What does being Jewish mean to me?
Last year I had lunch facing the Chain Bridge and Parliament in Budapest. From there, you can see the entire Jewish Quarter. Nearby stands a memorial called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” that represents Jews shot by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. The musicians next to us began playing the Schindler’s List soundtrack, and tears swept through my eyes. It was a unique moment that brought chills throughout my body as I thought about the Jews 70 years ago in this area, including my great grandparents’ family, who were forcefully rounded up and hurried to extermination camps. Being an Ashkenazy Jew, all of my ancestors come from nearby Romania and Poland, but it is because of Argentina’s open door policy that my great grandfather Jose was able to flee alone at 18 and avoid the terrible murders that occurred to his entire family. This is just my story — millions of Jews today have similar narratives to tell. How could a religion that has faced fanatical anti-Semitism during the course of its history maintain such a strong sense of solidarity and hope? The answer lies inside the core of what it truly means to me to be Jewish: values and tradition.
My rabbi once told me that if you could summarize the Torah into one phrase, it would read, “treat others like you would like to be treated.” This spirit of solidarity and sense of community that Judaism brings mixed with the richness of good deeds floods my life with purpose. A true mitzvah is one that does not require anything in return. Last week I saw a shivering homeless down the block from my house. It was evident by her helpless appearance that she was desperate for money. I immediately got my tzedakah and placed it on her lap. She looked up and with an incredibly appreciative look said, “God bless you.” I could tell that this lady needed that money for food or warm clothes and providing help to her was gratifying. My actions stemmed from a desire to help and I can see my father, my grandfather, and my great grandfather doing exactly what I did.
Another essential element in my Jewish identity comes from my family’s history. My grandfather Marcos (Jose’s son) was born in Argentina and, since his youth, has been immersed in the struggle to achieve pluralism. His parents came to Argentina from Europe, bringing with them thirty-five centuries of Jewish memory that they joined to the four centuries of Argentine memory. He has felt anti-Semitism, both latent and overt. However, this did not stop him from achieving his dreams. Becoming an Argentine writer that has received several prestigious international awards, he also trained in medical studies, music and psychoanalysis, and his work and his thoughts were focused on the notions of independence, democracy and rejection of authoritarianism. He has influenced millions of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, while being openly proud of his Jewish roots. Marcos inspires me and set an example of how despite the oppression, Judaism can strengthen someone to achieve greatness, to influence people around them, and to change the world.
Being Jewish also means upholding family traditions. Celebrating Shabbat on Fridays or going to Temple during holidays brings me close with my family and allows these bonds to strengthen. The more incredible fact is that all around the world on Friday night, Jews from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities will be reciting the same prayers, parshas, and songs. There is a link between the Jewish community worldwide that can never be broken. Even the Hebrew language itself has persisted in Israel and various regions despite the oppression and secrecy it has endured in the past.
So as I sat observing this Holocaust memorial in Budapest, tears falling from my eyes, I realized something: these were tears of joy. Despite the horrendous atrocities that have devastated millions of Jewish families, my Jewish identity remains stronger than ever. I am incredibly proud to make mitzvoth, aspire to impact the world, uphold my traditions, and sustain solidarity and hope. That is what makes up my Jewish Identity; this is what it means to me to be Jewish.