The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. I think that the melancholy words of Sholem Aleichem form a background to many of the questions that will concern us in this seminar. If the ideal of a continuing Jewish identity within the Diaspora were not confronted by the menace of other individual and rigidly determined identities that threaten its continuity, we would not be dealing with the issue. If the question of Jewish identity in the Diaspora were not confronting new and difficult challenges in a world which oscillates between one or another kind of religious extremism, multiple identities, and the total loss of identity, we would not be sitting here.
History of the Jewish Diaspora
And so I feel that one way of approaching the situation of the contemporary Jew outside of Israel is to rapidly examine the history of this problem expressed by Sholem Aleichem. And also it is the perspective I feel qualified to apply. I am an historian, not a philosopher; I’m accustomed to believe that the meaning of facts and events is to be understood through their development across time. It’s hard to be a Jew for the same old reasons and also for certain new ones. My modest proposal here is to sketch the history of this “difficulty” from the past down to the immediate present.
The Jewish Diaspora, as we all know, is a history marked by intolerance, persecution and, all too often, attempts at local or, with the Nazis, global extermination. But there have also been long periods when specific Jewish communities have richly flourished: the Golden Age in medieval Spain, the overall peace (with some violent interruptions) in the pious and conservative shtetls of Poland, the flourishing of humanistic liberalism in the Germany of the Enlightenment and in post-revolutionary France. During each one of these historic moments, it seemed possible that the Jews had a chance to overcome the essential difficulty of being Jewish, our otherness vis-à-vis a majority culture. But we all know that this otherness would become a justification for the utmost horror in the midst of the 20th century.