Embracing The Jewish Condition: Both Stranger And Native


After the horrific murders in Squirrel Hill many of us continue to experience the pangs of loss, shock and disbelief, and incredible sadness. We struggle to make sense of the loss of innocent Jewish lives in modern-day America — an America, that for many of us, is believed to be an exception to the Jewish experience. Yet, even here, a place in which Jews have integrated fully at all levels of society we can no longer ignore, that despite our many triumphs, we, Jews, remain both the ger and the toshav, the stranger as well as the native.

We recently read in the Torah portion of Chayei Sara the opening verses, which tell us that Sara, the mother of the Jewish people, has died, and Abraham must find a burial site. As Abraham searches for this burial location he says to the Hittites, “ger v’toshav anochi imachem — I am a resident stranger among you.”  The twinning of the words- ger and toshav — the stranger or foreigner and the resident or native — seem to be a simple contradiction of terms. How is one both an outsider and an insider; deeply unfamiliar yet deeply familiar? But it is precisely this incongruence that makes the relationship between the ger and the toshav so powerful.

The Jewish experience encapsulates the tension between being the ger, the foreigner living in host societies, not fully able to identify with the majority of inhabitants of a particular place; while also being the toshav, the resident dweller whose Jewish values have infused the collective Jewish community and resonated beyond our collective to the universal community. Consider:  ha’chnasot orchim and ahavat ger– welcoming and loving the stranger; b’tzelem elokim– human beings created in the image of God; kavod ha’briot- dignity of all creatures; chesed– loving kindness, makhloket l’shem shemayim respect for dissent, darchei shalom- pursuing peaceful social relations between Jews and non-Jews; tikkun olam– repairing the world, and seekers of emet- truth. These values have sustained the Jewish collective and provided a lens thru which we interact and engage with the world around us. Yet these values do not relieve us of the tension between being the ger and the toshav.

November 9 marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in Nazi Germany. A night of systematized violence and murder targeted toward the Jews and their property; the Jew was perceived as a threat to the nations of Europe, the dehumanized ‘other.’ Once again, the Jew was both the ger and the toshav.  November 4 marked the anniversary of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 23 years ago. Rabin was the epitome of the ger and the toshav. Despite being born a sabra in the land of Palestine, he remained a ger for he was deemed to be an alien by some of his own citizens resulting in his death for offering an outstretched arm for the pursuit of peace. Moments before Rabin’s death he sung Shir La’Shalom, hoping that his leadership would create a shared society that would allow both Israelis and Palestinians to no longer have to choose being either the ger or the toshav  but rather b’nei adam, the children of Adam. Yet this remains the dream deferred.

I was in Israel when the Pittsburgh shooting took place. Upon my return, I embraced my children a bit tighter than usual and felt the embodiment of clal yisrael last Shabbat. Walking into the halls of the Jewish Community Day School of Boston on Friday afternoon for school pickup, I listened to the children sing Eitz Chaim (Tree of Life, the name of the Pittsburgh synagogue) and my heart was both broken and comforted. The sweet sound of these children’s voices, their arms wrapped around their friends swaying to the tune of the music, as they felt fully at home, no longer the sense of ger.  This past Shabbat the mitzvah zakhor, to remember, was ever present — to remember the innocent lives taken, to remember that hatred rears its ugly head and we must remain stalwart against it, to remember that the collective Jewish community must defy hatred and remind the world of philosopher Emil Fakenheim’s 614th commandment, the imperative requiring Jews to carry on Jewish existence.

After a full day of emotion, at bedtime, my four-year-old daughter, Amital, said to me, “Ima, what does my name mean?” I’m not sure what made her ask at that moment, but I told her that ami means my people, my nation, and tal means dew. And her middle name Gila means eternal joy. So her name embodies the essence of the Jewish people: a hopeful nation full of eternal joy. And that is what I will continue to remind myself, that we are a nation of hope and joy and that cannot be extinguished.

Rachel Fish is senior Advisor and resident scholar of Jewish/Israel Philanthropy at the Paul E. Singer Foundation in New York City.