~there are two basic generalizations that can be made about messianic jews: first of all, no one seems to understand us; secondly, we don't seem to understand ourselves. the astounding number of theological differences and sub-sects found in a movement containing such a small number of people is evidence enough that each one of us has quite a handful of identity issues to grapple with. while we try to straddle what is commonly perceived as two related yet incompatible ideas or attempt to return to an ideal which has missed 2000 years of adaptation, we can sometimes feel as if we are wandering through the black cloud that would surely follow a tragic christmas tree / chanukah menorah accident. many of the confusions we face come from feeling a part of the judeo-christian spectrum, but not identifying completely with either accepted end of the scale, the opinions of those who do happen to reside on one side or the other not always being helpful.
recently, while listening to classical radio (i'm working on improving in the pretentious snob department) my ears happened to chance upon one lone recognizable piece in the usual smörgåsbord (see? i'm already improving!) of violin-this, cello-that, some kind of chic with a horned helmet and yellow braids singing, etcetera. the featured music was a version of mah oz tsur from the 18th century, and before i even realized what it was that i was listening to, my heart fluttered. somewhere buried in the depths of my psyche was a recording of that very song, originally heard on a chanukah compilation cassette tape which re-appeared in the car every winter of my childhood, and it seems that the peaceful, loving feelings that marked that period in my life travel along my synapses with it. "this is part of who i am, and a part of my heritage as a jew" i thought, awestruck at the power of peoples and cultures, of a song that can cause someone to feel a sense of belonging, and of the massive influence our early years possess.
as a young child, i felt perfectly secure in my identity as a jew and as a believer. i understood that there were people who believed in yeshua and people who did not, and then within that group there was the gentile majority and the jewish minority, each with their own customs. this basic idea still applies, but what i didn't realize was that there was yet another group of people: jews who are not believers in yeshua. i knew my family was jewish, and because of this fact we observed certain traditions and learned about certain things that my believing and non-believing gentile friends did not, but it only made sense to me that belief in yeshua was an intrinsic aspect to every jewish family's faith, and that all jewish households were like mine.
in some ways, many american jewish household were like mine, and those elements of culture carved into my brain at such a tender age have stood strong against every possible question of identity. horseradish is and will always be primarily a mental association with pesach, and only afterwards a condiment in the refrigerator. and while i can't recall a single present i opened during chanukah, images of struggling to contain myself as i anticipated the result of a spinning dreidel are rendered clear as day in my mind, and nothing fills me with the warm fuzzies like a lit chanukiah's flames against a dark, chilly night. memories of learning how to braid challah with my mother are far more easy to conjure up than that of helping her make chocolate chip cookies, especially gazing at the bread's golden sheen beneath the shabbat lights and feeling proud in having taken part in the ordeal. one of my favorite smells is that which an extinguished match emits, and every one triggers a scent memory of my mother lighting those two white candles right before she said what i thought to be a completely normal blessing, only later to find out it is seen as blasphemy.
while i enjoyed those honest years of sheltered religious innocence, i soon came to understand that in this world's reality, only with specific people were my beliefs, my family, and my very legitimacy as a jew seen as given facts, and with the rest i owed an explanation as to why it wasn't the case that i was brainwashed or that it's all an act to lure helpless secular jews into christianity's trap. for a while i felt like my critics were at least justified in their views of me, but since when is our identity reliant on others' acceptance of it? is the whole "messianic sham" what brings a tear to my eye at a recital of ha tikvah? or fills me with a sort of smug happiness when i observe the accomplishment of israel and the world's jewry, feeling pride in *my* people? or makes me feel entitled to tell a jewish joke? maybe that wasn't the best example, but the point is, i am a jew, and i will not sacrifice my heritage because some others that share it don't think i have a right to it, or because i more easily fit into the religion box without it. what exact items of religion or tradition should be practiced by us and instilled in our children is up for discussion; i have no interest in preaching to anyone about theology, but i will continue to step up onto my little soap-box and encourage any enactment of culture (with a healthy bending the rules and making our own new traditions, of course). if we make no effort at all, we will become ever less distinct, eventually blending in like every other displaced people (how many 100% irish friends of yours greatly identify with their ancestors?). what might be called the cultural aspect of my judaism is one of the most immovable elements of my makeup and it has certainly leaked into my soul, mostly because of the decisions my parents made for me before i could possibly fathom their significance. our culture is not only part of our history but an ever developing, living entity that will either thrive in careful hands which pass it intentionally to each generation, or wither away because of the neglect of our offspring's ignorance.