BEYOND DEFINITION

Earlier this week, I did a ten-minute stand-up comedy set at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. It was open-mic night for the San Francisco Comedy College. I’d taken their five-week beginner class as part of the research for a novel I’ve just begun. My guests laughed. The rest of the crowd—a whole lot younger—did, too. Thank God.

Want to define me as a comic? Go ahead. But I’m also the studious introvert who wrote God’s Others, a serious book about non-Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. Yet I’m also a proud graduate of the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. A registered Democrat, I support government’s role in helping to shape society. But I’m a capitalist—a business-friendly retired freelance copywriter who spent forty years in advertising.

So who am I? My wife’s grandmother (on her father’s side), a Baptist from the East Texas piney woods, asked me forty years ago if I was a “full-blooded Jew”—as if I were a prize horse or bull. I am. Not a prizewinner, admittedly. But my family is Jewish as far back as anyone knows—although I wonder about the red hair on my mother’s side of the family.

Religion and ethnicity, however, reflect only a part of who we are. Pigeonholing people according to those criteria has become more difficult—and downright futile. Susan Saulny in the New York Times (1-29-11) reported, “The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.”

Our federal government may track people by race, but how do people with multiple ethnicities define themselves? How do others define them? And what do genetics tell us, anyway? The Nazis defined Jews genetically, including people with a single Jewish great-grandparent even if they were Christians espousing no Jewish self-identity. Were they right? Should we follow the Nazi example?

America is changing. The Jewish people are, too. But then, Jewish genetics vary greatly anyway. How do I define the mother of six I met recently whose father is Polish-Jewish (like mine) and mother Ethiopian-Jewish? Is she white? Black? Mixed-race? Just Jewish?

Jacob’s sons married non-Hebrews. Only one Hebrew woman existed in their generation—Dinah, their sister. Moses married a Midianite, Zipporah, also called a Kushite—Ethiopian or dark. (See God’s Others.) Their sons were still Israelites. And how do we define Moses, a Hebrew child brought up as an Egyptian who opposed Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of Egypt? The great prophet and lawgiver once killed a man and lost his temper easily.

I can’t define myself, so how can I define others? It’s time we spent less effort on categorizing people and focused more on respecting their inherent dignity. How we act towards others ultimately creates the true definition of a human being.

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3 Comments


  1. Carolyn Power
    Feb 04, 2011

    By definition, you are a mensch.

    Carolyn Power Perlstein


    • David
      Feb 04, 2011

      When a wife speaks, a husband listens.


  2. Ron Laupheimer
    Feb 05, 2011

    You are so correct—defining people by religion or ethnicity does everyone wrong. We should try to deal with ALL peoples the same way–openly, honestly and the way we would hope others will treat us. Very simple to say; very difficult for most of us to truly do. What a better place this world would be if each of us would follow this concept!

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