Parshat Matot-Masei: What is our Journey?
Last week we celebrated July 4th, a day that represents freedom in our American History. Nowadays, we look forward to July 4th as a day when we gather with family and friends, enjoy the weather, maybe bbq and watch concerts and fireworks either in person or on television. We may lose sight of the events that took place which granted our country it’s freedom.
Interestingly, in the torah portion Matot-Masei we read about the Israelites who are on the cusp of reaching the promised land of Canaan, they have been on a 40 year journey, through the desert, towards freedom.
Here we are, at the end of the book of numbers, and we are reaching the end of our wandering from Egypt to the plains of Moab. As we stand here, we take a moment to look back on where we came from and to look forward toward Canaan, where we are going to.
Torah gives us the opportunity to annually reflect on what it means to live in the Diaspora, and about the challenges that face a refugee in the wilderness. As we read the stories in B'midbar (the desert) we see a lot of themes of what it means to be an immigrant in a foreign land. We learn about the battles, the challenges, and we learn about the victories.
The second name of this double torah portion, Masei, means a journey. And here, the torah outlines the major events of our journey towards Canaan. We start Numbers chapter 33 with the lines: These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting points.
I’m curious to think about what is our Journey, not as Jews entering the promised land, but as Jews entering America in pursuit of the American dream. As American Jews, we are often stating two identities. While we all may have been immigrants at one point, we now consider ourselves to uphold strong identities and loyalty to both our country and our religion. I want to think back to a time when that may not have necessarily been the case. To a time when we fought to be one or both of these identities we hold dearly today.
When Jews from Eastern Europe began immigrating to the United States in the early 1890's it was not an easy passage and it was one which challenged the identities that they held. Similarly to the Israelites, as they look towards Canaan, these immigrant Jews coming to America had a glimmer of hope in their eyes of what they imagined ‘the American dream to be’ as they voyaged to a better world. But, when they arrived, they faced many challenges as they fought to provide for their families in a place where they didn’t know the language, and the customs were different from their own.
By choosing to adapt to life as an American, there were ways in which these Jews made sacrifices of their Jewish traditions in order to live in an American society. A large one of these decisions was whether or not to keep sabbath as the "American" day of rest was not Saturday, but rather Sunday. Early on in their journey, people were asked to choose their religion over there need to feed their families and in many cases their need for work and money became the main priority as they struggled to adjust to a new environment.
I want to share with you a version of the prayer for the Sabbath candles that was re-written in a Jewish supplications for women book published in the year 1916 while many were struggling to uphold their religious and family obligations. It is titled: “A New Supplication for Candle Lighting in America” and was written to be said after saying the candle lighting prayers.
“I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that you should guard and shelterme, my husband and my children from Sabbath and holiday desecration. Send usto our livelihood in pleasure and not in sorrow . . . and we shall by no means due tolivelihood not be able to make the Sabbath or holidays weekly and we shall be able to rest on the holy days and serve you with all of our hearts."
Annie Polland, Education Director at the Tenement Museum in NYC and a well versed writer in this topic wrote an article titled: "Working for the Sabbath", in which she analyzes this adapted prayer.
In adapting to American conditions, immigrant women were cognizant of changed economic conditions and displayed a certain sense of flexibility in accommodating to the urban environment’s economic demands and secular enticements. In carrying out their role in the family religious economy, some women hewed to Jewish law and others forged their own sacred economies.. Despite variations in reconciling the Sabbath to the new economy, most immigrant mothers and wives performed the religious work of preparing for the Friday night dinner and collectively profoundly shaped family and neighborhood patterns.
By looking at the shift in how religion was able to be practiced among new immigrants at the turn of the century we can see the struggle these early immigrants had between choosing whether their American or Jewish identity was more pressing to them and their economic situation. Today, we have the ability to hold strong to our identities of both nationality and religion. But, have we simply forgotten what it means to be a foreigner? Have we forgotten what it means to be strangers in a strange land? (Don’t worry I’m not going to talk about Immigration Reform, rather I want us to think about our Jewish American immigration.)
Ok, now I’m going to ask you for some help, don’t be shy.
How many of you know the history of your own immigration story?
How many of you know with confidence that the youngest generation of your family knows that immigration story?
I feel that the future generations of American Jews often forget to ask where they came from. To some, it may seem like the distant past, to others it may only be a generation before. But for many we may not know first hand the voyage of our own American Judaism.
I know that in my own family my great-great-grandparents immigrated here in late 1890’s and early 1900’s. When they got here they lived in NY city. One grandfather was an embroiderer, and the other a hat maker, one grandmother owned a dry goods store after the death of her husband, and the other died young. The upward mobility and assimilation of their children happened quickly. On one side, my great grandparents went to college, and made careers for themselves in engineering and teaching, and on the other side my grandfather was the first to go to college. They all believed in education and hard-work but along the way the American piece of their identity won out. They came here being cultural Jews, which means they lived along the Jewish life cycle span and observed holidays. Because they lived within a Jewish community, they never had to be intentional about being Jewish, it was all around them.
But slowly, over time, since they were cultural and not synagogue going Jews their families assimilated quickly, meaning little religion at all. Since Americans held many cultural and religious identities, religion became a choice. And so my great grandparents on my mothers side chose to belong to a conservative synagogue, so as not to lose the religion. While I grew up in a reform synagogue, religion became out of my mothers conscious decision to carry on traditions and to hold on to our past, and our Jewish values.
I often find that today, when we are freely able to hold onto our Jewish identities along side our US citizenship, this narrative of our own immigration is sometimes forgotten. I wonder how we ensure we are teaching our Jewish values to the future generations of American Jews. It wasn’t until I thought to ask my grandmother, this past week, that I uncovered my own link of Jewish Immigration.
As a Jew of a younger generation and a future Jewish leader this troubles me. As Jews isn’t it our obligation to teach the past to future generations? We are a people who certainly like to talk, and share our stories. Why then are the youngest generations among us lacking in their own Jewish history? Have we simply forgotten to share our stories with them?
This year in working with the 7th graders at KI one of their core classes requires them to interview a Jewish adult, other than their parents, that they know. We spend time as a class coming up with questions to ask their interviewees. The kids are genuinely interested in what it means to be a Jewish adult and why people have made certain choices regarding religion in their lives. I wonder how it would change them if each adult in their lives was willing to share the stories that they know about their family’s immigration and their ancestors personal struggles and stories of where they came from.
While we aren’t still wandering the wilderness of Maob, or navigating the hard working conditions of the lower east side, we must not forget what it means to be a newcomer to a foreign land. And we must take alongside us the reminder that we are the links to our past and our future. We serve as the reminder to not take for granted our ability to be both freely Jewish and American at the same time and to empathize with the conditions new Americans face today. For just as we were slaves in Egypt, so too were our families the ones who paved the path for great opportunity.
We must not forget that just as we read about our journey in Torah to the promised land, we take a moment to reflect back and revisit the many places we stopped along the journey through Egypt so too should we continue to share the story with ourselves and our future generations of how we got to be American Jews.