They do just what the others do.

It is easy to ignore the fact that New Year’s is a commemoration of the beginning of another religion. Many ignore the religious connections, though the Roman Catholic calendar calls Jan. 1 “the circumcision of the Lord.” The real problem is not that we use the civil calendar: the question is how much we use our owncalendar. Although a certain measure of acculturation has been present in Jewish life in every age and place, it has generally been offset by the existence of a robust Jewish culture.

The use of the civil calendar is just a detail. It is a detail, however, that is one of so many details of the same kind: names, language, customs, and habits. This is more than a religious problem: It is a question about the whole of Jewish culture and, in a deeper sense, about Jewish identity. The Jew who counts the time in the same ways as the society that surrounds him, and has a name that blends in nicely with that same society, and speaks only the society’s language, and has no custom or way of a different lifestyle – What remains of his identity as a Jew, beyond an empty word that may still, somehow, adhere to him?

Some of the early 20th century Jewish socialists who immigrated to the United States were ideologically atheists. They might have eaten pork on Yom Kippur, but they derived intense pleasure from doing so. They counted their money in Yiddish and sometimes enjoyed listening to a chazzan. Their grandsons, however, are no longer Yankel or Berel. They watch baseball on Yom Kippur and often do not even know that the day is Yom Kippur. For them, it is just a date somewhere in September. The old-timer worked hard to obliterate his Jewishness; his sons and his grandsons don’t have any need to do so.

The life of a people, like the life of an individual, is not created only of big deeds and exalted ideas. Small details contribute powerfully toward an identity. Most human beings have a nose, a mouth, a pair of eyes:we recognize individuals by tiny details that together create individual faces. The late Isaac Asimov (who was not, by any means, an observant Jew) wrote in his autobiography that p’tcha (an Eastern European food made of calves’ foot jelly) is the real ambrosia of the gods. One cannot build an identity on p’tcha and a Jewish name, but these things help.

All these little details are not sufficient by themselves: they do not create a persona. But they are a reminder, and, as such, they sustain at least the memory of a tie, the almost subconscious sense of belonging. In America’s tolerant, multi-cultural atmosphere, it is no longer such a handicap to be called Avram Kohan or Dvora Rabinowits, but a name is still a kind of badge that helps a person remember, at least partially, the answer to the question, “Who am I.” Keeping names and habits, in a certain way, might even be more important for the socialist’s grandson than for others. Those who are not Jewish may know that a certain Ian Smith is a Jew, but he himself may forget it. For that Ian Smith, the name and the little habits are important.

The Midrash says that while the Jews were in Egypt, they were completely assimilated into the civilization in which they lived except that they kept their Jewish names. It helped them when the call of redemption came: They knew they were being called. Making a significant change in the general drift of American Jewry requires very substantial actions. Changing the lives of millions of people demands a very powerful jolt. But, still, there are little things that help preserve some connection. As long as some ties are kept, there is still hope for the future.

So, for those who care, strengthening the threads of memory has significance. A name, a picture, a Jewish phrase – all of these should be cultivated and enlarged. At the beginning, it may feel strange and artificial, but it may stick. When every Jewish home has a mezuzah, that will a great symbol, even if the people in the house do not know what it means. When there is a reminder of a Jewish date, it conveys somehow even for those who do not know how to pronounce it properly.

And having a Jewish name, even as a middle name, still serves to remind one of a Jewish grandparent. We have to keep the small things in order not to forget.

So, when was the 17th of Tevet?!!