Here are my fifty shades of 'J'

By Daniel Finkelstein, January 14, 2013

Just before, ahem, Christmas, I received an email asking me to take part in the My Jewish Identity Project. You can, too. We all can.

The idea is, in 50 words, to answer the question: What does being Jewish mean to you? A selection of those contributed to the website will be put on display at JW3, the new Jewish Cultural Centre for London in Finchley Road, while others will be buried in the piazza. Mine, I'm sure, will be buried.

Naturally, my first thought was that the essence of my Jewish identity was to be unable to express anything in 50 words. But then I noticed that Maureen Lipman (one of the planet's great people) had managed to do very well in only 69 words. And although that is strictly over the limit I think we can agree that 69 is a Jewish 50.

So let me take you through my thinking.

It's not enough that Judaism is a religion, or at least it is not enough for me. I find faith and devotion hard. At some times it has been harder than at others. During those times, I haven't been any less a Jew. I don't think religious belief and practice is a full description of what Judaism means to me.

It’s over the limit but let’s agree that 69 is a Jewish 50

Yet at the same time, for me it isn't enough that Judaism is a culture. I heard the Jewish American sisters who form the Haim rock band talk about their Judaism the other day and they said that it essentially came down to the food.

Don't get me wrong. I like the food (or most of it, not herring) well enough. But anyone can eat the food. I like Chinese food, for instance, and I am not planning on applying for citizenship. I was very interested that the moment after their food comment, Haim gave as the example breaking the fast on Yom Kippur. In other words, the food gained significance from the occasion.

I think the religion and the culture are tied together and that one would be vastly impoverished without the other.

What about family? My father did not come from a devout or even really a practising family. Our Jewish practice was his creation, one he supported with great learning.

Unquestionably my admiration for him and my respect for his life, and now his memory, are a strong part of my Judaism. I did idly wonder in my 30s whether my Jewish commitment and practice would survive him and whether, as I became an adult, able to make my own choices, I would leave it behind.

The opposite has proven to be the case. In the last years of his life and in the year or more since his death my commitment has got stronger.

Part of this, certainly after his death, is because it brings me closer to him. But part of it was realising that a moment had come where I couldn't rely on him to do it for me. I had to choose. And I chose Judaism.

And then there is the Holocaust. Given all that my parent's generation suffered it is only natural that there is an element of political defiance to my Judaism.

I am not overwhelmed by history. Indeed I have been brought up to believe by my incredibly well-balanced mother that if there is any meaning at all to her suffering it is that I don't have to suffer in the same way. Nevertheless, it would be odd if her experience did not form a small part at least of the meaning of my Judaism.

Here then is my attempt: "Judaism reminds me constantly that there is more to life than just me. It embodies that, in a community, a people to belong to. And rituals that bring me closer to them and to my family and help pass my values on to my children."

There you go: 45 words.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

    Last updated: 10:45am, January 14 2013