I AM JEWISH
by Judea & Ruth Pearl
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
On February 21, 2002, Pakistani terrorists murdered an American journalist, Danny Pearl, who had been lured to his capture on January 23 with the promise of an interview. The terrorists later released a video tape of Pearl's murder by beheading, and Pearl's last words, "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish" became part of the lexicon of the war on terror waged in the aftermath of al Qaida's attacks of September 11 of the previous year. Pakistan worked quickly to apprehend the terrorists behind Pearl's murder and Pearl's family has worked to keep his memory alive.
In the book I Am Jewish, edited by Pearl's parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, nearly one hundred fifty Jews from around the world have written short essays in which they reflect on Pearl's last sentence. What does it mean to say, "I am Jewish." Project participants range from the unknown, such as 22-year-old Itay from Haifa, to the famous, actor Richard Dreyfuss.
Many of the participants have a personal tie to Daniel Pearl. His family members have produced their thoughts, as have childhood friends, like Daniel Gill. In other cases, the link exists more tenuously. Columnist Thomas L. Friedmann notes that while he never met Pearl, the men are linked by their profession and their interest in trying to understand the Middle East in a non-biased manner.
The responses the statement elicited are extremely varied and nearly every Jew will find himself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other. They range the gamut from Dennis Prager's contention that "After Auschwitz, there are only religious (i.e., G-d-based) reasons to be a Jew." to Larry King's statement that "Judaism is both a religion and a race." All of the essays, however, attempt to define being Jewish without saying that being Jewish is not being of another religion.
The essays are all short, encouraging the reader to dip into them at random in an attempt to find opinions which either support the reader's own opinions or stretch their definitions to new places. At the same time, the Pearls have tried to arrange the essays into loose topics, which allow more serious readers to get a wide range of opinions which relate to the same aspect of Judaism and form stark contrasts to each other on those topics.
Reading I Am Jewish leads the reader to wonder how different a book with the title I Am Muslim or I Am Christian would be. Each of the three books would come out of related, but very different cultural backgrounds, but would also invite a lot of interesting comparisons between the similarities (and differences) between the religions.
Although I Am Jewish would make an excellent gift for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the time when most Jews are reflecting, at least in some manner on their religious identity, it also shows that the question of Jewish identity is one which is revisited throughout the course of a lifetime. The introspection shown varies from statements such as Liz Lerman's comment that her daughter "is Jewish because I am Jewish" to the much more complex musings of Shimon Peres. Both, however, offer substantial comments about personal identity.
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