With all of the complaints people have about the United States, which is certainly not perfect, America’s citizens — Jews and non-Jews alike — have a tremendous amount to be thankful for in this country.
It’s the battle of the uni-named mega-stars: Sting vs. Madonna. Both have sung out about the “material world,” yet with different spins that parallel the “battle for the birthright” between Jacob & Esau! Our Forefather Jacob — readily recognizing that “we are spirits in a material world” — models for humankind the discipline of seeking beneath the surface. Esau, on the other hand, demonstrates the desire to focus on the surface itself. Acknowledging that we live “in a material world,” he is therefore quite content to view himself as a “material guy.”
The instant-gratification-seeking Esau begins to expose his superficial worldview when he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils, barely giving it a second thought. After returning from the hunt, Esau is consumed by his desire for food, to the point where he tells his brother Jacob, “Pour into me, now, some of that red red.” “Red red” what? Red red wine? (Sorry for the gratuitous ’60s song reference.) What happened to the noun “lentil?” As Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair explains, by describing the object of his desire through fixation on its color — by referring to his food as a double adjective — Esau is beginning to reveal his true “colors.”
Here is where Hebrew comes in handy in exploring the heart of a matter. Tellingly, in Hebrew, the word for “noun” conveys internal “essence,” while the word for “adjective” conveys external “description.” The life choices of Esau, exemplified by the sale of his birthright, illustrate that if our physical desires lead us to fixate on superficial appearances and descriptions — if we repeatedly exchange a world of nouns for a world of adjectives — we, too, may end up trading in our birthrights for short-lived satisfactions!
Perhaps Esau’s outlook can shed some light on an age-old question that each of us would do well to continue asking: Do I consider myself to be a Jewish American or an American Jew? While this question may seem to be a mere exercise in semantics, the answer may have implications that are far grander than grammar.
The season beginning with Thanksgiving, which beckons us to focus on and appreciate the many wonderful virtues of life in America, is a particularly fitting time to ponder this question. With all of the complaints people have about the United States, which is certainly not perfect, America’s citizens — Jews and non-Jews alike — have a tremendous amount to be thankful for in this country.
Which only brings us right back to our question: Jewish American (with “American” as the noun) or American Jew (with “Jew” as the noun)? Now that we know that a noun reveals the essence — and that an adjective only describes a more superficial, external reality — to which label should we award the prestigious position of the noun? To the American in us or the Jew in us? Perhaps it would be helpful to consider the following suggestion before formulating an answer: However we perceive our essential identity will most likely determine the legacy that we succeed in passing on.
There is another familiar case in which adjectives may cause more confusion than clarification: the misleading labels of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, etc. It’s important to ask whether or not these words have anything to do with who we are in our kishkes. If we were able to perform a litmus test on our souls — or perhaps a “litmus configuration” on our souls, for Midnight Run fans who are more familiar with the Grodin/DeNiro technique for counterfeit money inspection — would we actually expect to find any trace of these labels? Do we really think that just as there are various blood types, a litmus test would reveal various “soul types,” such as AJ (Ashkenazic Jew), OJ (Orthodox Jew), UJ (Unaffiliated Jew), etc.? Do these labels somehow exist as “spiritual-chemical” elements on some kind of “spiriodic” table?
It’s crucial to keep in mind that the essential soul of a Jew has no such adjectives! A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And the more we learn to focus on our shared essence, the more we can appreciate the splendor of our true unity!
Jon Erlbaum is cofounder and executive director of The Chevra.