This is a picture of me at the age of 17 on top of Masada in Israel, wearing a baseball cap that says “YAZ”. I remember asking someone to take this picture, and to get me and the Yaz cap and as much of Masada behind me in the phot as possible – hence the odd composition. I was on my end-of-11th-grade trip with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, and getting this picture was significant to me at the time for reasons I cannot remember.
But now, this photo stands for a whole story of who I am, which I focus on especially on the Shabbat leading into Independence Day and the first Shabbat that my daughter is in Israel for her very first time.
The Yaz hat I had for about nine months, and I wore it a lot even before Israel. I got the cap I think on the bridge between Kenmore Square and Fenway Park in probably August of 1983, when our family went to a Red Sox game during Carl Yastrzemski’s final season. Yaz merch was everywhere. It’s a white kind-of-painter’s cap and by the first couple weeks of Israel it had become a bit discolored under the rim with sweat from our hikes. The cap came to an untimely end a week or two after Masada when our group was on a long bus ride and I was in front telling jokes on the microphone (we used to trade that off during our tiyyulum, our excursions from our base) and my friend Judy became carsick and needed to stop the bus and run off. I got out of her way, but didn’t get the last bit of the very top of my head out of the way quite in time. End of Yaz cap!
Masada is half of what’s important about the Yaz cap. Being at Fenway during Yaz’s last season is the other important part. When I was 1 to 3 years old, before I can even remember, my family lived in Rockport, Massachusetts. My father had recently completed his medical training and wanted to practice in a small town, and my mother did not want to live in a small town -- so they made a deal that they would try it for two years. Dad found a practice looking to add two young doctors in Gloucester. We lived there, but after the two years, Mom called it off.
What I do remember, for as long as I can remember anything, is that every year after the experiment ended we would make a summer trip out East -- a week in Utica with Dad’s family (Utica, a/k/a the Garden of Eden and the founding spot of all civilization, in Savett family lore), and a week on Cape Ann on the ocean down the street from where we had lived. And one of those days was always spent in Boston, often split between visiting our cousins and doing something in the city. Over the years growing up, we went to the Bunker Hill monument, the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord, the USS Constitution, Faneuil Hall, the North End. I grew up when Schoolhouse Rock was new on Saturday morning TV, so none of this Hamilton-The-Revolution’s-Happening-In-New-York garbage -- it was the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock and the Boston Tea Party. I was fascinated for a time with how it wasn’t Paul Revere or William Dawes but Col. Prescott who actually rode out to announce the “British are coming!” I did not like reading Thoreau and Emerson in high school – but I did love that I had actually been to Walden Pond. The Boston history and landscape seeped into me, along with the ocean in Rockport, as a second home and as a central part of my own story and history.
So I wore the Yaz hat to connect me to my Boston, American-history roots, and I wore it on Masada as we sat as a group and debated as though we were the Zealots making our last stand against the Romans -- should we resist or flee or take our own lives. I wore it as we hollered into the canyon as Israeli soldiers do, shenit m’tzadah lo tipol, Masada will never fall again. I added a few weeks after my HSI trip ended to stay in Israel, and the moment I landed back in the U.S. I started to plan for getting back to Israel in college.
I wrote about that day on Masada for my college essays-- it was in a way both Yaz and Masada who got me back to Boston, to Harvard. I loved living there, walking the streets of our colonial founders each day with the signs of how many hundreds of years ago a particular path or road was first laid down. In the middle of that time I did fulfill my intention of going back to Israel (without the Yaz cap). Yet on the heels of a year when I was convinced I would make aliyah, I returned to Boston and found myself surprised to discover that I was deep down an American and I couldn’t give that up, and I didn’t want to.
And so, about a century after my great-grandparents came to the U.S. and Canada in flight from the czar, and had become Americans as my family had become Russian or Lithuanian or Ukrainian or Latvian some generations earlier for the very same kind of reason after living somewhere else -- I made a choice to be American.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. The Declaration begins in this passage, and in the famous passage that follows, by announcing the choice of the people of this country to become Americans and not British. And at the same time words like necessary and impel and duty suffuse the opening lines as if to say -- we choose to become who we had no choice to become. That is how it felt to me and how it feels to me, as I think about choosing to be American and feeling compelled to make that choice.
And it’s important to declare the causes of that publicly, for me and for others of us who are American Jews. And I find myself this time of year when I have a kid in Israel and so many people I know are spending time there -- I find myself feeling like a “decent respect to the opinions of Jews and Zionists” requires me to declare why here and not there. Respect to Jews and Zionists here, in this room and this community as well as in Israel. For me, living in the land of Yaz is something I can’t separate from the part of me tied to the land of Masada, and my American-ness and my Zionism are so tightly connected.
Last fall when I was in Jerusalem, I brought with me the journal I kept from my year in college there. I read to myself the statements of the me who was declaring why he couldn’t live here and had to live there, and the values I thought were at stake in becoming an Israeli Conservative Jew in the religious peace movement. I took a walk with myself and talked to myself in Hebrew about whether I could have become anything like me, with whatever strength of moral character and whatever leadership it has taken decades to develop, if I had made aliyah. Who can know.
But I think not. I have spoken to you on many Shabbatot before Independence Day about this and written about it -- you can check out the USA page on rabbijon.net so I’ll just summarize it here. I discovered, back in the fall of 1988, that I was American to the core, that American ideas and the paradigm questions and American politics were all I wanted to think about and talk about and study. And it was not only my Boston marination, but my Judaism and my Torah that were making me American.
To quote and paraphrase myself from last year and a few years before:
Jewish experience and Torah were my path to America. In my mind, this is how I think about freedom and individuality: Thomas Jefferson with his self-evident truths speaks to Moshe demanding that Pharaoh let our people go. Henry David Thoreau, who would not compromise one bit with conventional society and went off to live in the woods all on his own, who went to jail rather than pay taxes that would help fund what he thought was an unjust war – Thoreau is talking to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who in the Talmud is banished by his colleagues after he couldn’t persuade the rest of the rabbis to set the law his way, even when God sent miracles and a voice down from Heaven to back him up.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote the classic essay on individualism, speaks with Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, who wrote about sh’lichut, one’s unique individual mission in the world.
I think about how freedom is the basic, precious truth we learn from the Exodus, and how much more precious that freedom is than what John Locke or Thomas Jefferson ever wrote about. How Torah freedom compels us to stop at Mt. Sinai and enter into covenant, and what that required stop teaches about the kinds of covenants free people in America are able to make or ought to make.
I think about how freedom is also the fundamental challenge to our humanity, even the most basic idol. It was free people after all who chose the make a golden calf and worship a thing made of gold. It was free people who imagined themselves trading the challenge of rising spiritually for the fleshpots back in Egypt and the thought of a life free of difficult decisions and moral agency. The Torah of freedom talks to the challenges today, of freedom that opens up to mere materialism, to unrestrained competition in the economy and social competitiveness. A freedom that can make everything a commodity, including ourselves — allowing our interests, our time, even our unique talents to be valued in our own eyes by what they are worth in the short term to others. All of which can disconnect us from the larger and longer stories we are part of, which we author and co-author.
I think about how the long Jewish practice of tzedakah as more like taxation than charity wants us to understand the blessing we say first thing in the morning, praising the Divine she’asanu b’nai chorin, who has made us free people. I think about how Jews have been stewards of both freedom and self-government for more than three thousand years, carrying the Exodus story and wearing it around our bodies in tallit and tefillin, running even our medieval communities in a principled self-government. How does the person who wakes up into freedom also wake up into responsibility? I want to know how freedom and responsibility are linked — in talmudic detail and American detail, in philosophical detail and political detail.
It’s because of America that Torah has had to speak to issues beyond our group and its wellbeing, and become a wisdom for this nation and the world. American has brought Torah to answer questions about totalitarianism, the nuclear age, technology, racism, human rights, compelling Jewish thinkers to explore the ethics of power and the limits of human potential. And because of America, Jews export that wisdom back to Israel, whether it’s to the Conservative and Reform communities, the religious Zionist movement, or many creative secular and non-governmental initiatives and communities and think tanks. There could be no democratic, modern Israel without the Jews and Judaisms of America.
Some look at the phrase “Jewish American,” or “American Jew,” and see a space between the words, a yawning gap between two aspects of consciousness. Or they see a dash like a minus sign, where one word or maybe both take something away from the other. I see rather a chemical bond. Not ionic – charged, each trying to take something from the other. But covalent. A sign of the energy that flows uniquely when two entities are bound together, and something new emerges that is different from either atom on its own.
The hyphen in “Jewish-American” is one of the most exciting things I know. The identity, and the specific moral dilemmas that come with the hyphen -- I wouldn’t trade that hyphen for anything.
That’s why I chose to be American, and why I had to make that choice, once thirty-five years ago and over and over again since.
So that’s my story, my journal of ideas and my photo albums. The picture I showed you might not look like it has anything to do with this American tale. But the photo on top of Masada of me wearing a cap of the great Carl Yastrzemski is one photo of an overall equilibrium of how Jewish history and American history flow toward me and within. We don’t share these stories and declarations enough of why we are here and why we are us, the way we share stories of Zionism and persecution. Last Rosh Hashanah I charged us to look ahead to this year and the coming two years after, and to make a Jewish leap of faith in American democracy. Whether right now the America you experience is more like the crises of leadership and national direction in our first parasha today, Chukkat. Or whether like in the second, Balak, you’re reassuring yourself that from ten thousand feet and from the outside, we are a beacon still or at least okay.
So on this July 4th, tell your story, at least to yourself. If you have chosen to be here, be proud you made that choice -- that you have chosen this place with the moral questions that come with this place and time. Baruch she-asanu b’nai chorin -- thank you, to the One who has made us all free in this place and this time.