“Do I Look Jewish to You?”

by Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Cantor Buchdahl’s’ HUC-JIR New York ordination address on June 2, 2012. Read her entire remarks here.

Forty years ago, in 1972, only one month after Sally Priesand was ordained, across the world in South Korea, I was born, to a Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother. At the time, I obviously had no idea that the ordination of the first female rabbi, a month before, would have such a profound impact on the shape of my life. For those early years in Korea, I had no Jewish memory to speak of.

My Jewish life began at age five when we moved into the close-knit Jewish community of Tacoma, Washington, with a wonderful rabbi, Richard Rosenthal of blessed memory. He was the classic picture of a rabbi: full beard, wise and kind eyes, and authentic German-Reform lineage. He fully embraced me and my family when I moved to Tacoma, as did our community. But I always felt a little outside of it, in large part because of the way I looked. People thought it was amusing to say, “That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish.” I laughed… sometimes. But on the inside, I felt inauthentic. Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in the Jewish community. I never saw pictures on the walls of my synagogue or in my Jewish books that represented anyone who looked different from the Ashkenazi mainstream.

Our collective Jewish memory, 40 years since my birth in Korea, has changed in my lifetime. A personal story brought this home for me: A few years ago, Brendon, my Confirmation student from Westchester Reform Temple came to visit me, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He told me, “A group of students were all going home for Passover my Junior year, and on the train to NY, I was sitting across from this Korean woman. The 2 of us started talking and I asked her if she was also going home for Passover. She started laughing hysterically, and said, ‘What? Passover? Do I look Jewish to you?’ I just shrugged my shoulders,” Brendon continued, “I didn’t know why she thought it was so funny. She looked just like you, Cantor Buchdahl!”

In only 40 years, the assumptions, the connections, the Jewish memory of an entire people can be transformed.

But you don’t have to wait 40 years to start reforming memory, because change is happening much faster than that. The hot topics in our Jewish community today were not remotely on the radar screen when I left HUC a little over a decade ago: Who knew as a Jewish people we would be fighting for the hearts and loyalties of Jews in defending the State of Israel? Who knew that a significant agenda item in synagogues today would be greening practices and Community Supported Agriculture? Who knew that community organizing, long the purview of black churches and evangelical Christians would transform the way we do business in synagogues? Who knew that during High Holy Services at Central Synagogue last fall, tens of thousands of viewers would join our worship through live streaming—surpassing the number of Jews in the pews?

I imagine that Moses, and Rabbi Akiva, if they were to time travel to 2012, would look at Jewish life today and be mystified at the changes. It would in some ways be as unrecognizable to Rabbi Akiva, as his teachings were to Moses in that bet midrash.

And yet, I think they would be smiling at the vitality of Jewish life and the innovations in our time. Jewish memory was never meant to be frozen or finished. Jews don’t live in history. We live in memory—in remembrances that are authentically rooted in tradition, but in each generation, evoked in new ways. If we want Judaism to be essential today and tomorrow, we must continue to transform it.

Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl is the senior cantor at Central Synagogue in New York City. Read her entire HUC-JIR ordination address here.

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