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Don’t Fence Me In

Okay, so first of all I have to acknowledge to myself that the schedule was a little extreme. To keep alert and open to a range of different people talking with me, to wander all over Manhattan to meet them, and then to expect myself to be sufficiently awake to write any thoughts other than “please let me sleep” – how young did I think I am?

And so, as I sit here at Newark airport, waiting for my delayed flight to Orlando, I get a chance to explore Freedom in the American mindset. It’s funny. Whenever I ask Israeli groups about what is keeping them up at night, it is really rare that issues of Freedom trouble them. Democracy, rights, freedoms, are not insignificant to them, but just don’t often make it to the top of their inbox. For them, the other three questions – security, belonging, and Land, are far more burning. Here, or at least in New York – freedom is a big deal.

I’m reminded of the transformation of the Cole Porter song “Don’t Fence Me In”, first recorded, if I’m not mistaken, [by Roy Rogers.] ( “Don’t Fence Me In” was a song about the great outdoors, about expanses of territory. The fences sung about were physical. Fences prevented my roaming free – not on my mobile phone, but physically. But the cool remake by David Byrne makes the fences metaphorical. Don’t fence me in to a specific identity, the video would seem to say, as the song drums its way past ethnic genres into a world blur with a good beat.

In America, one interlocutor reminded me, a white woman can feel entitled to define herself as a black woman, if the spirit takes her and if she acts accordingly. Likewise a man can feel entitled to present himself as a woman without even the irascible Germaine Greer being allowed to protest.

In fact, this seems to be the contradictory theme of my Freedom day. One the one hand, one must be free to define one’s own identity freely. Yet on the other hand, those with whom one chooses to identify are no longer free to reject us.

My freedom to choose would seem to limit your freedom to criticize my choices. And the more limitless the possibilities of my identity choices, so increasingly narrow becomes your freedom of speech.

Or something like that.

So I’m left wondering how this freedom to choose identities affects the idea of being Jewish. On the one hand there’s something refreshing and inviting about the concept that one must choose to be Jewish. It calls for thoughtfulness, deliberation, and authentic commitment. But on the other hand, it leaves no room for fate. Or anti-Semites…

Is this what anti-Semitism does? Takes away our choice whether or not to identify as Jews?

So: Conclusion for Freedom Day – these progressive understandings of freedom directly impinge on our understandings of collective belonging. If I belong to a collective (like the Jews) only because I’ve chosen to do so, then is membership by birth suddenly irrelevant, even shoddy?

Okay… Tomorrow – some of the rabbis…


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