Who Are You and What’s in That Name?

12 10 2010

Who are you and how shall you live, when you are born — fill in the blank —

See the sentence completed with “Jewish” for discussion here at Snook almost three years ago:

. . .the whole PBS series was about “identity” and how different American Jews in different places and times, struggled to both assimilate and advance, AND honor and preserve their own distinct heritage in their own families and neighborhoods, from language to education and music to friends and marriage, food, dress, hairstyles.

It’s a fascinating question to ask what it means to be born Jewish, of course, but is any religion literally about being born a certain way — inescapable genetic identity — that can be predicted, isolated and expressed with hard science? Or is it more true and truly meaningful to understand religious identity as culture, all its “mannerisms . . .hidden code . . .and subtleties.”

[He] doesn’t approach his journey into Judaism from a religious standpoint. He takes no steps to learn Hebrew or convert. Instead, his obsession is cultural. He wishes to understand the mannerisms of Jewish life; the hidden code of Jewish sarcasm and the subtleties of Jewish body language.

And in the end the larger power of story isn’t just about what Jewish or any other religious label means. The sentence that starts with “who are you and how shall you live” needn’t be followed by any fill-in-the-blank label at all. Just end it with a question mark: who are you and how shall you live? And never stop asking.

Who among us is so certain of our identity? Who hasn’t been asked, “What’s your background” and hesitated, even for a split second, to answer their inquisitor? Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question forces us to ask that of ourselves, and that’s why it’s a must read, no matter what your background.

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