Some years ago, a close relative — I’ll call him “Cousin Yankel” — got himself into trouble and landed in the local paper. Yankel was a Hasid who’d spent his entire life in sheltered environs, and one day, soon after he got his driver’s license, he made an illegal turn and was pulled over by a cop and issued a $50 summons. Yankel looked at the summons, and then at the cop, then withdrew $50 from his wallet. If the officer was going back to the station house, Yankel reasoned, the officer might just hand in the fine for him. Yankel was promptly charged with attempted bribery.
The story first appeared as a news item on my Facebook feed (“Driver Arrested for Trying to Bribe a Police Officer”) with comments like: “Another Hasid who thinks he’s above the law!” “Lock him up and throw away the key!” It was only after I read the piece that I realized: This was my cousin Yankel. The dude was family. I knew him well enough to know that something less sinister than bribery had been attempted, and as the snarky comments piled on, I felt embarrassed for my cousin Yankel, then indignant: Didn’t people realize it must’ve been an innocent mistake? Couldn’t they extend a little sympathy to a Hasid who was just a little farblondzhet?
Then I wondered why I cared. Yankel was family, but I’d never particularly liked him. He was often tactless and obnoxious and insufferably argumentative. And besides, he remained in a world I had long left: the cloistered world of Yiddish-speaking, modernity-shunning Hasidim. His life and mine could not be more different. Why, then, was I so uneasy about strangers scorning him on the internet?
Because that’s what kinship does to you. It makes you care, sometimes even irrationally, sometimes even despite yourself.
In this Jewish month of Elul, I find myself reflecting on this very notion of kinship, the theme on which I began this 13-part series and to which I find myself returning at the end of it. An old tradition suggests the Hebrew word Elul as a mnemonic for the phrase in The Song of Songs: Ani Le’dodi Ve’dodi Li. “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” It is traditionally thought of as a metaphor for God and Israel, but to me it speaks just as well to the bonds of kinship among Jews themselves.
A year ago, I argued that the essence of Jewishness is the myth of shared ancestry, the notion that we are not merely a religious community or nationality, but first and foremost a family. The Children of Israel. The House of Jacob.
Kinship as a primary unifying principle of Jewishness, however, has long felt unsettling to me — and I am clearly not alone. For those with religious sensibilities, a Judaism attenuated to mere tribal bonds has little chance of survival. As Lawrence Hoffman, a prominent Reform rabbi and a scholar at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has written: “[T]he [mere] ethnicity of peoplehood without profound purpose is doomed.”
Even those who aren’t keen on religious faith or practice aren’t sure how else to assert the value of their heritage; the great anxiety of modern American Jews, as many have pointed out, is how to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation in the absence of at least tepid religiosity. Kinship alone, many appear to think, is an adhesive long past its sell-by date.
Furthermore, kinship, in general, is a fraught notion. Given our history with those who would accuse us of clannishness, of tribalism, of insufficient loyalties to our host nations, we Jews are particularly squeamish about asserting tribal bonds without greater purpose. In our globalized world today, many of us are wary of sectarian divisions, even of nationalism and excessive flag-waving, of the destructive power of us versus them. We worry that caring too much for our own is a betrayal of our universalist ideals.
And so, over the past year I have sought to find something more than kinship. Through these monthly columns, I have, for the first time in a long time, explored what Jewishness might offer me even after I have rejected its dogmas, its rituals and obligations, even affiliation with its organized communities. I considered my love for Talmud study and my aversion to reciting the Kaddish prayer. I contemplated what collective Jewish memory teaches us about ourselves, and how to find a moral center without a deity to command it. I stepped gingerly into the subject of Israel and Zionism. I’ve pleaded for us to be wary of bigotry toward our own, even as some of them drive us mad.
But as I write this last column of the series, I know that, even as Jewishness contains various tidbits of value for me, I have found nothing as magnetic as the notion of kinship. I confess: There have been times when I’ve wanted to run, both from family and from Jewishness — when I’ve felt alienated, insufficiently supported, irritated with the misdeeds of other Jews, or when odd Cousin Yankel has gotten his name in the paper. As far as I might run, though, the ties run farther, and this, to me, demands an uneasy reckoning.
“Human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life,” the novelist Willa Cather wrote, and in this sense, many of us feel both the longing to belong and the yearning to be free.
Kinship, then, is both a gift and a burden, and to deny it is perhaps to deny something elemental about our humanness. You don’t have to understand it to feel it: It’s in the blood rushing to your head when you learn of a family member in trouble, in the shame he might bring you with his misdeeds, in the indignation we feel at his or her petty personal offenses, the ardor with which we disavow our very kinship after a falling-out.
Still, I’ve often wondered about the very basic fact of kinship: What is it exactly? Can we put it under a microscope and examine its components?
Perhaps we can.
The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote that family is an “intertwining of multiple streams of ancestry, memory, shadow, and light,” and this, for me, is the essence not only of family, but also — or even more so — of our kinship as Jews. It is the collective memory, the consciousness of history, an awareness of ancestry, of being rooted in antiquity and projected toward eternity. “Ancient relics and residues seep through from past generations,” O’Donohue wrote, and for Jews this feels especially true, bound as we are by history and heritage, along with bodies of wisdom, literature and lore.
Kinship is what makes our hearts stop when one of ours gets the nomination or wins the prize. Kinship makes us shudder when Jews around the world feel growing anxieties about their safety. It was Jewish kinship that held us together to rebuild anew after the Holocaust, both in Israel and the Diaspora, and it was Jewish kinship that created and spearheaded the movement for Soviet Jewry.
Whether literal, mythic or metaphoric, kinship is in fact necessary to humanity, perhaps now more than ever. Modernity has brought high levels of isolation, and with it a miasma of mental and emotional torpor, and declining bonds of kinship are a direct factor.
“The loneliest place in the world is the American suburb,” said Sebastian Junger, author of the recent book “Tribe,” in which he argues that collectives dealing with strife — Londoners during the Blitz, New Yorkers following 9/11 or soldiers in a war zone — find emotional balance that eludes more isolated individuals who appear to have all of life’s comforts. “That’s why our suicide rates, our depression rates… are through the roof,” Junger suggested. Our brains have evolved to benefit from cooperation with those close to us, and even today, far past our evolutionary development, kinship offers a prophylactic against the terror of isolation.
Making too much of kin and tribe brings a risk of parochialism, but perhaps a universalist ethos need not contradict it; rather, it can be inspired by it. Jewish kinship is to maintain the best of our tribal instincts while radiating them outward to the rest of society. The concept of ahavat yisrael — love for your fellow Jew — is valuable not because your fellow Jew is more special, but because by your best attitudes toward your own, you learn what you can do for those beyond.
It is for good reason that the Bible so often uses filial terms in its directives: Do this for your brother; do that for your sister. Its intent, clearly, is to say this: Imagine someone as your brother, and you will treat him so even if he isn’t. See the hungry and naked stranger as your kin, and you will see a human you’d otherwise be blind to. The very idea of kinship teaches us that we can do better even to those who aren’t kin.
Jewish kinship, then, means that when we do good in the world, we begin with our own and continue outward. Charity might begin at home, but it should never end there.
An appreciation for kinship also demands something. It is up to us to speak up about the dangers of toxic ideologies, of religious fundamentalism, of drunken nationalistic hubris or the dangerous mix of them all. It is up to us to argue, vigorously, tenaciously, for an ethos that benefits the family of humanity beyond our own. “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me” — a declaration of love and loyalty, but not moral blindness. To the contrary, our kinship is what gives us permission to speak, even when the conversations are difficult. Our kinship gives our voice its strength, allows us to say,” Brother, sister, listen to me.”
Kinship isn’t easy, nor is it an imperative. Rather, it is an existential, if mythic, reality that we can choose to override or embrace. To be consciously Jewish, then, is to embrace it, to accept both the gift and the burden.
My own ahavat yisrael — my love and caring and feelings of kinship to other Jews — isn’t perfect. Sometimes I’ve had it with my fellow Jews, when I feel like so many are just a bunch of Cousin Yankels. And sometimes, I am sure, I am the Cousin Yankel to others. But so it is with family: We get frustrated, sometimes angry, occasionally declare we want nothing to do with it, but for most of us, something calls us to return.
My cousin Yankel, too, calls me still from time to time. He is a devout Hasid — as I once was — and he has no computer, no smartphone, no internet access. He doesn’t quite understand my life, and our conversations always seem the same.
“What do you do?” he’ll ask, and I’ll say, “I write, mostly,” and he’ll ask, “Write what?” and I’ll say something vague — working on a book, writing a newspaper column — and he, clearly not feeling enlightened, will ask, ” “Is there money in it?” and I’ll tell him that there is little of that.
He’ll be quiet for a bit, before, eager to pivot, he’ll offer news of my old community: who gave birth, who married whom, who died. I’ll listen, and I’ll remember the names and, despite myself, remember that I am still connected, to Yankel, to my old religious community and to our broader family of Jews.
I am for them and they are for me. I accept both the gift and the burden. And with that, I am a Jew.
*Shulem Deen is the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return.” Follow him on Twitter @shdeen
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid, and the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Salon, Haaretz, Tablet, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.