Rabbinic Reflections: American and

Melting pot or tossed salad? I grew up when American society seemed to shift from thinking about itself as a melting pot where immigrant identities blended together with American culture, adding some flavor by contributing to a relatively homogeneous fondue. The shift was toward what was then called multiculturalism in which racial and ethnic identities were seen as whole entities crucial to an intricate mosaic of what America was meant to be. The tossed salad metaphor offered to keep the food image going while showing how different lettuces, nuts, legumes, vegetables, fruits, dressings, and garnishes enhance the salad even as they retain their unique identities. Looking back, I am not sure either metaphor captured what it meant to be American along with other Americans.

(Image from Image is from jwa.org)

Since 2006, May has been “Jewish American Heritage Month,” (even though it was already Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month), and it’s been a favorite of mine. Long before it was officially a way to celebrate, I found May to be a time when I got to celebrate being Jewish and being American. Israel and America both have a Memorial Day in May; the coincidence provides an opportunity for comparison. Inevitably, in marking Israel’s Memorial Day (which is followed immediately by its Independence Day) I find myself more aware of the losses of those who died for America and appreciative of the ideals they fought to protect. My Jewish connection to Israel makes me more patriotically American. Then Heritage Month itself reminds me of the many contributions of Jews to America. In the arts, in politics, in business, in science and technology, and elsewhere, these contributions are the other side of the coin of America being a land of opportunity for Jews. Is it any wonder that I come away proud to be a Jew and proud to be an American?

A big piece of that pride was moving beyond the challenges of the melting pot and tossed salad metaphors for my identity. I never liked choosing Jewish or American as primary or arguing the grammar of adjective versus noun. Just as challenging was hyphenating Jewish and American in Jewish-American, somehow making me feel less American and also less Jewish. There are so many other identities one might choose to highlight or might find left out of such hyphenations. A few years after the first Jewish American Heritage Month, I learned how many people were using computer tabs or windows as a metaphor for talking about their identities. Sometimes one window or tab is open and in front, other times it moves back. Sometimes two windows are open next to each other. So, too, with our identities: the many ways we present in the world can shift and need not be reduced to one or two (hyphenated) identities.

This May, because of my encounters with antisemitism, it’s true that I find myself less comfortable presenting my Jewish identity outwardly. I do not feel any less Jewish, though. Nor do I feel any less American. While I wonder about what it means to be a Jew in America today, I do not cease to hold either identity. Rather, I find myself holding on firmer to what it means to be an American, AND I rely on the Jewish teaching that “the essence (of life) is not to be afraid.” I am American, and I am Jewish, and I am grateful to be both and more.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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