January 20, 2019

Poem: To Be a Jew

Editor’s Note: This poem was written by Amos Oz, from his essay titled “To Be a Jew,” written for the book “I am Jewish, Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl”


I am a Jew and a Zionist. In saying this, I am not basing myself on religion. I have never learned to resort to verbal compromises like “the spirit of our Jewish past” or the “the values of Jewish tradition,” because values and tradition alike derive directly from religious tenets in which I cannot believe. It is impossible to sever Jewish values and Jewish tradition from their source, which is revelation, faith and commandments. Consequently, nouns like “mission,” “destiny” and “election,” when used with the adjective “Jewish,” only cause me embarrassment or worse.

A Jew, in my vocabulary, is someone who regards himself as a Jew, or someone who is forced to be a Jew. A Jew is someone who acknowledges his Jewishness. If he acknowledges it publicly, he is a Jew by choice. If he acknowledges it only to his inner self, he is a Jew by the force of his destiny. If he does not acknowledge any connection with the Jewish people either in public or in his tormented inner being, he is not a Jew, even if religious law defines him as such because his mother is Jewish. A Jew, in my unhalachic opinion, is someone who chooses to share the fate of other Jews, or who is condemned to do so.

Moreover: To be a Jew almost always means to relate mentally to the Jewish past, whether the relation is one of pride or gloom or both together, whether it consists of shame or rebellion or pride or nostalgia.

Moreover: To be a Jew almost always means to relate to the Jewish present, whether the relation is one of fear or confidence, pride in the achievement of Jews or shame for their actions, an urge to deflect them from their path or a compulsion to join them.

And finally: To be a Jew means to feel that wherever a Jew is persecuted for being a Jew — that means you.