I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Recently, an elected official had some explaining to do. All kinds of claims he made about his background and upbringing didn’t add up; among them was a claim that he was of Jewish origin.
When asked why he claimed to be Jewish, although he was not, he explained: “I never claimed to be Jewish. I said I was Jew-ish.”
Congratulations, sir, on inventing a new word.
After I finished laughing (or crying), this did make me think. Why are we the only people who refer to themselves as “Jewish?”
A Muslim will say, “I am a Muslim,” not a “Muslimish.” A Catholic is not Catholicish, and a Hindu is not Hinduish.
So why are the Jews Jewish?
I was curious enough to conduct deep research on the topic (read: spend 2 minutes on Google). From what I found, people seem to prefer the term “Jewish” since plain “Jew” is often used by antisemites as a slur.
Others have called to return to using the title “Jew.” As they explained, just because some ill-intentioned people are using it in a derogatory way, this should not stop us from using it and using it proudly.
But let’s not abandon the word Jewish so fast. If we can use both terms, each one will have its unique meaning, and together they can create a beautiful picture:
Jew is about who we are.
Jewish is about how we act.
When we say that someone is childish, we refer to the fact that they behave like a child. Similarly, when we say that someone is Jewish, it can also refer to the fact that they display their Judaism proudly.
Now, regardless of one’s behavior, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Our Jewish identity does not change based on our level of observance or lack thereof. Still, we can be a hidden Jew or wear our Judaism proudly on our sleeves. Isn’t that so much nicer?
Jewish pride has been crucial to Judaism for millennia.
In fact, according to some interpretations, an entire book in the Torah was named because of Jewish pride!
This week, we will begin reading the book of Exodus. In Hebrew, this book is called Sefer Shemot — the book of names — referring to the first verse: “these are the names of the sons of Israel.”
According to the midrash, the verse lists the names of the 12 tribes to highlight the importance of Jewish names. Despite living in Egypt for many years, the Jews were proud of their identity and didn’t try to hide it. And this was one of the mitzvot — the good deeds — that earned them the ultimate redemption from Egypt.
For far too long, people believed we needed to hide our Jewishness and not be different. Honestly, that never worked out anyway. Those who hated us always managed to identify us.
Now it’s time to embrace our Jewish pride. Whether it is wearing a kippah, using a Jewish name, displaying a menorah at your desk, or sharing with your co-workers that you eat only kosher — it’s time to be both a Jew and Jewish.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Hackensack and a member of the editorial board of Chabad.org. He can be reached at Rabbi@ChabadHackensack.com.