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The Jews are not a race. They are a tribe.

It is why we were ashamed of Bernie Madoff. Among other things.

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Photo by Alina Zienowicz, courtesy of Wikimedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — There is nothing like a trip to Washington, D.C., with your synagogue’s young people to keep you vibrant.

And, also, as it turns out, intellectually alive.

Last weekend, we did just that with the youth of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach. Our group had a plethora of experiences in the nation’s capital: meeting with our congresswoman’s staffers; praying at Sixth and I; visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture; visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; visiting the National Archives; placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; and walking through the National Museum of the American Indian.

I had never visited the National Museum of the American Indian before. It is a great museum. It focuses on the history of the various Indian tribes in this country — their languages, cultures, religious rituals and worldviews.

Before entering that museum, what did I know about American Indians, or Native Americans?

Precious little. What I knew about American Indians I had culled from the Hollywood curriculum. The American entertainment industry created an entire genre of film — Westerns — in which American Indians were enemies; or fools, like on the old television show “F Troop”; or, at best, the noble savage. Jewish parents would send their children to overnight camps with Indian names, causing me to wonder if there were Native American parents whose kids went to Camp Shalom.

I grew up on Long Island. You could not travel more than 5 miles on Long Island without coming to a place with an Indian name. Start with Manhattan, and then come with me to Manhasset, Syosset, Massapequa, Commack, Hauppauge, Patchogue, Cutchogue. Head east on Long Island, and come to Amagansett, Quogue, Sagaponack.

Sure, it sounds like the conductor on the Long Island Rail Road calling out the stations, but these are almost unpronounceable reminders of the Native American presence.

In my sojourns in Florida, I have lived in Miami — an American Indian name. I have driven through Hialeah, another Indigenous name. I served a synagogue in Hollywood, Florida, in Emerald Hills, near TY Park — which no one could or wanted to pronounce — Topeekeegee Yugnee, the gathering place. Travel half a mile west of there, and you come to the Seminole Nation, to the casino and the Hard Rock Cafe.

I currently live in West Palm Beach, not far from Okeechobee. North of West Palm, there is an area in Jupiter, called Abacoa. Beyond, there is Loxahatchee, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Tampa.

When I visit Washington, feelings of national pride flood my soul. No place moves me more than the Lincoln Memorial. I get choked up at Arlington National Cemetery.

But when I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, I did not feel pride.

I felt humility and even shame. I came to understand, in a way I had never previously understood, that our ancestors on this land decimated the American Indian presence. We made treaties and we broke every treaty we made.

All of which brings me back to Whoopi Goldberg and the question of whether or not the Jews are a race.

If you define race — and this is a problematic definition — as a group of people with certain physical attributes, then, no, Jews are not a race.

A number of years ago, I had a colleague, the late Rachel Cowan. She had ancestors who had sailed on the Mayflower. She had joined the Jewish people as an adult.

Someone once said to her: “You don’t look Jewish.”

To which she replied: “It is funny how Jewish looks these days.”

If you think there is such a thing as a Jewish race, visit Israel. Within 15 minutes, you will realize there is no such thing as looking Jewish.

Actually, you don’t need a 12-hour plane flight to learn that.

Come to my synagogue for religious school. Look at how the students look, the buffet of cultures and races that have produced those beautiful kids.

So, no: Jews are not a race. 

But, if the Jews are not a race, then what, precisely, are they?

Last Sunday, walking the halls of the National Museum of the American Indian, I realized something. 

True: I felt great shame at what this nation has done.

But, within my mind and soul, I also felt great resonances and echoes.

I entered the stories of groups of people with different languages, customs, rituals, prayers, songs, art, connections to land they deem sacred, worldviews, ways of understanding the universe, ways of discerning what their place in the world is, distinctive dress for elders and priests and prophets.

It was there I realized or, rather, re-realized: The Jews are a tribe.

Which means we are connected to each other. We are connected to a place or to places; we have written literature and oral traditions and music and poetry and art and jokes and gestures; we have a shared pride and a loyalty.

Many Jews know this, deeply and intuitively. This is the way we grew up. We would describe a fellow Jew as a “M.O.T.” — a Member of the Tribe.

To be part of a tribe is to feel responsible for each other and to feel connected to each other. My mother, of blessed memory, lived in constant fear of embarrassment. In November 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jack Ruby shot the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother and my great-aunts commiserated on the fact that Jack Ruby was a Jew, and people would think all Jews are like that.

When we Jews reflected on Bernie Madoff and his scams, or Jeffrey Epstein and his perversions, we did not merely see criminals. We saw a shanda — a word our young people do not know, but which would be on my top 10 list of Yiddish words we need to reclaim — a shameful person who likewise brought shame upon us.

So, too: When we comb the list of Nobel Prize winners for Jewish names, we believe every name reflects on us. The word for that is nachas.

(Question: Do other ethnic groups, er, uh, tribes, react that way? Do Greek Americans automatically go down the shame/pride road? Or Irish Americans? Is this only a Jewish thing?)

Wait, you are thinking: If Jews think they are a tribe, doesn’t that mean they will be, well, tribalistic?

Let me turn the question around. Can the Seminoles, or the Creek, the Calusa or the Miccosukees have deep, emotional, powerful bonds of connection to each other?

Are they permitted to care, first and foremost, about their own families; then, their clans; then, their tribes — and only after that — about the world?

Would you begrudge them those local loyalties? Would you accuse them of being tribalistic?

No.

Then, why worry about the Jews becoming tribalistic? Yes, of course, we have those wonderful universalistic impulses — but why should the Jews be the first (and perhaps, only) group to divest themselves of the tribe?

Not only this: Every modern Jewish attempt to save members of the Jewish people — whether it was to save Yemeni Jews, or Soviet Jews, or Ethiopian Jews or Argentine Jews — or, even and especially now, the very real possibility that Israel will need to save the Jews of Ukraine — these efforts were all about the Tribe.

I do not believe tribal feelings mean we must or should feel arrogant, superior, self-satisfied.

I reject the idea of being tribalistic.

But, being tribal? I embrace it.

The creative vitality of the Jewish people has always depended on those who were and are tribal, and who have tribal instincts. Jewish federations. Hillel. Birthright Israel. Jewish film festivals. Jewish food festivals. JCCs.

None of them is about religion — or, at least, the way we usually imagine religion. (There are no Presbyterian film festivals; nor are there Episcopalian food festivals. Feel free to insert joke here.)

Those programs are all about the Tribe.

Tribalistic? Arrogant? Smug? Insular? Self-absorbed?

Meh.

Tribal? Connected? Passionate? Sharing a language or languages, rituals, culture, stories, literature, tunes?

Totally.