Thanks to a co-worker joking about my family cramming into my wife’s 15-passenger van for our yearly pilgrimage to Florida, I’ve had the chorus to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” stuck in my head the last several days.
The Runyans are certainly not the Griswolds of the classic ’80s movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, but two adults driving through the night with nine children, their bags and enough kosher snacks to feed an army could certainly be fodder for a National Lampoon installment.
Suffice it to say, I am on vacation this week, making the rounds of grandparents, aunts and uncles before we say goodbye to summer 2018 and hello to another school year. And while I’ve been thinking about how much fun it will be to introduce my youngest children to Orlando’s real-life inspiration for the fictional Walley World, I’ve also been thinking a lot about identity — specifically, about how identity travels with you.
If you don’t wear it on your sleeve (as I write this, I’m proudly displaying my Super Bowl LII victory T-shirt), then what’s the point of having an identity? (It’s an interesting question to ask in the Sunshine State, where despite the presence of local sports teams, almost every house in the retirement communities displays a flag, banner or logo of the Eagles, the Phillies, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Yankees or some other team from up north.)
Wherever we go, in fact, people who know us know that the Runyans are coming, thanks to the boisterous way my brood approaches getting from Point A to Point B. It’s almost become a point of pride.
But identity goes beyond one’s last name. At its maximum, it encompasses the entire person: her characteristics, her expressions, her personality, her religion. If it defines you, it’s a part of your identity. Most people wouldn’t consider membership in a political party as part of their identity, and yet there are those who describe themselves first and foremost as Republicans or Democrats. For them, political persuasion is as much about their identity as the way they walk or talk.
Sometimes, identity expresses itself most when you find yourself in a new situation — say, being a Philadelphian in Florida or (another example I have close, personal experience with) an American establishing a home in Israel.
Two weeks ago, when I had the pleasure of accompanying a plane full of new olim from North America heading to Israel to begin their new lives there, I asked Hana Lowenstein, the daughter of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, what it was like to have grown up in the household of a famous politician, who almost became this country’s vice president, and have been so committed to eventually raising children in a different country.
“I’m a very patriotic American. I care about America,” she told me. “But at the same time, for me, it’s wonderful to have a choice [where to live]. On my mother’s side, they were Holocaust survivors. … Aside from all the tears, all the loss, I wanted to help build that next generation. For me, [living in Israel] is the next step.”
I understand where she’s coming from. As a new oleh 12 years ago, I, too, embraced my identity as an American even as I lived as an Israeli. Having moved back, I’ve never given up my or my children’s Israeli citizenships. As Jews, we always felt a personal connection to the Jewish state, but as citizens, that connection will always have an added dimension to it.
The past week, two findings from the Pew Research Center confirmed yet again that America is a deeply religious nation — its adults are far more religious, in fact, than those in other first-world countries — but that actual attendance at religious services has been on a steep decline. Even as Americans of all religions continue to profess a belief in God and consider their religious beliefs to be deeply ingrained features of their identities, churches, mosques and synagogues are having a hard time keeping congregants in the pews.
We’ve been familiar with this phenomenon in the Jewish community for quite some time.
For almost as long, movements across the denominational spectrum have been figuring out new ways for Jews to express their Judaism beyond a synagogue’s four walls.
As a rabbi, I have to say that attending synagogue is in and of itself a good thing, but I’ve also long believed that being Jewish — embracing your Jewish identity — absolutely requires doing so wherever you are. That’s why one of the most beautiful things to witness on a flight to Israel is the collective rising of certain passengers soon after sunrise to daven. Seven miles above any synagogue on the ground, they create a makeshift prayer space out of an airplane cabin.
The same can be done by anyone while walking down the street, sitting at work or riding in the car — it just takes the intention to infuse a bit of holiness into the mundane surroundings of the moment. An Eagles fan doesn’t stop being an Eagles fan when he happens to find himself in a — I shudder at even the thought of it — Dallas Cowboys bar, and a Philadelphian doesn’t stop being a Philadelphian when he retires to Fort Lauderdale.
So too, we all should “do Jewish” wherever and whenever we happen to be. That’s the most important expression of our identities that we can share with the world.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]