Since I have the pulpit for a bit of tmatt-authorized shameless self-promotion, I’d like to share with you a little UCLA tradition my college roommates and I created and that the university is trying to kill. I’d like to tell you about Undie Run. But I won’t. This really isn’t the right venue for such potty talk.
This is, however, the appropriate place to discuss the last article I wrote for The Jewish Journal. Unlike most of my work as senior writer there, this piece was about myself. It was a reflection on what I learned while spending two years writing about the Jewish community as a Christian named Greenberg.
Here’s an except from “My So-Called Jewish Life.”
I had no illusions about the insider-outsider place I would occupy in the community. Nevertheless, I found that most readers evaluated me by the quality of my work, not by the fact that, much like most L.A. Jews, I didn’t daven daily.
I didn’t struggle with the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life — with discerning JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) from JFS (Jewish Family Service) from JFL (Jewish Free Loan) — but remembering all the holidays … oy. I also found that there is much more to understanding the Jewish community than just being able to differentiate between an eruv and a mikveh.
Never was this more apparent than when I visited the Jewish State.
Not all Jews, I learned, looked like me: poor-sighted, fair-skinned, curly haired. In Los Angeles you could go years without running into a Jew who wasn’t either from Eastern Europe or Iran. But the breadth of diversity in Israel — where Jews arrive from India and Ethiopia and Australia and China and Argentina — pushed aside everything I thought I knew about who is a Jew, and what it means to be a Jew, and what it is to live a Jewish life.
Whether writing about the fragility of life in Israel or economic pressures on Jewish communal life or L.A.’s Jewish hoops hero, Jordan Farmar, I met Jews who had grown up with a strong identity and those just developing one; Jews who were Jews in name only and others who considered themselves Jewish only when others wanted them to be; Jews who felt a God-given obligation to defend the faith and those who felt just as strong a responsibility to reform it.
Like Los Angeles itself, I found that Jewish life is a vast landscape, ranging from sandy beaches to snow-capped mountains, from hardscrabble desert to dense forest. It’s a place where even a Christian named Greenberg could find a home.
Some of this may sound familiar from my GetReligion introduction. And, to be sure, I was a bit of a novelty in the community — “Funny,” The Jewish Forward headlined a Q&A with me, “Brad Greenberg doesn’t look Christian.”
But I was, and I am. Three Jewish grandparents, including both grandmothers, didn’t change my personal religious beliefs. It did, however, give me a perspective and a comfort level with Jewish culture that helped me better cover the community. Not everyone, though, was glad I was around.
“Why do you employ somebody who sh–s on our religion,” one reader, a partner at a Century City law firm, asked in an unpublished letter to the editor. (Yeah, I kept that one.)
But while I was ignorant enough to arrive at Yom Kippur services before even the temple rabbi, I also cared enough to celebrate Shabbat along the Gaza border, to spend time profiling America’s foremost anti-Semitic academic and to let my own identity grow and become richer as I learned more about what it meant to be so Judeo-Christian.
Pretty early during my employment at The Journal, I realized how to definitively answer the question I had gotten so used to hearing: “Are you Jewish?”
“Well,” I would say, “that really depends on who’s asking.”
The issue of Jewish identity is, after all, a thousands-year-old debate; I don’t expect to be the answer.
I’m happy to be accepted by those who can accept me, but I understand if you can’t. Personally, I don’t think I could feel more Jewish. Except for that whole faith-in-Jesus thing. And he is kind of a deal-breaker.
My Jewish journey, in fact, began when I became a religion reporter at The Sun in San Bernardino, continued at the Daily News and then blossomed when I left daily newspapers for the niche world of Jewish journalism.
When I joined The Jewish Journal, I had to officially change my status with the Religion Newswriters Association from member to associate member — a classification reserved for people who write for a university, who lobby on religious issues, who consider journalism a second occupation and the general public. But that didn’t change my outlook on the job: I was still a religion reporter, still writing about beliefs that were not my own, only this time I was deeply embedded.
You’d be amazed how much you can learn about another religion — and yourself — when you avoid just parachuting in for a day and truly try to understand.