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The Jewish people

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Column by Judi Siegal

It’s the same old question akin to the proverbial: “What came first, the chicken or the egg”? When one of my readers in Citrus County posed it to me, I thought it would make for a provocative column. So here it is, the question everybody loves to ask: Are Jews a people or a religion?
The answer, my dear Watson, is not so elementary. There are many factors at play here and of course with two Jews you get three opinions but from my humble point of view of a liberal Jewish woman living in the State of Florida, I wish to offer the following.
If you were to examine the liturgy, you would find references to the Jewish people all over the siddur (prayer book).
Each branch of Judaism publishes its own version with their specialized translations of the original Hebrew according to the dictates of their movement. While the liberal branches will be gender neutral in terms of pronouns for God, the more traditional texts will still use the masculine.
Despite these and other subtle differences, Jews are still referred to as the “Jewish people” or the “people of Israel” or “God’s people” or Your people (referring to God).
There is definitely a relationship here between a specific group of people (nation) and the rest of the peoples of the world. That relationship that Jews have with God is in the form of a covenant or agreement, God will be Israel’s God and Israel will do God’s bidding. The ancient Israelites who morphed into today’s Jews, were given a set of laws, the Ten Commandments and the Torah (Five Books of Moses) with all its laws and precepts in order to live a moral and just life. Jews are the vehicle for these laws, a nation to show others how to live in peace and harmony.
When you are considered a nation, then you have a country, customs and folkways to call your own. Jews have all of these things.
The State of Israel is the Jewish homeland and the customs and laws of Judaism are the law of the land. Here is where things get interesting. Judaism is a religion. Religion by definition is a set of spiritual beliefs complete with rituals, taboos and liturgy. Judaism is so a part of the Jewish psyche that you cannot separate the two.
Even secular Jews will observe Shabbat in their own way; it is part of the customs of belonging to the Jewish people.
 Can you be a member of the Jewish people and be a non-practicing Jew? The answer is yes, you would be considered a secular Jew because if your mother (some branches say father) was Jewish so are you a member of the Jewish people.
Here peoplehood seems to trump religion. You are a member of the Jewish people even if all you do for Purim is eat Hamantashen or just attend a seder on Passover.
You are also considered Jewish if you faithfully observe the commandments (mitzvot) and lead religious services. You also bond with the Jewish people by supporting Zionist causes and attending Jewish functions such as concerts or book reviews on Jewish topics. Jews are a close knit group of people, a community where even on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, prayers for forgiveness are recited in the plural.
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the liberal Jewish movement, Reconstructionism, called Judaism a “living religious civilization’.
He saw Judaism as not just a religion but more of a civilization, that is a group of people living together sharing similar values, music, art, food and religion. All of this describes the Jewish people. Where would we be without our distinctive food based on our specialized dietary laws, our music, art and even our way of dress?
All these things characterize us as a nation and make us distinctive from others around us. Even our concept of holiness revolves around the idea of separateness, for example, taking an object, such as wine, and consecrating it to a higher purpose as Jews do on the Sabbath.
So how can you be part of the Jewish people when you are Asian, African, Native American or other nationality or race?
Here religion trumps nationality and so we have Jewish Africans such as the ones from Ethiopia, Chinese Jews and Native Americans who are members of both tribes!
It is entirely up to you if you are an American Jew or a Jewish American because Judaism is a religion and being a Jew does not make you part of a race since Jews can be of any race or color. Despite Hitler’s attempts to prove otherwise with his racial purity of the Aryan race and ridiculous caricatures of Jewish noses as a Jewish “racial” trait, Jews are descendants from Semite tribes (hence our term anti-Semite for being against Jews) and since they were exiled by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., they have been scattered all over the world assimilating into the world’s cultures.
And so our answer to our question is that being a Jew makes you part of a people as well as a member of a specific religion. In truth, the way Jews think, act and pray and face life are so a part of us as a people. We have our own languages, Ladino and Yiddish and our holy tongue of Hebrew. And while we share many of our values with other groups, I still believe that nobody can play a violin like a Jew and if you want to win a case, get a Jewish lawyer from New York. Kidding aside, our tradition teaches us that God and the Jewish people are one. That means that Jewish peoplehood and religion are one. Next question, please.