Friday, May 21, 2010

What’s Your #ish?

No, that’s not a typo. #ish is a word, or at least it’s word-ish. #ish is actually a marketing invention, an amalgam of a hashtag, (a secret symbol comprehensible only to users of “social media” like twitter), and the funnier sounding half of the word Jewish. “What’s your #ish?” is the slogan of a $300,000 Jewish Federations of North American marketing campaign aimed at 18-35 year olds. Armed with a trendy tagline and comically offbeat video, this cutting edge marketing campaign invites young Jews to offer serious and silly descriptions of their “#ish”, the essence of their connection to Judaism.

Despite the comic ambience of this campaign, no question could be more serious. Jews need to know why they should be Jewish. This question is THE question, and needs to be discussed by everyone, from husbands and wives to parents and children, to the board of directors at every Federation in North America

But in many ways, this question is a sad question; or to be more precise, a serious question that gets too many absurd answers. I know this campaign is meant to elicit comic, tongue in cheek banter; at the same time it’s still distressing to consider that for many Jews, Jewish identity has been trivialized down to an absurd caricature, and a proud spiritual tradition has been reduced to a series of kitschy icons: Bubbies, corned beef, Woody Allen, Yiddish and Jewish jokes.

The Jewish community has done an awful job articulating “what’s our #ish?”. Instead of embracing a serious Jewish mission, we have poured our energies and philanthropic dollars into building nostalgia based cultural institutions. We forget that Judaism is not the “shvitz”, and not a pastrami sandwich, and not a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Yes, Judaism is more than lox, bagels and Woody Allen; it is a proud intellectual and spiritual tradition. Judaism is more than a hashtag, it’s a mission.

That Judaism is a mission is the fundamental idea embraced by serious Jews of every stripe, from the Jewish Socialist to the Ultra-Orthodox Chassid. (What exactly that mission is, is another story!). And Jews have made significant sacrifices throughout the ages to pursue this mission. When Abraham is asked by God to wander in search of his destiny, it was not in order to find a better cholent recipe or a good joke.

Well then, what’s my #ish? I’d like to answer with a story. (How Jewish is that!).

Dr. Rick Hodes has been doing a heroic job serving the JDC in Ethiopia for the last twenty years. One day, a young Muslim woman, Merdya Abdisa, comes in with a tumor the size of an orange around her eye. Hodes sends her file to leading surgeons around the world, but they all say it's impossible to operate on her. One day while visiting Minneapolis, Dr. Hodes overslept, and arrived at the synagogue just after services. The Rabbi was still there, studying with another man.

After praying, Dr. Hodes chatted with the Rabbi and his student. As it turns out the student was a doctor, with the precise specialty needed to do Merdya’s surgery. After showing the doctor, Eric Nussbaum, pictures of the young girl, Dr. Nussbaum said: 'I'd love to try to help this lady.'". A short time later Merdya was in Minneapolis having her tumor removed.

This story is a classic Jewish saga. It includes Torah, prayer, Jewish doctors and a Rabbi.

Most importantly, this story is about the Jewish mission, the profound desire to change the world, from Ethiopia to Minnesota.

And that’s my #ish.

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