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The Strings of the Divine: Orchestrating the Cosmos

J. Robert Oppenheimer carried a huge fascination for the Indian scripture “Bhagvad Gita.” Looking at the fireball of the explosion of the test nuclear bomb, Trinity, he exclaimed a quote from the book: “Now I am become the Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (Video reference)

J R Oppenheimer reminiscing his quote from Bhagvad Gita: ‘Now I am become the Death’ 

Oppenheimer was not the only scientist of the modern era with a fascination for Indian philosophy. Many scientists who pioneered modern day science were ardent enthusiasts of Vedanta and other aspects of ancient Indian philosophy.

There is a popular text ‘An open letter by Mary Boole to Dr Bose.’ This was written by Mary Boole, wife of George Boole, the famous logician who invented Boolean Algebra. Mary Boole was a prominent logician of her day in her own right.

George Boole, creator of the mathematics of computers

George Boole’s father-in-law, George Everest, had served assignments in Colonial India for a long time. He is credited to have made it to the highest peak in the world known to the rest of the world, which still bears his name. Whenever George Everest went back to England for his vacations, he carried copies of many esoteric works from Hindu scriptures, and George Boole read these with great fervour. Boole also spent a lot of time studying from various scholars in India.

According to Mary Boole, it was the fascination with the non-dual philosophy of India that helped George Boole create the foundation of binary logic, and with his colleagues Augustus de Morgan and Charles Babbage laid the foundation of the entire mathematical framework that gave birth to computers in upcoming decades.

Indian Spirituality – A journey into the Unknown

Indian Spirituality is essentially a journey of exploration – a venture to understand the content, composition, structure, dynamics, intent, and purpose of the Creation. 

That makes Indian spirituality a journey into the Unknown. It acknowledges that not everything can be made Known in a way that fits entirely into our linear, rational thought process. The Unknown also includes the Unknowable – stuff that can be experienced, and understood intuitively but cannot be expressed in our verbal vocabulary.

The Indian scriptures are primarily an articulation of the discoveries of stalwarts of spiritual exploration. These scriptures were never meant to be a book of rules. Rather than asserting “this is the way,” they are an enunciation of “this was my way, and this is how I explain what I found. Now find yours.

This is what made the spiritual content of India extremely scientific. At the dawn of 20th century, when scientific observations seemed to defy every known rational foundation of Science and were squeezing the hell out of the scientists’ brains, the pioneers of Modern Physics turned to Vedanta, the core of Indian spirituality, to arrive at an explanation of the Universe that could make sense.

The Connected Universe

One of the observations that was massively challenging scientists’ tolerance for absurdity was “instantaneous action between particles.” The scientists could not accept that any action on one particle could result in a reaction on its entangled counterpart far way, instantaneously.

This mystery was brilliantly explained by the genius of David Bohm.

David Bohm with J Krishnamurthy

Bohm had been a follower of Indian philosophy, too. His conversations with the spiritual icon, J. Krishnamurthy, captured in the book The Ending of Time, is a masterpiece.

Bohm drew the analogy of a fish in an aquarium. 

Suppose you see videos of two fish projected on two screens. You observe that whenever the first fish turns right, the other fish goes straight. When the first fish goes straight, the other one turns to its sides.

Instantaneous action at a distance between two fish

Trying to explain the instantaneous action of one fish on the other could be mystifying.

However, when we find out that both these images are projections of the same fish, filmed from perpendicular angles, the explanation is obvious.

The two fish images are projections of the same ‘unseen’ fish.

It’s not one fish influencing the other. They are two projections of an underlying “unseen” fish, the entangled particles do not influence each other, but are projected manifestations of an underlying inter-connectedness.

This, the inter-connectedness of everything, is the ultimate essence of the whole of Indian spirituality. Indian spirituality is all about one absolute Consciousness.

We are often quick to seek and make conclusions about the “causality” in the world around us. Probably, every causality around us has roots in a much deeper underlying inter-connected dimension.

The science that evolved in the 20th century rang a death-knell to the extremely solid science that had evolved in the previous few centuries. What appeared solid suddenly turned out to be almost entirely hollow, empty space. “The particle is here” gave way to “The particle may probably be around somewhere here.” All claims of accuracy and precision in measurements were replaced by an inherent uncertainty in the act of measurements itself. 

As if Physics was not creating enough problems, logician Kurt Godel came up with his incompleteness theorem that proved that not all statements which are true can be proven to be true within a given system. 

The entire objectivity and certainty of the material world was shaken at its very foundation.

Indian spirituality has always been based on this foundation of the relative nature of our reality. It has always considered realities as a matter of pure subjective, individual perception and interpretation, each reality being just an individual projection of an absolute truth that is beyond our rational perception.

The following poem is an allegorical and metaphorical depiction of this idea.

The Empress’ Carnival

Languishing in “Her” royal chamber,
I’ve been a guest for so long,
Enjoying her hospitality,
Relishing the pleasures of her surreal world.
She, the conjuror,
Brings up everything I wish for – instantaneously.
From a banquet for the taste buds,
To a feast for all my senses,
Oh, A stimulation of the intellect, too,
And endless goose bumps to my soul.
I make a wish and the Empress has it there, 
At the magical sleight of her hand.

I hum to the music that never stops,
Fixated at those dancers who never pause,
Inebriated by the intoxication all around,
That makes even my walk look like a step of a dance.
All these giant wheels in her carnival,
Those monstrous roller-coaster rides,
The wonder of gradually inching up the slide,
And the chill of the thrill as I go falling down.

Outside this royal chamber, there is another world.
No not one, countless many worlds,
A personal world for every being out there,
Each partaking of their own paradise.
I can just see their shadows,
Cast on the walls of their majestic tent.
Just as they see – not me,
But my silhouette on the walls of my tent.
I spent a lifetime, efforting,
To create the perfect exact image of how I wanted to be seen.
Forgetting – They are not there to look at me,
Nor am I here to be hooked to them.
We are all languishing in our universes,
Partaking of the Empress’ carnival,
Casting a glance, once in a while,
At others’ shadows, as we mount our personal rides.

The Veil of Illusion

A fundamental mystical concept in Indian spiritual tradition is the idea that the world is Maya – an illusion.

It is easy to mock this concept – if everything is an illusion, why can we not walk through walls?

The concept of Maya is beyond any of these misconceived and misconstrued arguments. It is more about a Veil that hides the absolute reality, preventing us from seeing what exactly is, and relegating us to a limited perception of the universe.

Maya, the Illusion is about the discrepancy of what is and what we perceive. The analogy of the reality being veiled signifies that we cannot see reality absolutely as it is, but only an interpreted version of it. This holds equally to the sensory phenomenon as well as our mental constructs. This is equally true of the physical aspect of the world as well as our inner psychological world.

What we perceive through our senses is a shared interpretation. It is the result of the way our neurology processes inputs from around us. Other living beings process the same inputs differently and have a different quality of perception about the universe around us.

It’s exactly the same when we make conclusions about behaviours, intentions, actions of another person.

Our perception of everything around us is laced with meanings, interpretations, judgements, that add layers of structure to what actually exists. Our individual realities are composed of a hierarchy of such structured layers.

We do not share a common reality. We carry our own individual realities, and what we share with others is an intersection of our realities. Each of us is the centre of our own individual reality, and we play a supportive role in other people’s realities. 

When we look at all of this from a strictly matter-based perspective, it may feel spooky. That is what drives some to assert that “faith” should be kept away from “rationality”.

The cosmic view of the Indian spirituality did not have such a dichotomy, because it was always based on the idea of the universe being constituted of “Consciousness” and “Energy” and matter being just a dense approximation of the same. The idea of God itself was a manifestation of these forms of Consciousness and Energy. Hence, the physical world was not separate from God, and faith was not contradictory to rationality.

Welcome to the world of waves and vibrations!

The World of Vibrations

The Indian view perceives the entire universe as constituted of vibrations. Matter is the densest form of this vibration, the vibrations of the lowest frequency of the spectrum, but vibration nevertheless.

Hence, the treatise on these subjects do not get confounded by any wave-particle dualities. Particle, too, is a form of wave.

The notion of the wave- nature of particle is what solves the conundrums of modern science. 

This perception of the universe as vibration is the key to the Science of ‘Mantras’. 

Mantras are not prayers. Mantras are not a call to the almighty for His grace. Mantras are a sequence of sounds that create a certain vibrations on intonation, which resonates with certain vibrations they resonate with to create a desired connection and an intended impact.

The whole of Sanskrit language, alphabet and grammar is a phenomenal expression of the concept of vibrations. 

The Sanskrit Alphabet

The Sanskrit alphabet is not a random mish-mash of randomly arranged letters.

The Sanskrit Alphabet itself is considered as a complete Mantra in itself. The Sanskrit Alphabet is the phonetic representation of all Consciousness – the human consciousness as well as the cosmic consciousness. 

Every language consists of vowels and consonants

Vowels are sounds which can be stretched infinitely. e.g. I could prolong the sound ‘eeeeeeeeeeee’ and elongate this sound forever without a break. Constants are discrete sounds, and require vowels for completion.

A simple representation of vowels in Sanskrit

Vowels in Sanskrit, because of the free-flowing characteristic of their sound, represent Shakti – the primordial Energy, which is also regarded as the feminine aspect of Divine.

In Sanskrit, letters are arranged in a sequence of points inside our vocal system from where sounds originate.

Arrangement of vowels in Sanskrit based on the location at which the sound originates

The sequence of vowels, too, are arranged based on the location of the origin of the sounds. 

Each vowel represents a facet and flow of Shakti, the Divine Feminine Energy and has a very precise impact.

The Consonants in Sanskrit are arranged in a similar schematic way. Consonants, because of their discrete nature, represent Shiva – the primordial Consciousness, which forms the substratum of the entire universe, but requires the support of Shakti, the vowels to have an existence.

Representation of the Sanskrit consonants

 The first 25 consonants are arranged in 5 sets of 5 letters each.

The arrangement of these sets depends on the location from where the sounds emanate. 

e.g. the first set of sounds, that includes letters like ‘k’ as in kite, or ‘ga’ as in ‘gun’ emanate from the throat area.

The other sets progressively move horizontally outward on the tongue, till we reach the last set which contains sounds like ‘pa’ and ‘ba’ which are pronounced entirely from the lips.

Within each set, the point of the source of the sound, moves upwards, the last sound of each set being a nasal sound, e.g. ‘m’. The nasal sounds play the role of prolonging the vibration of the entire word, just like the gonging of a bell.

Each letter carries a distinct vibration and can impact body, mind, spirit, as well as the environment around us in specific ways. 

Sound vs. Meaning

The vocabulary of Sanskrit takes into account that the meaning of words have a correlation with the vibration of the sound of the word. This is what essentially makes Sanskrit a language that does not only communicate with human consciousness, but with the existence in totality. The impact it creates does not only come from its meaning, but through the resonance of vibrations it creates.

The whole of Indian language, art and literature has evolved with this equivalence of sound and meaning, the emphasis being more on the sound than the content.

The Science of Vibration

There is an entire science of study, called the Naad Yoga, which studies the impact of sound vibrations on our body and consciousness as well as the universal and cosmic consciousness. Naad Yoga studies sound for the impact it creates through its frequencies and vibrations, with little regard to the content or meaning involved.

This – Naad Yoga – is the basis of the whole of Indian classical music.

Through this edition of this series on Indian Art+Spirituality, we are taking a few steps closer to the fascinating world of the Indian Classical Music.

Indian Classical Musical – Orchestrating the Cosmos

Music adds another dimension to vibrations – notes. Each note in itself has a distinct vibration, and when combined in a sequence of notes, creates a distinct impact.

The Indian Classical Music is essentially an exploration of the impact of all dimensions of Sound on Human Consciousness. 

The Indian Classical Music is a marvel. It has an existence beyond great music and fantastic lyrics, catchy tunes, haunting melodies or foot-tapping rhythm. It is beyond moods and emotions and thoughts and feelings. 

The Indian Classical Music employs the power of Naad – sound vibrations – in the most fascinating way. The spirituality of Indian Classical Music comes not from the content or lyrics, but the ethereal manner in which the sound is manoeuvred with. Even an instrumental rendition of a Sitar, Flute or Veena, can lead one to deep states of trance.

There are many folk-lore that describe how singers in the past have achieved feats like causing rain, stopping torrents, lighting up lamps, attracting and taming wild animals, etc. through a rendition of certain ragas (musical scales). While these do seem far-fetched, an understanding of the vibrational nature of the universe, does indicate a hint of what appropriate vibrations could do to the universal as well as human consciousness. 

While no musician of this era may be able to light a lamp through her singing, the impact of Indian classical music as an element of therapy causing real physical changes in our physiology is sufficiently documented. 

In the previous editions of this series, we looked at the role of gods and goddesses in Indian spirituality and we explored many art forms that draw inspiration from these personified forms of Consciousness. 

We are now ready to move beyond those and explore the meta-theological aspects of Indian spirituality.

In this edition, we have gradually worked our way to arrive at a point where we understand why and how could vibrations be so potent in shaping up our reality. With this background, in our upcoming editions, we will delve into the amazing world of ragas and the whole mystical and enigmatic world the ragas create for us. 

In fact, the Indian Classical Music is a means for orchestrating the cosmos!

Judean Roots, Judean Fruit

“‘…And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’”
Genesis 17:8 

“When does one first begin to remember?” begins Winston Churchill’s majestic autobiography, My Early Life. The Jewish people have consistently done so ever since Mosheh told them in D’varim 31:19 to “Now therefore write ye this song [the Torah] for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.” This Mr. Churchill, a dear and life-long friend of the Jews, knew.

Despite colonization, massacre, dispersion, and genocide, the Jews reside today as then in their ancient home, speaking their ancient language, and clinging with heroism and righteousness to their ancient religion. Nearly three and a half millennia have turned to dust since signs and wonders brought them to a land flowing with destiny. The roots planted in the day of Yehoshua’s sword, though neglected for a time, now bloom as the fruits of their fealty.

The tongue which the One who shaped us in the womb used to spread the stars to the farthest ends of space is spoken again throughout the cities of Yehudah. As said Yir’miyahu long before fine, fluted columns graced Hellas, in the streets of Yerushalayim are heard the voices of gladness and joy, the voices of bridegroom and bride. Familiar in their mouths and freshly remembered, the strains of David’s lyre sweeten the air like the scent of olive groves. The eagles’ wings rest and their nests are warmed and full.

The Jewish people are a family, a nation, a land, a book, a story on which the sun never and will never set. For they fear no evil.

Hebrew alphabetic exercise. Iron Age I, c. 12th century B.C.E. Iz’bet Sar’tah. Pottery. 16 x 9 cm. IAA: 1980-1. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
“Isaiah seal,” c. 8th century B.C.E. Clay impression. (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Jug with Hebrew inscription (“[Belonging] to Yehumal”). Iron Age II, c. 8th–7th century B.C.E. Chev’ron area. Pottery. 21 x 13 cm. IAA: 1975-242. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Hebrew letter. Iron Age II, 7th–6th century B.C.E. Arad. Ink on pottery. 6.2 x 4.3 cm. IAA: 1967-669. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Graffito with temple vessels. Herodian period, 1st century B.C.E. Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem. Plaster. 32 x 32 cm. IAA: 1982-1055. (Yoram Lehmann / Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Oil lamp with original wick. 1st century B.C.E.–1st century C.E. Qumran cave, Judean Desert. Pottery. 4.3 x 10 cm. 97.74(147); IAA: 346303-פ.  (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Section from the Great Psalms Scroll (11Q5). c. 30–50 C.E. Qumran Cave 11, Judean Desert. Parchment. (Shai Halevi and Leon Levy / Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library)
Bronze p’rutah of the First Jewish Revolt. April 67–March 68 C.E. Jerusalem. Bronze. Obverse: Amphora with broad rim and two handles; Shenat sh’tayim (“Year 2”). Reverse: Vine leaf on branch; Cherut Tziyon (“[For the] freedom of Zion”). Diameter: 17 mm. Private collection. (Ben Poser / White Rose Magazine)
Letter in Greek from the archive of the lady Babatha. c. 96–134 C.E. Cave of Letters, Judean Desert. Papyrus. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem / Alamy Stock)
Menorah. 6th century C.E. Ein Gedi synagogue. Bronze. 21.5 x 14 cm. IAA: 1970-612. (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Incantation bowl with Hebrew script. c. 1450 C.E. Land of Israel. Ink on pottery. Glass lantern slide. c. 1900. LS2457-A. Collection of David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
Map of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Histoire universelle depuis le commencement du monde jusqu’à présent, traduite de l’anglois. Bd. 3 (Amsterdam: Arkstée et Merkus, 1771), p. 1. (Alamy Stock)

“‘…Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land… I will make a covenant of peace with them—it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will establish them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for ever.’”
Ezekiel 37:21, 26 

Félix Adrien Bonfils (1831–1885). Jewish men in Jerusalem. c. 1870. Glass lantern slide. LS421. Collection of David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). Torah scroll. 1898. Glass lantern slide. LS809. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
Jews at the Western Wall. c. 1900. Glass lantern slide. LS1440. Collection of David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
Félix Adrien Bonfils (1831–1885). “Jerusalem Jew.” c. 1870. Glass lantern slide. LS3815. Collection of David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
Yemenite Jewish boy learning to read. Jerusalem. c. 1900. Glass lantern slide. LS3866. Collection of David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). Southern view of the Mount of Olives. March 23, 1902. Glass lantern slide. LS298. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). View of the Western Wall from the roof of a synagogue. April 4, 1902. Glass lantern slide. LS327. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). Jewish women and children. T’ver’yah. c. April 1907. Glass lantern slide. LS3924. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). Jewish settlement at Rosh Pinah. Upper Galilee. April 16, 1907. Glass lantern slide. LS1284. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935). Jewish school in Metulah. Northern Israel. April 18, 1907. LS1303. Collection of David Gordon Lyon. (Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East)
Liselotte Grschebina (1908–1994). Bukharan girl, Jerusalem. 1937. Gelatin silver print. 22.5 × 16.8 cm. B01.0244(0119). (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

“The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.…
Awake, O north wind;
And come, thou south;
Blow upon my garden,
That the spices thereof may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden,
And eat his precious fruits.”
Song of Songs 2:12, 4:16 

Flowers glow by the Kineret. July 5, 2010. (Ben Poser)
Prayer before the dawn. Metzadah. July 13, 2010. (Ben Poser)
“Welcome to the Jewish Quarter.” Jerusalem. July 14, 2010. (Ben Poser)
Metzadah, over which the sun shall never fall. c. July 15, 2012. (Ben Poser)

“Should you have been banished to the very sky’s end, your God will gather you again even from there….”
Deuteronomy 30:4

A Light Unto the Nations: Gordon Gallery Opens in NYC

A couple of days after the October 7 massacres in southern Tel Aviv, when I called to ask my Chabad client whether he wanted to delay a meeting we had scheduled, that rabbi replied, “We cannot push off building Jewish life… that’s not how we operate.” It was with much the same sentiment that Amon Yariv stayed true to his timetable for launching in New York the newest outpost of Tel Aviv-based Gordon Gallery, which he’s run since 2004. So, on December 14, 2023, I joined Yariv to celebrate with the opening on the Lower East Side of a wonderful group show of painting and sculpture by Israeli artists.  

Though this is the gallery’s first frontier overseas, at home the Gordon Gallery is long-established—a pioneer in cultivating, representing, and presenting the work of Israel’s most accomplished contemporary artists since its founding in 1966 by Amon’s father Shaya and partner Atal Broida. Its first exhibition space took its name from its location on Gordon Street, but has now expanded to multiple operations in southern Tel Aviv-Yafo and Jerusalem.

From a pocket-sized space on Norfolk Street, light spills out through large glazed doors and transom windows, opening up the interior’s full width to the street, illuminating and enlivening what had been the dim end of the block near Rivington. 

On display for this opening exhibit is a group show of work by four artists, Yaacov Dorchin, Moshe Kupferman, Gilad Efrat, and Alima.

While all four work in an formally abstract milieu, they each have their own distinct sensibility, and with varying degrees of visual complexity, from the minimalist, thinly impastoed Kuperman to the lighthearted, animated graphic gouaches of Alima—working outside of her usual lithographic printing mode, to the densely weighted but lightly balanced iron assemblages of Dorchin.

I got to talk a bit about his process to Gilad Efrat, who was here for the event. His work in oils consist of large but humanly scaled canvases covered with thickly built-up, boldly colored irregular masses that are then smeared, cut, troweled, and shaped. As I guessed from just looking at the collection on show, he works very quickly, and the gestures he makes give the works the scale and immediacy of hand drawings. While certainly non-representational, the patterns of positive/negative, solid/space and volume/line, and the saturated hues, as well as Efrat’s technique of knife-edging the figure/ground compositions, wind up lending a quality of shifting landscape forms, as though seen from an airplane, raising them from mere abstractions and giving them a quasi-figural legibility. On a purely visceral level, though, they are intricately rhythmic, upbeat, even joyful.

Together, they offer a solid, if, by no means, typifying, introduction to the breadth of media, methods, and outlooks of contemporary Israeli fine art. As with any sophisticated curating, the chosen pieces are thoroughly conceived, by artists each with their own substantial body of work, and which sit well together while provided the space necessary to stand on their own. As a group, they also offer a compelling case for Israel-on-the-Hudson without being limited to some provincial level of quality.

While we can be proud of our Israeli brethren’s debut, we can also have the confidence of their international pedigree of appeal. In this period of gratuitous and unmitigated opprobrium across the allegedly enlightened, civilized world merely for wanting to exist, for the world’s only single, tiny Jewish state to redeem even 380 square feet of empty loft space in New York City for the sake of giving access to art is an honor and an inspiration. And perhaps, like the Chabad shaliach’s work, it is just an emissary’s mitzvah.

From the top:
Gordon Gallery, 139 Norfolk Street
Opening night, December 14, 2023
Alima, Untitled (2005), gouache and acrylic on paper, 90 x 70 cm.;
Gilad Efrat, Untitled (2023), oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm.;
Yaacov Dorchin, Untitled (2023), iron, 20 x 20 x 7 cm.;
Moshe Kupferman, Untitled (1973), oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm.

The 10/7 Feminist Silence

I did not hear these pro-Hamas marchers, especially the lesbian, “queer,” and feminist ones, calling for an end to rape, woman-battering, or the persecution of homosexuals and “queers” in Gaza. I saw no signs that condemned honor killing or polygamy. No one called for reproductive freedom for American women or for an Equal Rights Amendment.

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Undercover with Liberated Ethnic Studies

With parents, teachers, and students coming forward with information on mismanagement in their school districts, I believe it is even more important to reveal what I discovered in my almost two years inside Liberated Ethnic Studies. As the public becomes more aware of just how insidious the rot in K-12 education is, I expect more whistleblowers to come out from behind the shadows. I also expect that the powers that be will try to silence those who want to put student learning ahead of ideological agendas, as recently happened to a teacher in Hayward Unified who was suspended from teaching after revealing the fraud, waste, and abuse of federal funds in the sum of $250,000 spent on the “Woke Kindergarten” program. Make no mistake, his suspension is a scare tactic implemented by administrators who are attempting to brush their misdeeds under the rug, far away from public scrutiny. 

My name is Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky, and I’ve spent the past two years undercover with Liberated Ethnic Studies. After seeing what appeared to be an attempt to hijack California’s public school system in order to institutionalize anti-Semitism in K-12 education, I decided to go behind the scenes with the group that was leading the charge. Much but not all of what I uncovered is included in this piece.  

In February 2022 I created an alias in order to register for what I thought would be a one-off webinar about the national roll-out of Liberated Ethnic Studies (LES). I, along with more than 200 registrants, quickly learned that the LES folks had much bigger plans, as demonstrated by the heat map below. 

After spending a few minutes going through the usual virtue signaling, pronouncement of pronouns, and land acknowledgements we were sent to regional break-out rooms to get to know one another before rejoining the main webinar room. Before I go into what was said, I want to mention who was there. The presence of activist organizations in public schools has become increasingly common as administrators lean on community organizations to provide programming for both teachers and students. Districts allow these activists into schools to provide teacher training, curriculum development, and oftentimes they are even given access to students by providing “programming.” 

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource Organizing Committee (AROC), is one of these activists. Kiswani is a leader in the Liberated Ethnic Studies movement, and she is also well-known for her anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic beliefs. During the February 6, 2022, webinar, she stated that one of the reasons for the national launch of the LES is to counter Zionist participation in education. 

“As a lot of you know, they are very and you’re probably here because of this very reason, we are facing a moment in which the terrain of education is being attacked from all sides. Mainly? Right wing and other Zionist pro-Israel forces who are attempting to co-opt education to water down education … to literally strip it of its potential liberatory potential. And specifically we see attacks on ethnic studies, whether that’s what happened in California with the California model ethnic studies, the ESMC. Just curriculum, which is meant to be a model where teachers across the state to use and they’re in their classrooms and was written by actual practitioners and scholars and ethnic studies. And then was co-opted by the California Department of Education, along with other elected leaders, who were working very closely with right-wing forces. Namely the ADLs, the Jewish community relations councils, and pro-Israel, Zionist, and racist organizations, and white supremacist orgs across the state.”

Throughout the webinar it became clear that the purpose of the LES is not to expand on social studies, including the experiences of Black, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans, but rather to indoctrinate children with an ideology that exists solely to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy. Cisheteropatriarchy capitalism, ableism, and anthrocentrism and other forms of power and oppression at the intersection of our society.” The activist leaders of the LES made it clear that their goals are to: 

Over the course of the past (almost) two years, I have uncovered the LES’ plans to spread their radical ideology, not only in California, but across the U.S. They have been working with a number of other organizations, identifying challenges and attacks, and coordinating responses. Unsurprisingly, LES activists believe the two most obvious challenges to spreading their ideology continue to be Zionists and public awareness. They spent months weighing the pros and cons of going public, trying to build up support while not exposing themselves to public scrutiny. However, this tactic meant that they would be unable to build the widespread support grassroots activism demands. 

I chose to join the northeast regional group for two reasons. First, it is the area of the country where I live, and second, it was one of the regions identified by the LES as a next target, with Boston serving as a sort of ground zero. The allies identified by Liberated Ethnic Studies in the northeast region included: 

As I continued participating in both regional and national meetings using my alias to gather information in order to blow the whistle on what seems to be a highly coordinated effort to subvert education policies, civil rights, and state and federal statutes, I started working for the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV), an organization that counters radical ideology that fuels anti-Semitism. Countering the radicalization of our K-12 education system quickly became a major focus of my work with JILV. 

In April 2022 I obtained a LES document titled Ethnic Studies National Coalition Vision and Commitments Guiding Document. A few of the commitments in this guiding document include:  

Again, the LES clearly expressed their desire to create and implement an ethnic studies framework that excludes anyone they label as Zionist or “right-wing.” They also made it clear that they are attempting to hold a monopoly over ethnic studies across the country. A major method the LES group is using, with support from California State Representative Wendy Carillo and unions like the California Faculty Association (CFA), is to pass legislation that requires all ethnic studies teachers to hold a specific ethnic studies credential. Of course, the activists who are part of the LES coalition would be in charge of what the credentialing requirements and process would ultimately look like. 

In May 2023 the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies (CLES)  held a retreat for their core team, naming the following 15 as members:

Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Anita Fernandez, Artnelson Concordia, Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, Brian Lozenski, Carlos Hagedorn, Deeyadira Arellano, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, Jody Sokolower, JR Arimboanga, Lara Kiswani, Raquel Saenz, Sharif Zakout, Theresa Montano, and Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen. 

During the May 2023 retreat, using strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis, they developed a 5-point needs assessment to continue their national roll out. One of these points was to form a cohort of students from across the United States who would act as a youth activist arm of CLES, and advocate for Liberated Ethnic Studies in their respective school districts. Students had to apply and interview for a position within the cohort. Upon completion of the 8-week cohort, students were guaranteed a payment of $500. A source close to me infiltrated some of these youth sessions and provided me with resources used by the activists, including a statement of solidarity and land acknowledgement that reads: 

As LES activists faced pushback from parents, students, educators, and policy makers who felt that schools should teach rather than indoctrinate, they launched an initiative that seeks to use children for their ideological goals. It also is apparent that ethnic studies is being used to “teach Palestine,” which involves trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes and historical falsehoods. 

Liberated Ethnic Studies activists are well connected, highly organized, and deeply committed to establishing a radical pedagogy that seeks to undermine the liberal order by using our public school system as a vehicle to normalize their ideology.

After spending almost two years using undercover aliases and sources, I realized how important it is to go public, exposing just how deep the rot has become. Our children deserve educators committed to teaching, not using students as their personal ideologically driven foot-soldiers. Liberated Ethnic Studies activists are well connected, highly organized, and deeply committed to establishing a radical pedagogy that seeks to undermine the liberal order by using our public school system as a vehicle to normalize their ideology. They are not limiting their efforts to states, like California, where ethnic studies is now mandatory, but are spreading their radical ideology by any means necessary, including through rethinking how all subjects are taught. Close to 50 million students are enrolled in public schools in the United States. These students are a captive audience to whatever pedagogy educators and educational policy makers mandate. Our kids are being exposed to ideology that forces them to conclude that the foundations of our democratic republic should be dismantled. 

After the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7th, Liberated Ethnic Studies groups ripped the mask off, publicly blaming those who were slaughtered for the massacre. They took the position that “all violence is rooted in oppression,” excusing terrorists for terrorism. Members of the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies used their access to students to organize and implement widespread student walkouts and demonstrations in support of the atrocities committed by Hamas, falsely defining the violence as legitimate resistance to the lie that Israel is a colonial state worthy of dismantling. LES made clear that their goal is to water-down teaching about Black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans, and instead declare that “Palestine is Ethnic Studies.” 

I am choosing to make public Liberated Ethnic Studies’ plans at this time, mostly out of concern about the divisiveness and violence we are witnessing at K-12 schools. More than raising public awareness, I hope that public officials realize the very real harm being perpetrated by activists who are profiting by exploiting their proximity to policy makers and access to students.

White Rose: The Musical

In June of 1942 at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, a small number of students formed a group decrying the Nazi government and its war crimes. Led by 24-year-old disillusioned former Hitler Youth squad leader Hans Scholl and his 21-year-old, devoutly Christian sister Sophie, the group wrote, printed, and distributed leaflets condemning the Nazi party in general and denouncing the inhuman policies of Adolph Hitler in particular. They encouraged the general public to stand up to do the same: resist. They called their group “White Rose.” Eventually, most of them were arrested by the Gestapo; three were executed in 1943.

Today, in the inner courtyard of the University of Munich there’s a monument to the White Rose installed in 1988: a trompe-l’oeil representation of the mimeographed leaflets, rendered in ceramic by artist Robert Schmidt-Matt, and embedded in the cobblestone paving in the apparently random heap they landed when thrown, in a final act of defiance, from a second-floor gallery inside the building.  

At the spot in the building’s atrium where the leaflets were actually dropped, and through which today’s current students pass every day on their way to classes, there is an older monument—a memorial plaque designed by Theodor Georgii in 1946, naming the six students and their professor who were murdered. Also in the atrium are a bronze relief mounted on the wall and a freestanding bust of group leader Sophie Scholl created by Lothar Dietz in 1958. As part of postwar restoration of the atrium the Steinmeyer/Oettingen company installed “The White Rose Organ” there in 1961. 

The monuments continue throughout the city of Munich.  An 11-minute walk from there, at Schwabing Franz Joseph Strasse 13, a bronze plaque reminds pedestrians that this is the house where Sophie Scholl and her brother/fellow group member Hans lived before they were killed. Their tombstones are specially marked in the Cemetery at Perlacher Forst. A polished cube of black dolerite stone, inscribed with handwritten text by sculptor Leo Kornbrust to honor the White Rose, is sited prominently in the very centrally located Hofgarten Park. Just some of the additional public works serving as daily testaments to this tiny but influential resistance group are in the Munich Court of Justice and in cities throughout Germany, from Bommersheim to Crailsheim and all the way to Hamburg. A postage stamp commemorating the Scholl siblings emblazoned with their double portrait was issued in 1961. 

Yet in the United States, where the concept of resistance by a tiny underdog has an especially sui generis American significance for those proud to be activists against government tyranny, very little is known about this group. Except for a few temporary museum exhibits, there are no public monuments, no park memorials, no plaques or busts or commemorative stamps telling the story of the White Rose.   

But there is now an opportunity to change that. A new theatrical production devoted to telling the story of the White Rose—from their inception to their demise—has come to Theatre Row on 42nd Street in New York City for a 12-week run. White Rose: The Musical is the work of Brian Belding (book and lyrics), Natalie Brice (music), Will Nunziata (direction), and a handful of young actors with experience from Broadway to Netflix.  The single, flexible set, designed by James Noone, opens with the enlarged projected image of Robert Schmidt-Matt’s leaflet memorial sculpture, graphically foretelling the last chapter of the story.  Before that story unfolds, in a short dialogue Hans and Sophie look out to the audience reflecting on the value of what they’ve done. 

At a time when the Nazis were defensively centralizing their power within the country, and outside, venturing aggressively into the Russian front where they would soon suffer miserably in Stalingrad, Germany was in a state of high alert for acts of subversion.  This was the context for these idealistic young pupils and the professor Kurt Huber who joined their efforts. 

In all they published six leaflets—the last of which called out Hitler for the tyrant he was, proving to be a tipping point for the increasingly suspicious Gestapo. Until the end, when they were convicted in bogus trials they were confident of the righteousness of their cause and ultimately faced death without regret for their actions. For them it was a duty of conscience to resist.

With the horrific news in our own time of an American ally, a small population with the most liberal society anywhere in its vicinity, forced into a defensive war against a neighbor who wants only to see its eradication; and the perverted use by protesters here—many of them college students—of the word “resistance” in their frenzied battle cry in sympathetic support of a regime run by terrorists, the story of the White Rose is particularly timely and important.  

It was the idealistic belief of the students of the White Rose that the atrocities of an elected government bent on murdering Jewish civilians because of who they were (the very meaning of “genocide”), that by spreading information they could inspire their countrymen to rise up against injustice.  They did this not as similarly oppressed Jews, but as human equals who sacrificed their privileged position of safety for humanity at large. And in doing so acquired redemption for their short lives, and gave meaning to the word “resistance.”

White Rose: The Musical. Theatre Three at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC.

Am Yisrael: Jews are from Judea

For many years now, a debate has raged over the treatment of Jews in drafts for a California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). The California legislature has required the drafting and ensuing instruction of this curriculum across the largest high school system in America. The first two drafts were rightly sent back to the drawing board because they were riddled with anti-Semitic content, often to the point of open expression of anti-Semitism. While the third iteration and the final approved version of this “model” curriculum excised most of the more flagrant anti-Semitic segments, there is still significant reason to believe that its interpretation and implementation by various school boards and districts will reflect the notion that—among all ethnic minorities in the United States—Jewish Americans are unique beneficiaries of “white privilege.”                                                         

The flawed rationale for this application of “privilege” to one of the most per capita discriminated against, persecuted, and smallest ethnic minorities in history can be attributed, in large part, to the application of the concept of “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is defined as the study of the overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Since the creators of intersectionality are primarily academics on the political left, this effectively has placed Jews outside of the “intersection.” The drafters of the ESMC curriculum (one of whom recently characterized the ADL as a “white supremacist organization”) effectively continue the efforts by many on the far left to whitewash Ashkenazi Jewry and also to try to erase Mizrahi Jews and Jews of Color from the collective Jewish experience and peoplehood. And they do this all while concurrently championing efforts to destroy the nation-state of the Jewish people (for example, through the BDS movement) under the guise of either being a uniquely American or universalist pursuit of human rights.

This intersectional movement, wherein perceived whiteness epitomizes unearned privilege, also mischaracterizes Ashkenazic Jewry (the historical whipping boy of Europe), and thereby positions these Jews as somehow being the ultimate bearers of privilege and consequently, somehow, one of the ultimate oppressors.

Highlighted in the ESMC model curriculum as a champion of this inverted version of racial liberation is Linda Sarsour: the outspoken anti-Israel Arab American and purveyor of anti-Semitism. It is both ironic and revealing that this admittedly white-presenting person is held up as the paragon of protest against white supremacism. Yet, when black men and women filled the streets in protest of the murder of George Floyd, the libel that Jews are uniquely responsible for the racial injustices that cleave American society animated the (anti-Semitic) rhetoric and violence amongst many flag holders of the far left. This sought to effectively exclude most Jews from the multiethnic alliance of men and women across America to join in solidarity with African Americans. 

The Jewish community, however, is a distinct ethnoreligious group with diverse membership (like other Middle Eastern/North African-MENA communities), which is regularly targeted by extremists for both their religious and perceived racial differences. There is an undeniable double standard with a movement that contends Linda Sarsour is representative of an oppressed person of color, while at the same time collectively identifying Jews, or at least Ashkenazic Jews, as “white” and even more incredibly, as bastions of whiteness. This position is not only regressive; it ignores thousands of years of Jewish history, denies the experiences of the Jewish people as a nation, and it aids the campaign of those who ultimately seek the delegitimization of Hebrew or Judean self-determination. Setting aside for the moment that “race” itself is an ideological construct, this regressive characterization of Ashkenazic Jews ignores that every Middle Eastern and North African ethnicity (Arab, Amazigh, Copt, Jewish, Assyrian, etc.), as well as most Latino communities, is composed of members who, based on appearance alone, could “pass” for any number of races in the American racial identity chart. 

Historically, it was a practice for many Arab and Jewish-Americans, when arriving in the U.S., to actively pursue, whenever possible, identification with “whiteness” as a method of integration. This was despite the fact that they both faced legal and physical barriers for being perceived as non-white or racial “others.” Armenian-Americans themselves used the U.S. government’s granting Ashkenazic Jews residency and citizenship as a means of acquiring citizenship too (until 1952, whiteness was a factor or criteria for naturalization decisions). 

The presiding judge in the 1909 case of In Re Halladjian ruled that, “[i]f the aboriginal people of Asia are excluded it is hard to find a loophole for the admission of Hebrews.” This judge’s candid statement that Jews represent an Asiatic presence in American society demonstrates how widespread and uncontroversial this belief was in America at the turn of the 20th century. It would defy credulity for one to believe that this view played no role in the anti-Semitic policies discriminating against Jewish homeownership and against Jewish access to higher education; polices that persisted in the U.S. until the 1970s. Discriminatory policies targeting Jews in the U.S. also often greeted newly arriving refugees from the most recent white supremacy inspired slaughter in Europe: the Holocaust; and one can only imagine the lasting impression that seeing a hotel advertisement stating “No Hebrews or tubercular guests received” had on a Jewish refugee from the latest Cossack attempt to slaughter Jews in Russia. 

The existence of Jews of Color (JOC), or Jews (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, or otherwise) whose physical appearance and/or heritage is combined with that of other ethnic groups not stereotypically associated with American Jews is also regularly utilized to collectively whitewash (or Europeanize) the Ashkenazic component of American-Jewish identity. Ignoring the ubiquitous presence of Middle Eastern-presenting Ashkenazic Jews (as demonstrated by how an Ashkenazic Jew, Sacha Baron Cohen, recently received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Eli Cohen, the Mizrahi Jewish spy who infiltrated the Syrian defense establishment at the highest levels for almost five years) as well as European-presenting Mizrahi Jews, the unique struggles and experiences of African, Latino, Asian, and Mizrahi Jews are weaponized to deny the Middle Eastern heritage and identity of Ashkenazim in America, and thereby globally undermine Jewish peoplehood. While Jews of Color may be uniquely positioned in the fight against colorism and racism, and for equality in America, as well as against anti-Semitism, this must be done with the same level of sensitivity to the complexities of the Ashkenazic identity and experience as is demanded from others with regards to Jewish identity and experience. 

The issue of Jewish “whiteness” (Ashkenormativity) as well as race in America must be tackled with the intention to strengthen the American-Jewish community as an inseparable part of the Jewish people and history. Any attempt to whitewash Jewishness as merely a religion or a cute culture (or to characterize Ashkenazic Jews as being “Europeans with a Jewish religion”) rather than as the vessel of an enduring ancient civilization with an unbroken chain of language, culture, and spirituality is an attempt to uproot the “people of Israel” (Am Yisrael) from their ancestral inheritance and their rights as a nation. As it says in the name, “Am Yisrael,” the Jews are a people, not happenstance coreligionists. 

So who are American Jews?

Jewish identity is complex in the context of contemporary identity politics only because many remain adamant on defining Jewishness within the prism of America’s relatively short history. Jews, however, are an ancient people. Jews comprise the only nation in history to have experienced multiple exiles, genocides, and enslavements, yet maintained for millennia a Diaspora of communities that preserved most of their culture, language, and religion. It is this assortment of symbols, idiosyncrasies, customs, words, stories, and beliefs that have come to be described as Judaism. Although religion can certainly appropriately describe and explain the origin of much of these customs and beliefs, the Jewish experience and peoplehood is based on far more than religion or faith.

Ashkenazic culture, embodied by the Yiddish language, expresses a direct link to the first Jews to be taken to Southern Europe as slaves. Yiddish (developed as a means of internal communication) employed later Jewish Aramaic terms over the ancient Hebrew vocabulary it replaced (after the Babylonian exile). Its use of Latin, Gaelic, and Greek vocabulary and Hebrew for objects of cultural import as well as key features of expression and idiom, all demonstrate that Ashkenazic Jews inherited the unbroken chain of Hebrew civilization brought to Europe (and North Africa) in chains. In fact, the impact of this ancient Levantine culture was so felt in Ashkenazic life that as late as the 13th century there existed commentary describing a contemporary shift from the Levantine pronunciation of Hebrew to what became the Ashkenazic standard.

Ashkenazic culture, embodied by the Yiddish language, expresses a direct link to the first Jews to be taken to Southern Europe as slaves.

Jewish identity is based on more than 3,300 years of history. It is not defined by the American experience. It was during the Jewish people’s first millennia when the common features of Jewish peoplehood, which all Jews share with all other Jews, were developed (regardless of where their ancestors spent time in the Diaspora). This peoplehood developed in the Jewish people’s indigenous homeland in the land of Israel, in Judea. This is where the Jewish people’s national language (Hebrew) and tribal faith (Judaism) developed. This is where the principal aspects of the Jewish people’s tribal culture, which all revolve—as they do for all indigenous tribal people—around celebrating holidays, sacred events, and sites that are uniquely situated in, and only in, the land of Israel, developed. 

After the Jewish people developed their unique tribal faith and peoplehood in the land of Israel, their millennia-long “scattering among the nations,” the Diaspora, began—as a result of the forces of Roman imperialism in the year 70 CE. A large part of the Jewish population was then either massacred, enslaved, or exiled. In Judea, approximately 25 percent of the Jewish population was exterminated and 10 percent enslaved. Many Jews were also taken to Rome and to other parts of the Roman empire in Europe as slaves, and many others fled from the Roman massacres and enslavement to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), and others fled to lands all around the Mediterranean (in what is today southeastern Spain, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey). Over the decades and centuries that followed, Jews began to head north (to what is today northern France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia) and to northern Africa (what is today Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). By around 300 AD, approximately three million Jews were living in most parts of the Roman Empire, except in what is today Britain. A million lived west of Greece with the majority settling throughout Asia Minor and east to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. By then, a sizable number of Jews were living throughout what centuries later would become Germany. 

A common feature of the next 1,600 years, when Jews were always stateless (and therefore, as a community, defenseless) was migration. Because Jews were regularly attacked, banished, and/or forced to submit to discriminatory and oppressive laws, the “wandering Jew,” became a necessary feature of the Jewish Diaspora. And from at least the early 8th century in Baghdad, when Jews were first ordered to wear a yellow badge of shame by Umayyad Caliph Umar II (expressly to separate and distinguish the Jews in Baghdad from the Arab Muslim majority), to the infamous Venetian ghetto in the 16th Century, through the era of the Nazi-created ghettos in Poland, being “otherized” and subject to cyclical, and often intense persecution, was the ominous cloud that regularly hovered over the Jewish Diaspora. 

In Europe, Jewish and Roma (a non-European ethnic group of South Asian origins) ethnic “otherness” ultimately became a universal object of white-supremacist xenophobia and prejudice; and as peoples in Diaspora, both groups invariably were influenced (by force and by choice) by their surroundings. This influence is common to all Diaspora communities. Similarly to the way in which Ashkenazic Jews are targeted today by many self-described progressives because many of them are able to “pass” for their host population, European racial anti-Semitism developed a specific racialized hatred for Jews in Europe on an inverse basis. What began in the Spanish Inquisition, with its description of Jewish forced-converts to Catholicism having “impure blood,” reached its zenith in Nazi ideology. Regardless of their appearance, Ashkenazic Jews were defined as mongrel Israelites and therefore the greatest threat to the so-called white race. In other words, because Jews in Europe (Ashkenazic or Sephardic) were composed of individuals who could present as “white,” “Asiatic,” or “black” according to their stereotypes, they were collectively branded as a shape-shifting black contamination.

The Jew is a bastard” Nazi chart depicting the mixed Asiatic and African ancestry of Ashkenazic Jewry.
Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

White supremacists have always used and perverted diversity of appearance within Ashkenazic Jewry specifically as a means to collectively associate Jews with blackness and the supposed race-mixing that white supremacists hate, as well as to expose Jews to the social wrath it may incur. Ironically, many on the opposite end of the political spectrum today pervert this same diversity of appearance as a means to associate Ashkenazic Jewry with whiteness and expose them to the social wrath it may incur in far-left circles. Both of these approaches are steeped in anti-Semitic paternalism and conspiracy-theorizing. They seek to rob Jews of personal agency to self-determine, while simultaneously associating all Jewish efforts for self-determination (either as returned Levantines, sovereign in their Middle Eastern homeland, or in the U.S. as Middle Eastern Americans) with allegations of being duplicitous, and with conspiracies to dominate and control others. 

Through most of the 20th century, all Jews, regardless of appearance, were often restricted from where they could buy houses or where they could go to school based on being “members of the Hebrew race.” That does not change the fact that African and Caribbean American Jews were also forced to endure discrimination on account of belonging to both the “Hebrew” and “Negro” races. This dichotomy of experience navigating American racism between Jews and black Americans collectively, and within the Jewish community itself, is a fact of Jewish communal existence. It presents Jews with an interesting question. Should Jews double down, become entrenched in traumas, and allow the shadow of whiteness and blackness further divide the Jewish people? 

No. Racial justice must address every community according to the complexities of its experiences. As Jews, with a literal mandate from the Torah to pursue justice, and given the history of discrimination and persecution in the U.S., there is an obligation to take into account those experiences and certainly to acknowledge, address, and redress the plainly different experiences of oppression and racism that African-Americans, Caribbean Americans, Native Americans, and other communities experienced in North America. Jews can do this, and should do this, while affording themselves the same sensitivities we must provide to others. Jews should also demand the same treatment from others, in particular those who strive to care about racial justice—to approach the Jewish people according to the complexities of their experiences, not only in America, but for millennia in Arab-controlled and European-controlled lands, where being a Jew almost always marked the person as second-class citizen and often marked them for death.

A Unified Identity Matters. And it’s Judean.  

 The path forward should be clear. Rather than allowing either the Tiki-torch carriers on the far-right, or those on the far-left who use and abuse anti-racism as guise for their own anti-Semitism, to define the Jewish experience of some or all members of the Jewish community, it is the Jewish responsibility to reclaim this discourse as those who will reap the consequences of its outcome. Jews should de-colonize and re-indigenize both their rhetoric and minds. They should understand that identity matters; and that how they identify themselves matters. 

Jews must take pride in their identity. That pride, however, requires an understanding that irrespective of whether they are African, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi, Sephardic, etc., as Jews, their history has been inexorably linked to each other. These links come from a common heritage, culture, and faith across literally thousands of years of perseverance under persecution by the various empires of the world. This is all part of their collective history and collective bond. Jews need to reject the idea that because of their diversity—itself a product of their Diaspora—there are “white” (meaning, European) Jews in America.

The reality is that there isn’t a non-European originating ethnic minority in America that doesn’t have members who can present or pass as white. The reality is also that in a highly racialized America there were numerous ethnic minorities who could and did benefit from being more closely associated with “whiteness.” That is why there were nearly a dozen cases in the first half of the 20th century where Arabs in America sued to be considered “white.” But none of that means that Jews should accept the idea of being defined by others, or of being the only MENA ethnic minority that is characterized in 21st century America as “white.”

The bottom line is that the idea of a “white race” is a fiction created by the same category of people who took advantage of this idea to oppress and persecute Jews for centuries. This alone is reason for Jews in America to reject this characterization of their identity. How some European racists decided a few hundred years ago to label people should have no bearing on Jewish identity—an identity that pre-dates any European pseudo-science (falsely dividing people based on the color of their skin) by approximately three millennia. 

Natan Sharansky once said: “There is no power in the world that can stand against us [Jews] when we feel a part of our history, part of our people, and part of this historic struggle.” And the late, great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (ZT”L) once said of Pesach (Passover) that it is “the festival of Jewish identity. It is the night on which we tell our children who they are.” If Jews stand united in the fact that their identity is based on 3,300 years of history, as well as on the shared story of deliverance from Egyptian bondage and the formation of an understanding of their national identity at Mount Sinai, then Jews will, as Sharansky implores, also understand the importance of not being defined in any way, shape, or form by the same identities as those who historically oppressed Jews for millennia, be they European or Arab.

Natan Sharansky once said: “There is no power in the world that can stand against us [Jews] when we feel a part of our history, part of our people, and part of this historic struggle.”

As for many other ethnic groups, the history of America for Jews has been a mixed bag. America meant an escape from egregious persecution in 18th-20th century Europe and later from Iran and many Arab dictatorships. Particularly in the 19th century, however, it was a refuge that included its own litany of limitations and violent threats that continue to spill Jewish blood to this day. Like other non-African-American and non-Native-American ethnic minorities in the U.S., Jews are not unfamiliar with being positioned as a buffer community, of receiving certain relative privileges in return for scapegoating when things go awry.  

For the U.S. to live up to its founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Jews and all other people of good conscience should come together to strengthen and uplift the most disadvantaged communities in this nation. However, this must be done without capitulating to Jew-hatred and anti-Semitic tropes; regardless of whether that anti-Semitism is based on white supremacy, black supremacy (of the Nation of Islam variety), or any other form of, or justification for, Jew-hatred (e.g., anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism). Jews in America must be allowed a seat at the table of racial justice without having to negate or degrade their authentic Jewish selves, and that includes their identity as a Middle Eastern (specifically Levantine Hebrew) tribal people from Judea, and as a diverse ethnic group with members also belonging to the African, Latin, Native, and Asian American communities.

The next time purportedly progressive thinkers create a curriculum with the stated purpose of fostering a better understanding of ethnicity, race, or bigotry, or how these things influence the lives of ethnic minorities in the U.S., they need to recognize that Jews collectively trace their origins to the Middle East and that the Jewish relationship to whiteness and white supremacy is comparable to that of other Middle Eastern Americans. No Jews, be they Ashkenazim, Sephardim or Mizrahim, should be uniquely—among all ethnic minorities in America—stigmatized as privileged “white people” or Europeans. After all, those aware of progressive politics in the 21st century know that in the context of American history and politics, “white” is synonymous with “European,” which is synonymous with more than 500 years of European colonialism and oppression of non-Europeans. And anyone familiar with Jewish history knows precisely the price Jews paid in Europe, for not being “white.”  

Malcolm X famously said about the African American experience in America, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Jews, be they Ashkenazim or Sephardim, did not just land in Europe, Europe landed on the Jews. Over and over and over again. From the time Jews were brought to Rome in chains, through millennia of blood libels, the Spanish Inquisition, countless pogroms, and the Holocaust (where six million, mostly Ashkenazic Jews, were slaughtered in less than five years), Europe and Europeans made it crystal clear to the Jewish people that they were never European; never “white.” And certainly never the beneficiaries of 500 years of colonialism and conquest. To treat Jews as such is anti-Semitic because it erases Jewish collective experience and history. It erases the Jewish people’s very identity. No truly progressive person should engage in or tolerate such erasure. And no proud Jew should stand for it. Not for a second.

Judeans: Faith + Ethnicity

Western civilization was arguably born out of religious and cultural influences stemming from three distinct ancient centers—Rome, Greek Athens, and Jewish Jerusalem. The Jewish people laid the foundation for the highly influential Judeo-Christian ethics of Europe, America, and beyond. Yet there is plenty of contemporary confusion concerning the nature of Judaism. 

In the increasingly post-national and post-Christian Western world, Jews are mainly viewed as a religious minority. Jews are usually placed in the same category as Christians and Muslims. However, Judaism transcends the boundaries of conventional religions and includes a strong ethnic and national component with strong bonds to the land of Israel. As the name itself indicates, Jews are individuals who historically hail from Judea. 

In the increasingly post-national and post-Christian Western world, Jews are mainly viewed as a religious minority.

How and why did the Jewish people, one of the world’s oldest ethnic groups, become reduced in Western consciousness to mainly a religious identity? 

Judaism—faith, land, + people

Jewish history begins almost 4,000 years ago with Abraham, the founder of Judaism and the forefather of the Jewish people, who, according to the Hebrew Bible, left his native home in Mesopotamia and settled in the Land of Canaan that would later emerge as the Land of Israel. Around 1000 B.C.E., King David ascended the throne of the Israelite Kingdom. 

In the ancient world, nations embraced many local gods for various utilitarian purposes. By contrast, the Israelites stood out for their unique belief in one invisible and universal God for all of humanity. 

Furthermore, the Jewish faith is uniquely and intimately linked to the people and Land of Israel. In his book about the Jewish people and Judaism in the twenty-first century, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, the late universally respected Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently addressed the complexity of Jewish identity. “The Jewish people exists in all its bewildering complexity because it is both a religion and a nation, a faith and a fate. Remove either element and it will fall apart,” Sacks wrote (p. 47). In other words, there is no genuine Judaism without the national and ethnic component.

The Jewish people exists in all its bewildering complexity because it is both a religion and a nation, a faith and a fate. Remove either element and it will fall apart.

Jerusalem embodies the ethno-religious duality of Judaism

Jerusalem is frequently described as a sacred city for the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, this is an incomplete view of Jerusalem.

Firstly, Jerusalem’s religious importance to Christianity and Islam is only due to these faiths’ roots in Judaism, which preceded them. Without Judaism, there would be no Christianity or Islam and no Christian or Muslim religious attachment to Jerusalem. 

Secondly, Christianity and Islam’s main centers of religious importance are largely elsewhere. Though many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians do revere Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to its Christian Quarter, for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—half the Christians on earth—the Vatican in faraway Rome is their holiest place. For Muslims, it is Mecca and Medina. All Muslims, including Muslims in Jerusalem, pray while facing their sacred city of Mecca. By contrast, all Jews worldwide pray while facing Jerusalem, the religious heart of the Jewish people.

However, it is often ignored that Jerusalem is also the national ethnic center of the Jewish people. Whereas Christianity and Islam’s attachments to Jerusalem are only religious, there is a dual Jewish religious and national-ethnic attachment to the city. Jerusalem has been the national capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years and continues to serve as the capital of the modern State of Israel. Jerusalem was not only the site of the Jewish Temples but also served as the national political capital during the monarchies of King David and King Solomon. While it is true that many nations fought religious wars over Jerusalem, the city has throughout time only been the national capital of the Jewish people. While the Vatican and Mecca mainly serve as religious centers for millions of visiting pilgrims, Jerusalem attracts many pilgrims while simultaneously serving as the beating national-ethnic heart of the Jewish people.

Judaism preserved Jewish ethnicity in the Diaspora

The Roman Empire’s occupation of Judea and destruction of Jerusalem led to the exile of the Jewish people, the Diaspora, 2,000 years ago. Homeless and dispersed across the globe, the Jewish people should, according to conventional wisdom, have vanished long ago. However, against all odds, the Jews succeeded in preserving their unique religious and ethnic identity while adapting to daily life in many different cultures around the world. 

The secret behind Jewish survival has been the complex duality of Judaism. On the one hand, Judaism adapted to life in the Diaspora by shifting the focus from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to the emergence of synagogues and communal Jewish life. At the same time, Judaism became the national respirator of the Jewish people in exile. Still, on the other hand, Judaism’s strong focus on the Land of Israel and Jerusalem played a crucial role in preserving Jewish ethnic identity throughout the Diaspora. Many generations of Diaspora Jews have concluded the ancient Jewish Passover tradition with the vow “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Jewish faith and Jewish ethnicity are two sides of the same coin. The Jewish people succeeded in surviving and thriving in exile through its unique blend of ethnic particularism and universalism. While Jews eventually spoke the languages of the lands where they resided, Jews continued to read their sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, and developed distinct Diaspora Jewish languages like Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Ladino.

Jewish faith and Jewish ethnicity are two sides of the same coin. The Jewish people succeeded in surviving and thriving in exile through its unique blend of ethnic particularism and universalism.

The ethno-religious duality of Jewish identity was self-evident to most Jews throughout most of the Diaspora. Due to historic high levels of anti-Semitism in both Christian- and Muslim-majority societies, Jews in many lands lived in separate villages and neighborhoods that became known as ghettos. While discriminatory in its structure, it contributed to the continuation of a strong sense of a distinct Jewish peoplehood in exile, centuries after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and the Jews had lost their national independence in Israel.

Jewish people or Frenchmen and Germans of Jewish persuasion? 

The French Revolution in 1789 was a watershed moment in European and global history. While the process was long and claimed many lives along the way, it abolished the hated French monarchy and eventually transformed France into a modern republic with civic rights for all its residents. The French Revolution also paved the path to a process of emancipation of French Jewry. For the first time in European history, Jews were offered civic and religious equality as citizens in a major European power. However, it came at a price: the French state demanded that the Jews give up their national identity and become Frenchmen of the Jewish persuasion just like the majority of the population were Frenchmen of the Catholic faith. Jews in neighboring Germany were also offered civic equality in exchange for embracing an identity as Germans of the Jewish or Mosaic faith. The emancipation of French Jewry eventually became the blueprint for Jewish life in most Western European democracies.

However, the emancipation and gradual assimilation of nineteenth-century Western Jewry did not affect the vast majority of the Jews who at the time lived in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Muslim world. Jews from Poland to Morocco continued to be perceived by the surrounding majority as a separate people. More importantly, the Jews themselves in those lands continued to embrace a distinct Jewish religious and national-ethnic identity with continued attachment to the Land of Israel.

Jewish-German assimilationists: the architects of American Jewry

A small number of Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish origin) arrived on American soil in the early 1600s. However, American Jewry only became a large community in the late nineteenth century with the mass arrival of European Jewish immigrants. The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants in the United States hailed from Poland, Russia, and other Eastern European countries where Jewish religious and ethnic identity remained strong. The mass arrival of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States, however, was preceded by a smaller but influential arrival of German Jews. 

The German Jewish immigrants created the blueprint for American Jewry by embracing socio-economic success with a nearly full assimilation into American society. Eager to become “true” Americans, many Eastern European Jewish immigrants quickly Americanized their Jewish names and severed their connection with traditional Judaism and its focus on Jewish peoplehood and ethnicity. German Jewish immigrants paved the path toward the formation of American Reform Judaism, which mainly views Jews as a religious minority rather than a people with a unique blend of religious and ethnic identity. 

Most Jews have Middle Eastern ancestry

High intermarriage rates among Diaspora Jews are a fairly recent phenomenon. As late as the 1960s, most American Jews married other Jews. In 2014, Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, assessed that most Jews in the world have Middle Eastern ancestry. “No less than 75 percent of Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews have ancestors from what we call the general Middle East,” Greenspan said. “We’re not interlopers who came here from Eastern Europe, and we’re not Serbs or Kazars. You can use whatever polemic you want to discredit the Jews or discredit the nation, but saying that we weren’t here is a lie,” he added. 

In other words, Judaism is not merely a faith in the traditional sense of the word. It has a strong ethnic and ancestral component that historically connects Jews to Israel in a similar way as there is a connection between Irish Americans and Ireland or Italian Americans and Italy. Despite growing intermarriage rates among Diaspora Jews, most European and American Jews still feel some affinity with the Jewish state although their daily lives are in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, or London. 

Judaism is not merely a faith in the traditional sense of the word. It has a strong ethnic and ancestral component that historically connects Jews to Israel in a similar way as there is a connection between Irish Americans and Ireland or Italian Americans and Italy.

The emergence of Zionism

It is not a coincidence that Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, emerged as a political force in the nineteenth century. It was a time of major political upheaval and the emergence of strong nation-states across Europe. While complex in its implementation due to Jewish dispersal and loss of political power, the idea behind Zionism was straightforward: just like the Germans, Italians, and Poles, the Jewish people also deserved national unity independence. Zionism was particularly strong among Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jewries that had retained their strong religious and ethnic bonds with the People and Land of Israel.

Anti-Semitism remained a potent force throughout much of Europe and the Middle East. While it is partly true that Zionism was a response to anti-Semitism, Zionism is ultimately linked to the ancient Jewish dream of eventually returning to the Land of Israel. The name Zionism refers to Zion, one of the famous hills in Jerusalem. In other words, Zionism meant “back to Jerusalem.”

Some Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl initially believed that anti-Semitism could be solved through a Jewish resettlement anywhere in the world with options ranging from Argentina to Uganda. Herzl, who hailed from an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family and felt at home in the Austro-Hungarian imperial capital Vienna, was an atypical Zionist due to his assimilated Western background. However, Herzl became a Zionist as a response to the rise of Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger and the virulently anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial in 1894, in which the French Jewish officer (and patriot) Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of spying for the Germans against France. These shocking incidents convinced Herzl that even highly assimilated Jews were not immune to anti-Semitism, and he believed the only solution was the establishment of a Jewish state. Herzl eventually organized his ideas in his book The Jewish State, which was published in 1896. 

While it is partly true that Zionism was a response to anti-Semitism, Zionism is ultimately linked to the ancient Jewish dream of eventually returning to the Land of Israel.

The vast majority of Zionist Jews refused to go anywhere except to their ancestral homeland of Israel. In 1906, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of the modern State of Israel, famously explained the ancient Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to the British stateman Arthur Balfour.

“Mr. Balfour, suppose I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Weizmann asked

“But Dr. Weizmann, we have London,” Balfour replied.

“True, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh,” Weizmann said. 

“Are there many Jews who think like you?” asked the intrigued Balfour.

“I speak the mind of millions of Jews,” Weizmann answered, referring to the masses of Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews who were strongly attached to Zionism and the sense of Jewish peoplehood. 

To millions of Jews from Warsaw to Baghdad, “Next year in Jerusalem” literally meant returning home to their ethnic roots and ancient homeland, Israel. While some Western Jews eventually settled in modern Israel, it is not a coincidence that the vast majority of contemporary Israelis have a Middle Eastern, North African, or East European family background. 

While places like Argentina and Uganda could potentially become shelters for Jews escaping persecution, Jewish national revival could only occur in the one and only place on earth where the Jewish people had ever exercised national independence—the Land of Israel. 

To millions of Jews from Warsaw to Baghdad, “Next year in Jerusalem” literally meant returning home to their ethnic roots and ancient homeland, Israel.

Balfour later became known for the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when Great Britain formally announced its support for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in the Land of Israel or, as it was known at the time, “Palestine.”

Jewish anti-Zionism

Socio-economically successful and assimilated Western Jews in Europe and the United States initially regarded Zionism with derision. The reason was not because they denied the existence of an ethnic component to Jewish identity, but because they believed it was outdated and threatened their existence as emancipated and prosperous Jews in France, Germany, Great Britain, and America. 

However, following the Holocaust’s extermination of six million Jews and the re-establishment of Israel in 1948, Jewish anti-Zionism was largely reduced to a fringe phenomenon. Today, most Jews worldwide recognize the importance of the existence of a Jewish state. While there are still vocal anti-Zionist Jewish voices in America and Europe, these radicalized individuals constitute a shrill but tiny minority of world Jewry.

Western liberalism + the Jews

The Nazis’ destruction of most European Jews made “ethnicity” and “nationalism” ugly sounding words in Western liberal vocabularies. Consequently, most post-1945 Western democracies emphasized instead that Jews were regular Frenchmen, Germans, and Englishmen who merely attended services in synagogue rather than in church. This eventually became the dominant perception of Jewish minorities in Western democratic societies. Many assimilated European and American Jews happily embraced this diluted Jewish identity by stressing that they were American or British first and only Jewish as a distant second.

Anti-Zionism: the new face of anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism has often been described as the world’s oldest bigotry. However, Jew-hatred has changed over time. In ancient times, Jews were hated because of their distinct religious traditions. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews were hated because of their “racial” and ethnic background. In the twenty-first century, the focus of anti-Semitism is on the Jewish state of Israel. Jew-haters of the previous century wanted a Judenrein world, a world free of Jews. Today’s Jew-haters seek a world without a Jewish state. In the name of “human rights” for Palestinians, they seek the destruction of the State of Israel. The Iranian Islamo-fascist regime and its terrorist proxy allies Hamas and Hezbollah lead this genocidal effort against Israel’s more than seven million Jews. However, anti-Israel-focused anti-Semitism—anti-Zionism—also has its supporters in Europe, the United States, and beyond. 

A major ideological focus in anti-Zionism is to deny Judaism’s ethnic component and the existence of a Jewish people. The reason is obvious. If Jews are reduced to merely a religious group, then Jews have no right to a country of their own and Israel becomes “illegal.” While this concept may appeal to a vocal but small portion of highly assimilated anti-Zionist Jews, the majority of world Jewry continues in various degrees to embrace Judaism’s dualistic religious and ethnic nature.

Israel is the Jewish future 

The re-establishment of Israel signals the closing of the circle for the Jewish people. While the vast majority of world Jewry lived outside of Israel during more than 2,000 years of Diaspora, the Jewish story is rapidly returning to the place where it started—in the ancestral Jewish homeland. 

The re-establishment of Israel signals the closing of the circle for the Jewish people.

In 1948, a mere 5% of world Jewry resided in Israel. In 2023, almost 50% lives in the Jewish state, which is forecasted to become home to the majority of the Jewish people within the next decade. This demographic shift is mainly due to high levels of assimilation among Diaspora Jews and high fertility rates among Israeli Jews.

The return of the Jewish people to Israel also means a return to the core of Judaism—a unique identity that blends faith, peoplehood, and attachment to that people’s sacred place of emergence.

Judean Ethnicity: The DNA Evidence

Mosaic in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City featuring symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel surrounding a menorah.

Genetics has proven that modern Jewish populations carry their Israelite ancestors’ ancient Middle Eastern DNA. Jews’ unbroken patrilineal descent displays a continuous chain from the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Additionally, the DNA of the Jewish people dates even further back to the Canaanites of the southern Levant.

Although we now associate normative Judaism with the traditional halacha (religious law) of matrilineal descent, its origins are disputed and genetics research provides a more complicated picture. Patrilineal descent is more definitive in terms of its Israelite origins; thus, it is the main focus of this article. Before the rise of Talmudic Judaism, our Israelite forbearers were tribally patrilineal—from Abraham to Isaac and the prophetic Biblical lineages.

“Advances in Next-Generation Sequencing of Y-DNA have shown that the widespread Jewish communities around the world share a degree of common ancestry dating back 2,900 years to the formation of the dynasties of Israel and Judah,” Adam Brown, director of the academic Avotaynu DNA Project, reported at the recent 15th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy in Houston. The Avotaynu DNA Project, a global collaboration of scientists, genealogists, and historians, collects and analyzes DNA data from Jewish populations worldwide. By examining the autosomal DNA (all 22 chromosomes), mtDNA (maternal line, obtained from mitochondrial DNA), and Y-DNA (paternal line), they can trace the shared origins of the Jewish people and provide valuable insights into their ancient ancestry.

Ashkenazi Jews

Brown elaborated on these findings in a lengthy phone interview with White Rose Magazine from his home in New Jersey, confirming that the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe are among the more than 700 different Y-DNA lineages found among Jewish men of mainly Middle Eastern origin.

“The Y chromosomes of the Ashkenazim are overwhelmingly from the Mediterranean; for the most part, [from] the Middle East,” Brown said. “Some of these Ashkenazi paternal lineages are shared with Jewish populations as far away as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Morocco. Using advanced testing methods that have only become available in the last few years, we have dated the common genetic ancestor of these distant Jewish populations back to the dawn of the Iron Age.”

Furthermore, Brown addressed the absence of non-Jewish Y-DNA haplogroups among Ashkenazi Jews, underscoring the genetic closeness of Ashkenazi Jews to other Jewish groups. “Non-Jewish Y-DNA haplogroups dating from the Common Era are rarely found among Ashkenazi Jews,” Brown continued. “Nor have we found a shred of Khazari ancestry,” corroborating a 2013 genome-wide study led by Israeli geneticist Doron Behar, which concluded that there is no genetic evidence for a Khazar origin for Ashkenazi Jews. Instead, Ashkenazi Jews are genetically closest to other Jewish groups and derive most of their genetic ancestry from Middle Eastern and European populations.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies in recent decades have confirmed the Middle Eastern and European ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews, and the genetics community is well aware of this unique admixture, as well as the relatedness of Ashkenazi Jews to other Jewish diaspora groups from the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, research on Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews highlights their shared Middle Eastern ancestry and close relatedness. The DNA of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Moroccan Jews is incredibly close, with similar Southern European admixture and Middle Eastern and North African ancestry. According to the book DNA & Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews by Yaakov Kleiman, “although the Ashkenazi (European) community separated from their Mediterranean ancestors some 1,200 years ago and lived among Central and Eastern European gentiles, their paternal gene pool still resembles that of other Jewish and Semitic groups, originating in the Middle East” (p. 30). Additionally, the book draws attention to the genetic similarities between Ashkenazi Jews, Italian Jews, and Sephardic Jews, underscoring the shared heritage and ancestry among these different Jewish communities.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies in recent decades have confirmed the Middle Eastern and European ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews, and the genetics community is well aware of this unique admixture, as well as the relatedness of Ashkenazi Jews to other Jewish diaspora groups from the Middle East and North Africa.

In my journey for a deeper understanding of autosomal ancestry and its implications for global Jewish groups, I reached out to autosomal ancestry researcher and co-creator of the Humanitas DNA Project, Nicola Capelli. Based in Italy, Capelli has studied the autosomal profile of Ashkenazi Jews and many Jewish and non-Jewish populations worldwide, providing valuable insights into the Jewish genome. “The genetic roots of Ashkenazi Jews can be traced back to Jewish communities in the Middle East, including the region of Israel. Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Jewish populations that existed in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions before their migration to Central and Eastern Europe during the medieval period,” Capelli wrote in a response to White Rose Magazine. “Historical and genetic research suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have Middle Eastern ancestry, with genetic contributions from the indigenous Jewish populations of the Levant and surrounding areas. This indicates a genetic connection to Israel and the broader region,” Capelli continued. “However, it’s important to note that over time, Ashkenazi Jews have also incorporated genetic material from the non-Jewish populations with whom they lived in Europe. This led to a significant genetic admixture, resulting in their distinct genetic profile, which is a combination of Middle Eastern and European genetic components. Therefore, while the genetic roots of Ashkenazi Jews trace back to the Middle East, their genetic makeup also reflects the historical migrations and intermingling with European populations during their time in Europe.”

Given that most Jews can trace their paternal ancestry to the Hebraic period of the eastern Mediterranean, it is fair to ask who these ancient ancestors of modern Jews were. 


According to Biblical accounts, the Iron Age Israelites led by Joshua conquered the land of Canaan following their exodus from Egypt, providing the historical backdrop for the origins of the Kingdom of Judah.

Jews come from the tribes that inhabited the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem—Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and Levi. On the other hand, the Samaritans claim descent from the remaining members of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, and Levi, whom the Assyrians did not deport after the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 B.C.E. Many Israelites took sanctuary in the Kingdom of Judah after the collapse of the northern kingdom and the Assyrian exile.

The discovery of the Nimrud Tablet in modern Iraq provides archaeological evidence for the existence of the Kingdom of Judah during the eighth century B.C.E. An inscription on the clay tablet dated to c. 733 B.C.E., discovered in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in 1873, marks the first archaeological reference to the Kingdom of Judah. The Nimrud Tablet (K.3751), also known as Kalhu Palace Summary Inscription 7, confirms the Biblical story of King Jehoahaz (Achaz) of Judah paying tribute to the Neo-Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser III. The Hebrew Bible’s Second Book of Kings (II Kings 16:2) details the reign of Achaz during this period: “In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years.” This section of the Biblical passage corroborates the Nimrud inscription:

Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria.

These historical and biblical sources provide a deeper understanding of the Kingdom of Judah and its role in the ancient Near East.

It is also important to understand the modern Jewish connection to the ancient Judeans in terms of genetics and as a unifying identifier that has withstood thousands of years. Judah (יְהוּדָה, Yehudah) was the fourth of 12 sons of Jacob, the patriarch of the Israelites, whom God later renamed Israel. The tribe of Judah was the first to receive their land (Joshua 15:1), residing in the southern part of the territory. King David belonged to the tribe of Judah. Yehudi (יְהוּדִי‎) means “from the Kingdom of Judah” and is where modern Jews derive their name. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible mentions this name 74 times. All Israelites were called Yehudi following the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria). Judah lasted 350 years after the division of the Kingdom of Israel. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. The Jewish elites experienced a series of deportations to Babylon before the Israelite exiles were invited back to Judah in 538 B.C.E. by Cyrus the Great to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple with the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a long and tumultuous history under various ruling powers. Under the Babylonians and Persians, Judah was called the Yehud province; under the Greeks, the Hasmonean Kingdom; and under the Romans, the Herodian Kingdom and the province of Judaea.

The Roman occupation was ruthless, culminating in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 C.E. when the Romans crushed the rebellion of the Jews of Judaea with devastating results. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that “Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate…” Some scholars describe the impact of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third and last of the Jewish-Roman wars, as a genocide. In the aftermath, the Romans renamed Judaea “Syria-Palaestina.” Despite the devastation in their ancient homeland at the hands of foreign powers, however, the Jews maintained their ethnic identity in the diaspora.

The Greek term Ioudaios (Jew) originally referred to members of the tribe of Judah. The Jewish diaspora used this term to identify themselves as followers of the God of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. Brown explained to White Rose Magazine that historical population booms and busts (bottlenecks) are evident in the DNA of the Jewish people, particularly the sudden growth among the Ashkenazim around 800 and 1600 C.E. respectively, and the collapse following the Holocaust. This supports the idea that genetic bottlenecks can be linked to specific historical events and population shifts.

Brown and his team pinpointed evidence of the original Judaean population by focusing on Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia. “Another Jewish population collapse appears to have occurred at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, during which some historians believe 500,000 Jewish men were killed,” he said. “To find evidence of the original Judaean population, we therefore intensively searched for participants in Jewish communities where pre-Bar Kochba Judaean settlement is known, such as in North Africa and Mesopotamia.”

Nevertheless, Jews are not the only modern population with a direct line to the ancient Israelites. The Samaritans are genetic cousins of Jews, with a shared heritage and similar customs.


The word Samaritans (שׁוֹמְרוֹנִים) means “keepers/guardians/watchers” of the Torah. The ethno-religious group has its own version of the Torah, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which closely resembles the Jewish Torah but contains some variations in the text.

Despite these religious differences, DNA analysis proves the genetic connection between Jews and Samaritans. A 2004 study comparing Samaritans to Jewish and non-Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, Iraqi Jews, Libyan Jews, Moroccan Jews, and Yemenite Jews found that

the principal components analysis suggested a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. Most of the former may be traced back to a common ancestor in what is today identified as the paternally inherited Israelite high priesthood (Cohanim), with a common ancestor projected to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel.

Therefore, Jews and Samaritans share a common ancestry going even further back than the Israelite period, to the Canaanite tribes from which the Israelites descend.


Modern archaeology and genetics are challenging the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, making it increasingly clear that the Israelites arose directly from the indigenous Canaanite culture. This new understanding has significant ramifications for the historical and cultural connections of the Jewish and Samaritan people to the land of Israel, demonstrating that rather than being outsiders, they are descendants of ancient Canaanites who inhabited the region for millennia. Therefore, while Jews and Samaritans trace their ancestry to the ancient Israelites, their connection to the land dates back to the Bronze Age and beyond. Genetic studies have also shown that modern Lebanese directly descend from the Phoenicians (a Greek word), a people like the Israelites who developed in situ from the Canaanite culture. Other Levantine populations also share this Canaanite ancestry.

This new understanding has significant ramifications for the historical and cultural connections of the Jewish and Samaritan people to the land of Israel, demonstrating that rather than being outsiders, they are descendants of ancient Canaanites who inhabited the region for millennia.

“There is enough evidence today from material culture, traditional archaeology, and ancient DNA to show that the population of the two Hebrew kingdoms was basically local, or most of it was local,” Israeli archaeologist and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University Israel Finkelstein told White Rose in a phone interview. “[W]e’re speaking about local ‘Canaanites’ who became ‘Israelites’ in a cultural process over a period of several centuries. The population of the two kingdoms was local. Autochthonous (indigenous) to the Levant. I cannot tell you that there were no groups—small groups—that came from outside, but the majority of the population was local.”

The Iron Age Israelites and Judeans lived in the highlands around the Samarian capital of Shechem and the Judean capital of Jerusalem. At the same time, the Canaanites resided in the lowlands of the coastal plain and northern valleys, as Finkelstein explained, emphasizing that both the Israelites and the Canaanites came from the same population pool.

Israelite DNA

Finkelstein found time to speak with this journalist during a break from his work at the Biblical settlement of Kiryat Ye’arim, some 9 miles west of Jerusalem, where he was the lead archaeologist on a groundbreaking study of extracted DNA from a family of 10 buried in an Iron Age tomb from the Late First Temple period, which was in use in the years 750–650 B.C.E. based on pottery typology used in the funerary offerings. This study is getting attention because researchers extracted DNA from ancient Hebrews of the First Temple period for the first time. The Harvard geneticist Prof. David Reich’s lab, which specializes in ancient DNA, conducted the analysis. Reich and his team have not yet submitted the final paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. However, an advanced copy shows that the first two sampled individuals—a male and female—carry the Y-DNA haplogroup J2 and the mtDNA haplogroups T1a and H87 (males contain both Y-DNA and mtDNA while females only carry mtDNA).

This study is getting attention because researchers extracted DNA from ancient Hebrews of the First Temple period for the first time.

Regardless of the conclusions, the early results from Kiryat Ye’arim synchronize with the Avotaynu DNA Project’s research into the paternal lineages of modern Jewish groups. “We have thus far found approximately 159 different J2 haplogroups among the Jewish men in our study. These represent 159 ‘Abrahams’ carrying the J2 marker who introduced their own genetic ancestry into the Jewish population during its 3,000-year history,” Brown said. Further evidence comes from a 2019 research article Brown co-authored, which examined the Y-DNA haplogroup J-Z640. Jews, Samaritans, Druze, and Armenians share this haplogroup, which “originated during the Bronze Age, most likely in the Levant,” with the “founder population most likely belonging to Canaanites found in the Levant.”

In 2020, Finkelstein co-authored the study “The Genomic History of the Bronze Age Southern Levant,” which compared modern Jewish and non-Jewish populations to the average of 22 individuals from the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age period discovered at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, referred to in the study as “Megiddo_MLBA.” When modeling ancient admixture in these modern populations, the researchers selected Megiddo_MLBA to represent ancient Levantine ancestry. The results for modeling the archaic admixture of Ashkenazi Jews show that their autosomal genomic profile is around 50 percent Megiddo_MLBA, representing Canaanite ancestry, and about 10 percent Chalcolithic Iranian for 60 percent broader Middle Eastern DNA. The rest is about 40 percent European (Late Neolithic and Bronze Age).

“We found that most Jewish populations, but also all modern Levant populations, have some ancestry shared in common with the Canaanites. But it’s very difficult to say anything more specific,” one of the study’s co-authors, Hebrew University of Jerusalem genetics researcher Prof. Shai Carmi, said in a written comment to White Rose Magazine. The study found that these Canaanite Bronze Age and Iron Age southern Levant populations exhibit ancestry from earlier Neolithic populations. In addition, there was gene flow from the Chalcolithic Zagros Mountains, located in present-day Iran, and from the Bronze Age Caucasus region. Overall, these studies shed light on the ancient Levantine origins of modern Jewish populations and the admixture picked up from local populations in the diaspora.

I contacted another Israel-based archaeologist for this article, and her views align with Finkelstein’s assertion that the Israelites and Canaanites were the same people. “In Iron Age IA (1200–1150 B.C.E.), you can’t tell the difference between Israelites and Canaanites. Archaeologically, they are the same, which argues for the Israelites having a Canaanite origin. The genetics backs that up,” said Linda Olsvig-Whittaker, an archaeobotany researcher at the Archaeology Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The characteristics that mark Israelite culture evolved gradually. We see a gradual differentiation of Israelite culture, but nothing indicates a sudden replacement of people by another group of people. It’s gradual. Israelites evolved in situ from Canaanites. The Canaanites were the ancestors of the Israelites. There was no population replacement in the southern Levant. The Jews did not come from Mesopotamia. They evolved in place here.”

These studies shed light on the ancient Levantine origins of modern Jewish populations and the admixture picked up from local populations in the diaspora.

Modern Jewish DNA reveals this indigenous Israelite/Canaanite ancestry. “No matter where Jews are coming from, whether it is Iraq or Russia,” Olsvig-Whittaker continued, “there is still this strong genetic connection with ancient Canaanites.”

Modern Jewish DNA reveals this indigenous Israelite/Canaanite ancestry.

Therefore, the Jewish historical connection to the Middle East region has deep roots regardless of the exilic pathways.  

Jews + the Middle East

Judaism predates Islam by thousands of years, and Jews were part of the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years before Islam.

“Arabs and Jews are distant cousins who shared common ancestry at the time of the founding of Judaism 3,000 years ago,” Brown remarked. “The Jewish populations we have tested originate, for the most part, in enormously diverse populations of the Late Bronze Age Middle East. At that time, before the establishment of tribal identities such as the Israelites, the paternal origins of Jews and non-Jews of the Middle East were indistinguishable from one another,” he continued. “There is a core of Y chromosome ancestry that traces right back to the beginning of Israelite identity.”

According to Brown, advanced testing of paternal lineages shows an unbroken Jewish thread that dates back to the Israelites 3,000 years ago. “Mizrahi, North African, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or in the Jewish population of India, we are finding common ancestry among them,” he said. “While portions of Jewish paternal lineages were picked up from pagan populations in host countries over the centuries, we have found little evidence of pagan lineages entering the Jewish population since the rise of Christianity and Islam.”

This author and Brown share the same Ashkenazi R1b haplogroup subclade that was possibly a man from England who settled in Roman-ruled Iberia and contributed his Y chromosome to the Jewish population, then living in exile in the territory that would become Spain and Portugal. This man’s descendants migrated to Central and Eastern Europe, becoming re-identified as members of the Ashkenazi population during the following two millennia.

While this article has focused primarily on the Y-DNA Middle Eastern lineages of modern Jews, I would be remiss not to include a section on matrilineal descent, which has played a significant role in the history of Rabbinic Judaism. What does the mtDNA say about the origins of modern Jews?

Matrilineal descent

Rabbinic Judaism has followed the law of matrilineal descent since at least the compiling of the Mishnah, around 200 C.E. However, modern scholars dispute the origins, with some believing it could go back to the time of Ezra, c. 460 B.C.E. Orthodox Judaism maintains that matrilineal descent goes back to Mount Sinai, c. 1310 B.C.E. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, by Shaye J. D. Cohen, offers a comprehensive overview of these ancient matrilineal practices, and Dr. Henry Abramson, a lecturer on Jewish history at Touro College in New York, has made an excellent video on the subject as part of his YouTube “Jewish History Lab” series.

Interestingly, while Karaite Judaism and Samaritanism follow patrilineal descent, some modern liberal Jewish denominations, such as the Reform movement, also recognize paternal lineages.

Given the historical and religious perspectives on matrilineal descent in Judaism, what does the DNA say about the maternal origins of modern Jews since it is clear that the paternal line traces back to the time of the Israelites? Like the origins of matrilineal descent, the mtDNA of modern Jews is still being debated and studied.

Research into the mtDNA (matrilineal line) of contemporary Jewish populations generally shows more diversity than the Y-DNA (patrilineal) and closer relatedness to local populations from antiquity, as the rise of Christianity and Islam sharply curtailed conversions. “Genetic variations in Y-DNA occur at a rate significantly faster than in the mitochondria, so the latter is a less precise tool for assessing the origins of Jewish women. But based on our observations thus far, the diversity of mitochondrial DNA in each Jewish population is much greater than that found in the Y-DNA and is typically more closely related to local populations than the men,” Brown explained. Conversion to Judaism is simpler for women than men—who must be circumcised—therefore, greater non-Jewish female ancestry in late antiquity follows.

Doron Behar, the Israeli geneticist, has studied the mtDNA of Ashkenazi Jews, and the results suggest that the maternal lineages are of mixed Middle Eastern and European origin. Middle Eastern founding lineages are prevalent in the population. He wrote in a 2004 study that “while several Ashkenazi Jewish mtDNA haplogroups appear to derive from the Near East, there is also evidence for a low level of introgression from host European non-Jewish populations.”

Additionally, a 2006 study by Behar analyzed the mtDNA haplogroups K and N1b in Ashkenazi Jews. It concluded that 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews descend maternally from four founding female lineages of Middle Eastern origin, “likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool.” The study also found an Ashkenazi sister lineage in Jews from Portugal, Italy, France, Morocco, and Tunisia.

An unbroken chain from the Land of Israel

The findings of Brown and his Avotaynu DNA team demonstrate the far-reaching impact of Jewish DNA dating back to the Israelites, showing that it can be found in unexpected places.

This was confirmed by a recent article that Brown and his Avotaynu DNA team published in the magazine American Ancestors. It summarizes their testing of the descendants of a colonial New Jersey family of likely French Huguenots who fought alongside and were friendly with George Washington.

The findings of Brown and his Avotaynu DNA team demonstrate the far-reaching impact of Jewish DNA dating back to the Israelites, showing that it can be found in unexpected places.

Genetic genealogy revealed that the family patriarch Abraham Coryell descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish family with the surname Curiel. The Y-DNA variation E-BY145801 traces back to a Portuguese Jew who converted to Christianity by force in 1497. Some participants in the Curiel Avotaynu DNA study share a common ancestry dating back to the medieval era, including Sephardic families from Italy and Greece and a rabbinic dynasty from Morocco. “Matches with Jewish participants from Egypt, Syria, and Turkey reveal a common ancestor who lived at the time of the birth of apparent Israelite identity in the Early Iron Age,” the article states.

Brown summarized his research at the end of our interview: “For the most part, Jewish lineages are Middle Eastern, and there is no corollary. It is incontrovertible.”

In conclusion, scientific research strongly supports the idea that modern Jewish populations have a significant Middle Eastern genetic heritage. The Avotaynu DNA Project, which has documented over 700 Y-DNA lineages among Jewish men of primarily Middle Eastern origin, provides further evidence.

It is clear that while Ashkenazi Jews have a unique genetic makeup due to their interactions with European populations, their genetic roots can ultimately be traced back to the Middle East. The DNA evidence debunks the myth of a Khazar origin for Ashkenazi Jews and confirms their close relatedness to other Jewish diaspora groups from the Middle East and North Africa.

The Eternal Jew

I’ve witnessed empires rise and vanish
Cursed are those who curse us
Egypt, Rome, the Greeks and Spanish
A Divine mirror to all who haunt us

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Ever the protagonist in history’s lens
10 Plagues to be Freed
OUR God seeks Divine Revenge

We are the light, somewhat diminished, our numbers few
A conscience of the population our plight
Hatred of this knowledge forever on cue
Causes our unity, our survival, our might

Bless us, curse us, Ye all are stoking our survival
We’ve never sought the Glory
Your Choice is to be a Friend or Rival
We’ll be here long after to tell your Story

Jewish Assimilation Never Works

“What is needed is the leaven—what is needed is the seed of fire. The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions; it lives in their veins as a power without understanding, like the morning exultation of herds; it is the inborn half of memory, moving as in a dream among writings on the walls, which it sees dimly but cannot divide into speech.… Who says that the history and literature of our race are dead? Are they not as living as the history and literature of Greece and Rome…? These were an inheritance dug from the tomb. Ours is an inheritance that has never ceased to quiver in millions of human frames.” 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876)

A historical leitmotif as eternal as human folly itself is that when Jews pretend not to be Jews, the only long-term outcome is catastrophe.

This is hardly to say that it is forbidden for Jews to learn the languages, use the technology, and obey the secular laws of the nations in which they are resident. Instead, it is answering “I am a Greek”—or “I am a comrade like you”—when asked “Are you a Jew?” which assures future disaster.

Throughout history, Jews have been faced with the fundamental human conundrum of how to live in a world in which they are perennial strangers.

Acculturation vs. Assimilation

Throughout history, Jews have been faced with the fundamental human conundrum of how to live in a world in which they are perennial strangers. After all, obstinate, intransigent insularity is not always a virtue, let alone helpful.

As Jews streamed out of the ghettos torn down by benevolent Napoleonic decree, their new-found and well-earned freedom also unleashed the throbbing Judenschmerz (“Jewish pain”) which afflicted so many nineteenth-century European Jews. The natural human urge to be accepted as full citizens of the wider society seized Jews across the Western world, most famously the poet Heinrich Heine. Medieval Christian hatred for Jewish particularism—not to mention Jewish particularism itself—was what had relegated Jews to the ghettos in the first place. It was universalism, both political and spiritual, which had freed the Jews. Therefore, universalism was, as Heine wrote in speaking of his nominal conversion to Christianity, “the admission ticket to European civilization.”

Judaism is far more than just a religion.

Yet, indeed, Jewish tradition is defined by particularism. From idolatry down to tattoos, Judaism forbids much of the outer world’s trappings. Furthermore, Judaism is far more than just a religion. “Judaism,” as Alan Dershowitz writes in his book The Case for Peace, “is a civilization that began as a religion” (p. 32). In other words, “Judaism” is like a button with a pull-down menu on a website, including the protruding list of

Religion—apart from alphabetical position—is only “last” on this list because it is the seed from which all the others germinate. Yet, a plant is not only its roots. An infection which enters through the farthest leaves can poison an entire tree if left untreated or unpruned. Judaism is not simply a corpus of books which can be left in a rabbinic library and divorced from life. Whether a Jew is Charedi or an atheist, it is an undeniable fact that these nine aspects of Jewishness form a self-contained solar system of planets which, like the bodies which orbit our Sun, make up a whole.

In the realm of politics, this means that Jews, put bluntly, are not in need of the nations’ failed ideas. This is to say that Judaism, while open-minded and welcoming, is an entity unto itself, and does not require fundamental transformation.

This does not mean that Judaism is required to exist in a vacuum. Particularism should never be confused with Nation of Islam-style separatism. One way to put it is the difference between acculturation and assimilation.

To acculturate is to responsibly absorb those aspects of the host culture which are non-threatening to one’s particularism, or at least to admire what may even be t’reif with a knowledge that it is t’reif in the first place. One pledges allegiance to the host society, abides by its statutes, becomes educated in its culture, and is able to enjoy what one can. One can even admire the exquisite art of the pagan ancient world in a museum so long as one knows full well that such paintings and statues are but lifeless things of wood and stone. One discriminates between what is holy and what is not, and has the knowledge and maturity to know avodah zarah when it presents itself.

To assimilate is completely different. In a Jewish context, assimilation is the explicit rejection of one’s discriminating faculties. There is no difference between what is holy and unholy. The many gods of the past and present—celebrities and politicians included—are not mortal or dead, but ever-living deities. The Jewish people—with their culture, ethnicity, geography, history, language, law, nationhood, philosophy, and religion—first became a people when God “married” them with the Covenant of Sinai. God proclaimed that His “bride” would love no other from that day to this, and He would refrain likewise. Assimilation is the rejection of God’s embrace and a divinely inspired heritage which has miraculously survived century after century of typically lethal threats to its survival.

Jews, put bluntly, are not in need of the nations’ failed ideas.

Jews, therefore, have a responsibility to preserve that unique civilization. And, in doing so, have the discernment and wisdom to learn from history’s lessons. One of the most important lessons is the disaster of assimilation into the fraudulent tolerance of secular leftist ideology.

Judaism vs. Socialism

The profound social upheavals of the eighteenth century’s final years laid before Western European Jews their first chance to grapple with the choice between acculturation and assimilation. It was partially for assimilation into this new, post-Biblical world of “universal” morality that Heine reluctantly bought his admission ticket in 1825. And there was a new political force circling Europe: socialism.

“Judaism,” however, “is not communism,” wrote the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a commentary to Parashat Kedoshim in the Book of Va-Yik’ra (Leviticus):

The concept of equality we find in the Torah specifically and Judaism generally is not an equality of wealth.… Nor is it an equality of power: Judaism is not anarchy. It is fundamentally an equality of dignity. We are all equal citizens in the nation whose sovereign is God.

The piteous irony lost on many Jews over the past two centuries is that Sacks’ sage words and the great literati of socialism are in complete agreement on this point in particular.

Most European anti-capitalism was drenched in anti-Jewish bigotry from its genesis in the Middle Ages. In the lands of Akh’kenaz (today’s central Germany and northern France), market economics had always been deeply and derisively associated with Jews. Jewish communities were mostly situated in towns, as owning and working farmland was sometimes forbidden and always impractical given the constant danger of expulsion. Pressed by Church decree into money-lending, banking, and trading within largely agrarian societies, Jews became synonymous in many envious Christians’ minds with the idea of profit without labor. We take it for granted today that most vendors buy inventory which they did not grow or craft and sell it for a profit, but, prior to the nineteenth century, most Europeans’ contact with trade was through selling surplus crops or crafted objects produced with their own physical toil. From their perspective, the most noticeable exceptions to this rule were the people the Church had raised them to damn as their savior’s murderers and the seed of the Father of Lies.

Most European anti-capitalism was drenched in anti-Jewish bigotry from its genesis in the Middle Ages.

It is no surprise, then, that the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, out of whose utopian ideals socialism arose, at best, proved a disappointment. In Germany especially, the “new” epoch which so many Jews, like the socialist Heine himself, hoped would free them from medieval hatreds wasted little pity on them. In his classic study Wagner: Race and Revolution, the late scholar of anti-Semitism Paul Lawrence Rose (1944–2014) demonstrates the sad truth that almost nothing had changed for the better by Heine’s time:

In this revolutionary faith, as in the old Christian one that it was superseding, the Jews played a crucial symbolic role. The Jews represented, not only in theory but in real life, precisely that enslavement of the human spirit from which the German Revolution promised redemption. The Jews were the epitome of unfree mankind, bound to fearful, self-interested, irrational obedience to a God whom they could not understand…. [Immanuel] Kant dismissed Judaism as ‘not really a religion at all, but merely a union of a number of people’…. The fastidiously critical philosopher could, when it came to the subject of the Jews, write without any critical compunction what has been called the most antisemitic page in world literature: ‘A nation of usurers… bound together by a superstition… outwitting the people amongst whom they find shelter… A whole nation of pure merchants as non-productive members of society… They make the slogan “let the buyer beware” their highest principle in their dealings with us.’

p. 7.

Indeed, Kantian “liberalism”—which some scholars recognize as indispensable to later socialist doctrine—was a rich well of anti-Jewish prejudice as antique and reactionary as every idea it sought to supplant. Kantian philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773–1843) railed against the peril of Jewish assimilation and called for a return of the medieval laws mandating that Jews wear distinguishing badges on their clothing. As Rose documents, his 1816 polemic On the Danger Posed by the Jews to German Well-Being and Character demanded the “extermination of this Jewish commercial caste” (p. 13). Through his professorship at the University of Jena, Fries later helped instigate the anti-Semitic “Hep-Hep” riots of 1819, a pogrom aimed at crushing Jewish demands for emancipation which spread across Germany for more than two months and even bled into Denmark and Poland.

Kantian “liberalism”—which some scholars recognize as indispensable to later socialist doctrine—was a rich well of anti-Jewish prejudice as antique and reactionary as every idea it sought to supplant.

Another passionately anti-Semitic Kantian was Fries’s mentor, proto-socialist Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). A seemingly contradictory figure, who was both a revolutionary Jacobin and a founding father of German nationalism, Fichte held that “free” moral reasoning would liberate humanity from Jewish-imposed darkness. In his Closed Economic State (1800), he argued for an autarkic national community in which the state created perfect equality through price controls and cutting off foreign trade, a proposal which some recent scholarship suggests influenced Stalin’s policy of protectionist collectivization. Yet Fichte also wrote the Contribution to the Correct Understanding of the French Revolution. In this far-reaching, “liberal” treatise, he claimed that the Germans, the true chosen people, had been “crucified” by the Jews, whom he caricatured (with a straight pen) as European man’s chief oppressor and the most primitive of political reactionaries. He also, as Rose quotes him, “joked” that, “As to giving them civil rights, I see no way other than that of some night cutting off their heads and attaching in their place others in which there is not a single Jewish idea.” This he wrote in 1793, the year of the guillotine. Fichte’s ghoulish fantasy, Rose believes, greatly amused Hitler, who remarked “in Mein Kampf that holding down several thousand of the chosen people’s heads under poison gas in World War I might have made the war worthwhile” (p. 9).

With the Industrial Revolution—a relatively late-comer to the areas in which most European Jews lived—and all its associated traumas, demonization of Jews in the name of the swelling urban poor quarters grew louder and louder. Jewish factory owners, it was claimed, were the ones most responsible for working honest former peasants to death while they lived in luxury, and Jewish merchants sold near-worthless goods for far more than their true price. Perhaps no strain of socialism would do more to spread such conspiracy theories throughout the century of emancipation and beyond than Marxist socialism.

Marx—in contrast to his friend Heine’s post-baptismal regret and lifelong identity crisis—showed no ambivalence in repudiating and slandering his Jewish origins to the uttermost. Arguably influenced somewhat by Fichte—indeed, Marxists.org proudly hosts some of his writings—and very much so by Kant, Marx, born to a family of converted Jews, “emancipated” himself from his Jewishness by championing his own ideology’s inherent anti-Semitism. What is taught in neither universities nor Hebrew schools today is that Marx was himself a virulent racist who lavished upon his (former) fellow Jews nothing less than the most maniacal contempt. In his 1843 screed “On the Jewish Question,” Marx declared “Money” to be “the jealous god Israel”; that “the monotheism of the Jew” is a squalid, idolatrous tyranny “which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law”; the “Jewish religion” rejects “man as an end in himself”; “Huckstering” is the Jew’s “worldly religion”; and that, in the end, “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Marx himself unmistakably characterizes the Jewish people as a whole—not just “capitalists”—as the supreme masterminds of economic injustice. In a bizarre and venomous passage in Das Kapital, he writes that “The capitalist knows that all commodities, however scurvy they may look, or however badly they may smell, are in faith and in truth money, inwardly circumcised Jews, and what is more, a wonderful means whereby out of money to make more money.”

If Jews, as Marx believed, are themselves the heart of the bourgeoisie, and said bourgeoisie must be overthrown by any and all means—violent revolution both included and prescribed—then the only possible conclusion, truly, is the unthinkable. In a nightmarish allusion to events in his native Germany precisely one century after “On the Jewish Question,” Marx’s vision of utopia (like Fries’s before him) cannot logically be described as anything less than a world without Jews.

Despite Marx’s central (and subsequently airbrushed) place in the history of secular anti-Semitism, a small but vociferous group of European Jews beset with Judenschmerz found themselves drawn to his message of an atheist renaissance in which “all hitherto existing society” was erased. Exploited and oppressed for centuries, Jews frustrated with the burden of being Jewish saw in Marxism an extraordinary opportunity: a revolution against the established European order which had so degraded them, and an escape from the ranks of their despised people.

Marx’s vision of utopia (like Fries’s before him) cannot logically be described as anything less than a world without Jews.

Having fled the clutches of their religious heritage, many Jewish Marxists imitated their role model and set about destroying any connection to their own heritage. As Natan Sharansky—perhaps the most famous and heroic Jewish victim of Marx’s political delusions—wrote with Gil Troy in Tablet in 2017:

Those Jews who wanted to join the global communist revolution to change the world felt that they had to prove themselves by denouncing their people still living in their shtetls, their small, cloistered Jewish communities. One archetypal such Jewish radical was the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. Swept up by what we could call the critical class theory of her day, seeing the entire world through the Marxian lens of class struggle in the hope of bringing equality to all, Luxemburg, like many Jews of her day, was happy to jettison her Jewish particularism to fulfill her universal vision.

…Some radicals even deemed the pogroms and other Jew-bashing outbursts necessary chapters in the “class struggle”—the violent birth of a new and better world.

Luxemburg—most infamous for her unironic maxim of “socialism or barbarism”—cruelly denounced her own Jewishness to the point of refusing to pity Jewish victims of both communist and tsarist pogroms. “I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering,” Luxemburg snarled to a somewhat less self-loathing friend in 1917. “Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa.… I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.” Luxemburg’s zeal soon proved as suicidal in practice as it was in theory. During the communist uprising against the post-war German government in 1919, she would be captured, tortured, and murdered by members of the government-backed Freikorps, a paramilitary gang of re-mobilized veterans who believed that traitorous Jews like her had sealed Germany’s defeat in the Great War. Many Freikorps paramilitaries would later join the National Socialist German Workers Party, and, 14 years later, eventually succeed in overthrowing the Weimar Republic where their Marxist rivals had failed. To them, Luxemburg’s indifference to “Jewish suffering” mattered for nothing.

Still, the greatest failure was the most obvious. Many Jews had ignored more than a century of warning signs. Socialist and “liberal” revolutionary philosophers had spent generations making clear that Jews as Jews were not welcome in their world-to-come. Their culture was degenerate and miserly; their ethnicity was racially poisonous; their current geographical residence should be rid of them; their history was one of just and deserved suffering; their language was embarrassing and bizarre; their laws were backward, primitive, morally repellant, idolatrous, and a present danger to their neighbors; their national identity, or lack thereof, was a threat to all others; their philosophy of life was, at best, irrelevant, at worst, asinine; and their religion, the very fount of their civilization, was obsolete, evil, and a menace to all mankind.

Socialist and “liberal” revolutionary philosophers had spent generations making clear that Jews as Jews were not welcome in their world-to-come.

Even so, some Jews still felt compelled to prefer anti-Jewish socialism over Judaism anyway. In fact, even more nonsensically, some would, out of zeal for socialism, exactly contradict what socialists had been angrily disproving for a century: that socialism was Judaism. In later years, Jews like these, especially leftist rabbis from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United States, sought to conflate the ethical values of Tanakh’ with counterfeit, communist ones. As if to justify their rejection of their own Jewishness to themselves, they maintained that their treason was in the service of the inheritance they had abandoned. Translated into Marxist language, the words of Amos and Isaiah become demands for “social justice” and wealth redistribution, tzedakah an omnipotent state’s responsibility to coercively “care” for the people, and tikun olam a mandate to remake the world in the image of one which could never be. It is true that the State of Israel was founded by utopian socialists, but Zionist socialism uniquely affirmed (however superficially) the holistic reality of Jewish civilization, even though it rejected the Jewish religion (a near miss of too great an importance to discuss at present).

Yet, not only had they blindly ignored the unmentionable truth that their own ideology was originally invented as a revolution against Judaism, socialist Jews had missed the main point. Why would all of socialism’s great minds have spent so much time degrading Judaism as the root of all evil if it was not a full-fledged civilization unto itself? Should Kant, Fichte, Fries, Marx, and all the others’ vicious, obsessive protestations have been for nothing? And did attempting to conform to them do Jews any good?

“Jewish” or not, Jews will always be hated

The natural Jewish crisis of faith which followed the Holocaust only intensified the question of whether there was any point in remaining Jewish. Though it was the very fact that Jews were indeed so successfully assimilated into Western European society that the “racial” menace they posed warranted their extermination, many who survived or lived through that age remained unsure. Some, though completely secular, embraced Zionism as a middle ground between pride in their identity and observance of Jewish religious law. Some changed their names and quadrupled down upon their assimilation. Some, beset by a Judenschmerz more crippling than ever before, attempted to change the very definition of Jewishness itself.

Why would all of socialism’s great minds have spent so much time degrading Judaism as the root of all evil if it was not a full-fledged civilization unto itself? Should Kant, Fichte, Fries, Marx, and all the others’ vicious, obsessive protestations have been for nothing? And did attempting to conform to them do Jews any good?

Perhaps the most tragic and fascinating individual example is of Jewish-born British writer Arthur Koestler (1905–1983). Koestler, a secular atheist, was a man of many ideologies, often contradictory. He was a passionate communist who felt the pre-war German Communist Party too moderate to effectively oppose the Nazis, yet became a resolute anti-communist once he realized the truth of Stalin’s terror. He reportedly bullied women with whom he committed adultery into having abortions and advocated for euthanasia while simultaneously opposing capital punishment. And he was a Zionist, but also wrote in his book Promise and Fulfillment that, in the Balfour Declaration, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third” (p. 4). While not technically a leftist, crucially, the theme of his life seemed to be that, because he was a Jew, he could not fit into any consistent community or way of seeing the world. Therefore, it seems, being Jewish was the negative common denominator without which he could be free.

Thus, in his later years, he lent his mind to the problem which had made Theodor Herzl the founder of Zionism: how to solve anti-Semitism. Where, in a fit of open-minded desperation, Herzl had once suggested that all European Jews be baptized, Koestler went even further. In his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe, he put forth a then little-known hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews like him were not the seed of Abraham but of a now-vanished tribe of semi-nomadic Turkic warriors from the Central Asian steppes called the Khazars. The Khazars, it is alleged, converted to some form of Judaism around the year 740 C.E., probably to strengthen their position as a buffer kingdom between the Christian northwest and Islamic south. Koestler claimed that, with the collapse of their empire in the tenth century—which, at its height, stretched between the Black and Aral Seas—the Khazars migrated west and eventually became European Jewry. The historical documentation for this claim is thin at best, the archaeological evidence confusing, and some scholars even believe (with good reason) that the Khazar conversion never happened at all. Similarly, almost no Turkic words are apparent in Yiddish (mostly a mix of medieval German and Hebrew), no Turkic elements (like the horse) appear in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, and, despite multiple attempts, no genetic evidence has been found to prove that Ashkenazi Jews bear any strong relation to Turkic Central Asians. In more recent years, DNA analysis has conclusively shown that Ashkenazi Jews, while possessing a small amount of non-Jewish European ancestry (enough to account for pale skin and so on), are directly and closely related not only to dark-skinned Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (whose Jewish pedigree has never been so questioned) but also to ancient Israelitic skeletal remains. Despite some questionably performed (and mendaciously exaggerated) research to the contrary, most studies indicate that Ashkenazi Jews have no significant connection to any Turkic populations, especially one which no longer exists.

Koestler’s intentions in writing The Thirteenth Tribe were not to denigrate his fellow Jews, as Marx had done in “On the Jewish Question.” Rather, his aim was to remove the classical reason for their victimhood. If, he believed, European Jews had no relation at all to the reviled “Pharisees” of the Christian Bible—the religious hatred which then morphed into the racial one—then the Western world would give a rational sigh and immediately renounce the age-old loathing into which it had poured so many centuries of energy.

Instead, the Khazar theory took on a life of its own. The book, dismissed by scholars at the time as hopelessly amateurish—National Review calling it “a work that has neither the value of a well-executed honest piece of scholarship nor the emotional appeal of a polemic—only the earmarks of a poorly researched and hastily written book”—sadly became a banner for the very racists and Christian anti-Semites Koestler had meant to silence. White supremacists and Christian identitarians seized on the book, using it as proof not only that Jews have no claim to the land of Israel but of Revelation 3:9, which speaks of the “synagogue of Satan,” made up of they who “say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie.” It also failed to counter semi-secular anti-Semitic libels, like those of Jewish financial criminality, governmental control, political disloyalty, racism, and sexual perversion. Today, hordes of anti-Jewish racists—Christian, Muslim, and Nazi alike (not excluding “Dr.” Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar al-Assad)—breathlessly proclaim that “Ashke-nazis” are Khazars, and the “Khazarian Mafia” rules the world. This well-intentioned proposal is now the “revelation” which encodes Jewish deceitfulness into the human genome. Surely, this proves, as Mark Twain said, that “All things are mortal but the Jews.”

Identity mistakenly identified

All attempts at abandoning Jewish civilization in all its totality for something different have failed. Christians refused to trust that converted Jews were true Christians and burned them as marranos; Enlightenment luminaries saw Jews as backward primitives who retarded human progress; socialist and communist revolutionaries condemned Jews as thieves, reactionary tribalists, and capitalist puppet-masters; racial theorists cast Jews as diseased-spreading vermin who must be cleansed from the globe before they infected the “pure” races; and post-modern racist Internet trolls combine all of their predecessors’ delusions to produce the average person’s X feed.

All attempts at abandoning Jewish civilization in all its totality for something different have failed.

Since the Second World War, Zionism has, appropriately and despicably, been one of the left’s favorite whipping boys. Conceived in socialist ideals, the new State of Israel nevertheless presented a major threat to leftist and Soviet interests. The communists used an ideologically engineered strain of Jewish cultural identity as a means of uniting various ethnic minorities under socialist authority (“socialist in content, national in form”), but Zionism was a 100-meter dash too far. As an affirmation of Jewish particularism, Zionism would rouse Jews within the communist empire to self-determination; but, far more intolerably, it was a re-establishment of Jewish civilization, sovereign and total. Total, too, was the age-old socialist logic loop: immutable Jewish identity barred Jews from ever being true leftists, but Jews could not be allowed their full identity, even abroad, because their sense of identity would destroy socialism.

A major milestone in the saga of Stalin’s descent into anti-Semitic madness was the knowledge that Polina Zhyemchuzhina, his (once) trusted foreign minister Vyachyeslav Molotov’s Jewish wife, held Zionist sympathies and enjoyed warm relations with Golda Meir. Having long hated and distrusted her, Stalin led the Politbyuro in expelling Zhyemchuzhina from the party, a denunciation from which a grief-stricken Molotov abstained. In early 1949, she was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to the Gulag, from which she, a life-long and loyal communist, was only released after Stalin’s death in 1953. Perhaps she, like so many, would eventually have been disgraced and exiled anyway, but this, undoubtedly, was because she was an unforgivably proud Jew.

Jews from Heine to Marx to Koestler have tried to be everything they are not: Christians, “enlightened” Europeans, socialists, “citizens of the world”—even Khazars. It has only brought them ruin: assimilation never pleases anyone. As in the play Leopoldstadt, despite being mostly baptized, Tom Stoppard’s irreligious family of semi-crypto-Jews are sent to Auschwitz and Dachau regardless.

Jews who have fully converted to the communist faith have embraced contemporary identity politics, not knowing that they were first popularized by none other than the man who sent them to the gas chambers. To Hitler, writes Jonah Goldberg in his masterpiece Liberal Fascism, “Jews were irredeemably Jews, no matter how well they spoke German. His allegiance, like that of all practitioners of identity politics, was to the iron cage of immutable identity” (p. 62). Leftist Jews in more recent decades thought that adoption of post-war CRT and DEI would create a niche in which they could be equal amongst “other” victimized groups who would mutually assist each other’s advancement. Instead, those groups betrayed them and supported their enemies. Whether anti-Semites espouse racial theory or not, Jews will always be Jews.

Jews have their own culture, ethnicity, geography, history, language, law, nationhood, philosophy, and religion. They can go to the opera, watch Seinfeld, salute the Stars and Stripes, and know their Rembrandts well, but they do not need the false salvation of “de-circumcision.” It is replacing the solution with the problem.

Judean Ethnicity: Rooted in Torah + History

What is the nature of Jewish identity/ethnicity? It is not an easy question to answer because we are a multifaceted people. So what are we? A religion? A race? An ethnic group? Are we a “people”? What about a nation? In order to better understand our origins, let us take a mini-crash course through Jewish history.

Our story does not begin in 1967 or 1948, as many college students believe. The Jewish journey began 3,836 years ago with Abraham, born in Sumer in 1812 B.C.E. During the time of Abraham, Sumer was a major cultural center; in fact, the birthplace of human civilization, including everything from the wheel to the Epic of Gilgamesh. During this period, the entire world was focused on idolatry, as a way of life and belief. People worshipped a pantheon of gods and forces, which often represented natural phenomena. Many kings claimed that they themselves were gods and human sacrifice was commonly practiced as a method of appeasing those powers.

There is evidence that there were pockets of individuals who recognized the one true God. For example, Noach and his sons had direct evidence of His existence. There is an ancient Jewish tradition that Shem, the son of Noach and father of the Semitic people, had a mountaintop academy where he taught spiritual seekers how to meditate on the nature of the One God. The lives of Noach and Abraham overlapped, and it is likely that they knew each other. 

Abraham was the world’s first religious revolutionary. He had the chutzpah to challenge the pagan beliefs and practices of his day. Everyone knows the story of young Abraham breaking the idols manufactured by his father, Terach. 

Many people, including Nimrod, the king of Babylon, attempted to kill Abraham because of his challenge to their belief system. The question is, why did they want to kill him? So he disagreed with what they believed in. Big deal! Why didn’t they try to kill Shem and his academy? 

Abraham was the world’s first religious revolutionary. He had the chutzpah to challenge the pagan beliefs and practices of his day.

The answer is that Shem and his meditators were harmless hippies on the mountaintop. They made no demands on society at large and were left alone. The crime of Abraham was his belief in one God coupled with an ethical standard of human behavior. How dare Abraham tell others, including a king, how to behave! Double chutzpah

For this reason, Abraham was known as Avraham HaIvri, Abraham the Hebrew. The Hebrew word Ivri derives from the word ever, meaning “the other side,” because Abraham stood philosophically on the other side of the rest of the world.

Abraham taught that God demanded moral behavior from mankind, not bloody human sacrifices. He taught that God is the ultimate Giver, and it is our duty to emulate Him by extending hospitality and kindness to all. It was well known that the tent of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had doors facing each direction in order to welcome travelers. This is why Abraham is identified with the trait of chesed—kindness.

Abraham was known as Avraham HaIvri, Abraham the Hebrew. The Hebrew word Ivri derives from the word ever, meaning “the other side,” because Abraham stood philosophically on the other side of the rest of the world.

Abraham and Sarah wanted to teach their understanding of the giving God to the world. The system that they developed became known as ethical monotheism. After many years of living as doers of kindness and developing spirituality, The Almighty gave Abraham his first commandment, saying:

Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1–3)

God instructs Abraham that his family will become a great nation, and he is being sent to a land specially designated as an environment for both physical and spiritual growth. The promise of land also gives him a homeland, which is a primary identifier of nationhood, and this is the Land of Israel.

Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac, who fathers a son, Jacob. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are known to us as the Patriarchs of the People of Israel. These three were more than highly accomplished spiritual individuals: they were the founders of a dynasty like links in a chain. Parenthetically, the Hebrew word for chain and dynasty is shalshelet, the root word being shalosh or “three.”

Jacob inherits the blessings of nationhood bestowed upon Abraham from his father Isaac, and then his name is changed. The Torah states in Genesis 35:10–14 that

God said to him, “Your name is Jacob. Your name shall not always be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a congregation of nations will descend from you, and kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and your offspring after you I will give the land.”

Jacob plays a key role in the transformation of a very small family with few individuals into the roots of what would become the Nation of Israel. Jacob had twelve sons who became the founders and heads of what will be known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel. By the time Jacob’s family moves to Egypt in the face of severe famine in Canaan, his family numbers 70 individuals.

Jacob’s family were initially honored guests of Pharaoh during the lifetime of Jacob and his son Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt. After the passing of the generation, a new Pharaoh arises “who did not know Joseph” and began the enslavement of the Bnai Yisrael—the Children of Israel.  

The period of Israelite bondage in Egypt lasted 210 years, until Moses was sent to Pharaoh as the promised redeemer and demanded “Let my People go” (Exodus 9:1). After 10 plagues and the miraculous splitting of the Sea, the Nation of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 (1312 B.C.E.). The Torah tells us there were 600,000 men between the age of 20 and 60. This number does not include at least an equal amount of women, children, and men over 60. Sources say there were approximately three million Israelites at Sinai.

After 40 years in the wilderness, after the death of Moses, his student and successor Joshua lead the Israelites into the Land Canaan and spent the rest of his life conquering the land and settling the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each in their designated tribal territory.

At this early point in our history, we see that the Israelites possess the six indicators of ethnic identity.

  1. Identifying name of the group: the Children of Israel, Israelites.
  2. Common ancestry: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel.
  3. Shared history, common memories, including events, heroes, and commemoration of sacred events.
  4. Common culture: shared language, Hebrew; common religion, Judaism.
  5. Link to a national homeland: the Land of Israel.
  6. Sense of communal solidarity. 

After the death of Joshua, there was a 363-year period known as the Era of the Judges. The Twelve Tribes of Israel formed a loose confederacy without any central authority. During this time, a leader called a judge arose from each of the tribes. The last such leader was the prophet Samuel, a personality that had influence upon the entire nation. During his time the Israelites gathered and requested a king to rule over them. Samuel was instructed to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, but Saul, who had angered God, only reigned for two years and died a tragic death. Samuel anointed David during the life of Saul.

Saul was followed by King David, who became one of the most important personalities in Jewish history. David was born in 906 B.C.E. and reigned as king for 40 years, and he died in 836. David was from the tribe of Judah, who was blessed by Jacob as the legitimate ruling tribe over Israel:

Judah, you and your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies nape; your fathers sons will prostrate themselves to you… the scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants, until Shiloh shall arrive, and his shale an assemblage of nations (Genesis 49:8–11).

King David led the Israelite armies in battle against their enemies, made Jerusalem his capital city, and united the Twelve Tribes into the nation of Israel. Among other things, he is also famous for composing the Book of Psalms and is known as “the sweet singer of Israel.”

Upon King David’s death, his son Solomon became king and he reigned 40 years in which Israel enjoyed peace and prosperity. Solomon was also known for his wisdom and was called the wisest of all men. As a result, Jerusalem became an international center of knowledge.

Solomon’s crowning achievement was the building of the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in the year 2935 (825 B.C.E.). The Temple became the center of Jewish worship and was visited throughout each year by the Twelve Tribes on the festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. During this period, considered the golden era of Jewish history, Israel was a militarily strong and unified nation.

Following the death of King Solomon in 2964 (796 B.C.E.), he was succeeded by his son Rehoboam, who was much weaker and more easily influenced than his father. Tensions sprang up almost immediately between Jerusalem and the northern tribes over political and economic issues, including forced labor and taxes. King Rehaboam consulted the elder advisors of his father, who counseled him to be lenient and compromise with the opposition. The younger advisors suggested that Rehoboam needed to show the people who was boss. This opinion appealed to the new young king, and the results were tragic.

As a result of these disputes, at the end of Rehoboam’s first year as king, the northern tribes seceded and created the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital city first in the city of Schechem and then in the city of Samaria under the reign of Jeroboam ben Navat. Rehoboam was left with Jerusalem and the southern end of the country, and his country became known as the Kingdom of Judah. The terminology we use today, Judea and Samaria, had their origins in the split in the nation after the death of King Solomon. 

For the remainder of its existence, the Israelite nation was divided between the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

In the sixth century, an ascendent Assyrian began invading lands of the northern kingdom, and in 3205 (555 B.C.E.) Emperor Sargon II of Assyria completely conquered the entire northern part of the country and the kingdom of Israel was destroyed. The surviving population of the ten Northern Tribes were deported and resettled throughout the Assyrian Empire. Over the generations, they became assimilated and dispersed, and to this day are called the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

This was the beginning of the Jewish people becoming an exiled people.

Solomon’s Temple stood for 410 years until the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C.E. A large proportion of surviving Israelites were taken into what is known as the Babylonian Exile and established Jewish communities that became centers of Jewish life and scholarship for centuries. The multi-volume compendium of the Jewish Oral Law, known as the Talmud Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, was produced over a period of centuries in the Academies of Sura and Pumbedita.

A smaller number of Judean exiles made their way west, some settling in North Africa, as well as to the lands that would become Spain (Sefarad), France (Tzarfas), and Germany (Ashkenaz), establishing Jewish communities there.

As a result of the loss of the Northern Tribes, it is interesting to know that the majority of Jewish people in the world today are descendants of the survivors of the kingdom of Judah, which was comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as well as parts of the tribes of Simon and Levi.

So, what happened to these disparate Jewish communities now exiled to the four corners of the earth? Over the centuries of geographical separation Jews have remained an ethno-religious people. How do we define what a Jew is? On a simple level, a Jew is part of a religion, a nationality, and a culture. 

Judaism is the religion that originally defined the people. Judaism contains the laws of its peoplehood and is what forms the central element of Jewish culture that binds Jews together as a nation. Judaism defines what foods are permissible or forbidden, and the laws of kashrut thereby define an important part of Jewish culture—food! The Torah also lays out the very detailed Jewish calendar with Shabbat, the many festivals and fasts days, and it is observance of Judaism that has preserved the Hebrew language.

Over the centuries of geographical separation Jews have remained an ethno-religious people. How do we define what a Jew is? On a simple level, a Jew is part of a religion, a nationality, and a culture.

This is in contrast to Christianity and Islam, which view religion as a group of people who agree to believe the same theology, follow the same laws, and share the same values. For example, a Christian who rejects the divinity of Jesus is not considered a Christian; and a Muslim who rejects the prophecy and authority of the Koran is not a Muslim.

Judaism is different. A Jew who does not believe in God, does not adhere to Jewish laws, practices, and customs, and refuses to follow Judaism is still considered to be a Jew. Traditionally, the qualification of Jewish identity is that a person born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, though, remarkably, a gentile can become a Jew if he or she is converted according to Jewish law. It indeed is possible for non-Jews to convert to Judaism. In fact, Abraham is mistakenly referred to as the first Jew. He and his wife, Sarah, were actually the first converts to Judaism. Their son Isaac was the first born Jew.

Conversion is a controversial issue because there are different standards of conversion. The denominations of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist have changed or eliminated many of the traditional guidelines. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, therefore, we do not actively seek converts. If a person wishes to become part of the Jewish people, he or she must go through the proper procedure and have the proper motivations.

Traditionally, the qualification of Jewish identity is that a person born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, though, remarkably, a gentile can become a Jew if he or she is converted according to Jewish law.

The Torah in Exodus 22:20 states: “You shall not taunt or oppress, a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to mistreat converts, verbally, economically, religiously, or socially. Once they have properly converted, they are considered to be fully Jewish both religiously and ethnically. Little to no distinction is made in Judaism between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jewish as a result of conversion.

It is a fascinating concept that a person from a different ethnicity, and maybe even race, can go through the procedure of conversion and graft themselves onto the tree of the Jewish people, becoming a child of Abraham and Sarah. They acquire Judean ethnicity by default.

One of the most famous converts in history is Ruth, the Moabite princess. After the death of her husband and father in-law, Ruth cleaves to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi as she sets out to return to Israel. Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, and utters these famous words:

Do not implore me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may Hashem do to me—and more, if anything but death separates me from you. (Ruth 1:16–18)

Indeed, we learn many of the laws of conversion from Ruth.

Today, Jews can be broken into a number of ethnic groups. The largest Jewish group in the world today are the Ashkenazi people, which includes all the Jewish communities that settled in northern Europe, especially Germany and Poland, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.

The second-largest Jewish group are the Sephardim who settled in Spain and Portugal after the destruction of Herod’s Temple. Sephardim lived in these lands until the Christian conquest in the fifteenth century, culminating in the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. These exiles resettled across North Africa, Northwestern Europe, a few cities in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and some in the land of Israel.

The third group are called Mizrahim, and they are Jews who never left the Middle East. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., many of these Jews who were not killed or taken as slaves to Rome made their way to Persia, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.

Each one of these ethnic groups have their own cultural identities, along with major similarities with each other. Language is a major difference. Many Ashkenazim speak Yiddish, while many Sephardim speak Hebrew and Ladino, while Mizrahim speak Judeo-Arabic. Each group has developed unique customs relating to Jewish practice and observance of Jewish holidays. Each group has developed their own unique cuisine and mode of dress.

What do they have in common? Though they live in far-flung countries all over the world, they share common ancestry with the ancient Israelites. Though they may speak different languages, they all share the Hebrew language. While there may be slight differences in the prayer book of each group, the format of the prayers is the same.

Each one of these ethnic groups have their own cultural identities, along with major similarities with each other. Language is a major difference. Many Ashkenazim speak Yiddish, while many Sephardim speak Hebrew and Ladino, while Mizrahim speak Judeo-Arabic.

The bottom line is that the core that unites these disparate Jewish groups is the bedrock from which we all spring: the Torah, and ultimately the God of Abraham, the father of us all.

Today, in light of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people on October 7, 2023, and the subsequent viral explosion of anti-Semitism in major cities and academic institutions all over the world, we must be united like never before. 

As a rabbi and Jewish educator, I feel it is vital that as a community we do everything we can to strengthen Jewish education of our children and also adults. We must actively teach the Jewish connection to the land of Israel as well as its history. Too many Jews today are ignorant of the facts. We must build Jewish identity and pride so we have a community of strong minded, knowledgeable Jews.

One of the most distressing things I encountered as a campus rabbi was so many Jewish college students who were virulently anti-Israel. Many had assumed leadership positions with Israel hate groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and BendTheArc.

Having an open, intellectual conversation with these students was almost impossible, as any encounter ended with them cursing and screaming at me that I should be ashamed that I support the “Israeli apartheid state” that steals “Palestinian land” and encourages “genocide of Palestinians.” I was able to arrange to sit down with eight students for five minutes and I asked them one question: Why do you hate Israel so much? I got the same answer from them all. “Hating Israel is a very Jewish thing to do that I learned in Sunday school and heard from my
rabbi in Temple.” They told me Israel is an “apartheid state” that “steals Palestinian land and murders their children.”

They were all members of reform Temples. This is a symptom that our Jewish educational system is failing and needs an immediate remedy.

During the Second Commonwealth of our people in the land of Israel until the destruction of the Second Temple, we were known as the residents of Yehuda, or Judea, which is the source of the word “Jew.”

We were called Judeans then, and I think it is entirely appropriate for us to once again proudly identify as Judeans.

Ethnicity But Not Ethnocentric

Is Judaism an ethnicity? The fact that people even think this is remotely in question is hurtful and ignorant. But for the sake of clarity, let’s address the question formally.

First, let’s start with the accepted definition of ethnicity from the Oxford English Dictionary:

ethnicity; plural noun: ethnicities
the quality or fact of belonging to a population group or subgroup made up of people who share a common cultural background or descent.

Do Jews have a common cultural background and descent? It would be hard to argue that any people in the history of the world have more of a documented common culture and descent than the Jews. Jews have been practicing the same religion from places as far apart as Shanghai and Ethiopia for millennia, with the same key customs, prayers, and teachings. 

There’s also a scientific core of evidence backing up the “common descent” aspect of Jewish ethnicity thanks to DNA tracking technology. Almost every Jew who has sent a sample to 23andMe or a similar service has the printouts showing their DNA is more than 90 percent Jewish. There has even been a specific genetic marker identified for Jews who are known in their communities as “Cohanim” or the descendants of the priests of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. 

Jews have been practicing the same religion from places as far apart as Shanghai and Ethiopia for millennia, with the same key customs, prayers, and teachings.

What does this mean? It means Jews are a certified ethnic minority in every nation where they live other than Israel. If those nations have specific policies addressing their ethnic minorities that don’t include Jews, then that should either be changed to include them or be scrapped altogether. It means diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at colleges and corporate offices should include Jews as minorities who should be identified in their programs, or they should not exist at all. It means “Jewish” is a box that should exist for people to check when they apply for jobs online. 

Jews are a certified ethnic minority in every nation where they live other than Israel. If those nations have specific policies addressing their ethnic minorities that don’t include Jews, then that should either be changed to include them or be scrapped altogether.

But most importantly, the overwhelming evidence of Jewish ethnicity means that efforts by mostly the political left to portray Jews as simply “white people with slightly different theological beliefs” should be ripped up and thrown in the trash like the disgusting canard it truly is. It would also be nice if the undeniable truth of Jewish ethnicity lays the groundwork for eliminating all DEI programs across the country that have the ugly tendency of doing more to demonize white people than to actually elevate or advance non-white minority people in any way. 

But any discussion of Jewish ethnicity can’t simply end there, for Jewish ethnicity and tradition are different from other ethnicities in one important way: Judaism is an ethnicity, but it is not ethnocentric. 

The overwhelming evidence of Jewish ethnicity means that efforts by mostly the political left to portray Jews as simply “white people with slightly different theological beliefs” should be ripped up and thrown in the trash like the disgusting canard it truly is.

In other words, to be a Jew goes beyond just your DNA. While no Jew can ever stop being a Jew according to our tradition and Jewish law, there are some basic minimums each Jew must uphold to be considered a Jew who is still part of the community. Some of these bare minimums are religious in nature, some of them include breaking major laws that are also secular in nature, like being an unrepentant murderer or rapist, etc. On the positive side, non-Jews who go through a righteous and rigorous conversion process are not only accepted as Jews, but are officially designated as having “Jewish blood” by the religious community. That, too, flies in the face of Jewishness as merely a genetics-based ethnicity.

This is an outgrowth of the fact that Judaism takes a very proactive approach to almost everything, including the notion of human rights. It should be noted that the Torah doesn’t describe human rights as inherent rights, but as required responsibilities. For example, the Torah doesn’t say the “stranger has a right to kindness,” it puts it as, “You must be kind to the stranger,” etc. This is a far more workable way to ensure those rights are actually protected than just listing them as inherent facts, as they are listed in the U.S. Constitution. 

The above examples show how Judaism is indeed more than just an ethnicity. However, the dangerous situation Jews are used to facing in America and all over the world is a nasty effort to insist Jews are not more than just an ethnicity, but that they’re less. Many Jews in America and other Western nations have remained silent about this effort over the decades for a number of reasons. They include some level of altruistic awareness that Jews have often enjoyed more success than other minorities, and thus some of us have a sheepish feeling about insisting that we identify as oppressed or disadvantaged as other groups.

But the proper response to those well-meaning feelings is not to join or aid an effort to erase our ethnicity, but to tap into that ethnicity and follow our religion’s well-laid out teachings about how to help others.

Because we Jews should know all too well what happens when we allow ourselves to be defined as less than anyone else.

In the Image of a Hand

Jewish Identity Lesson Plan

One of the earliest memories I have about what it means to be a Jew is when my mother told me that the Jewish people are like a hand. It was January 1991. You wouldn’t know it was a January because, in Los Angeles, the California sun skates on the asphalt the same as it does in the summer months. That year, that month, Saddam Hussein, then the dictator of Iraq, initiated a missile campaign against Israel.

My mother told me that the Jewish people are like a hand because I asked her why she was crying. “You see my hand,” she said. “If I cut one of my fingers, where do you feel the pain?” I must have said, “the entire hand,” because this is when she told me that the Jewish people are like one hand; that if the Jewish people are hurting in Israel, we hurt everywhere.

I come from a Russian-speaking family. The morose nature of her analogy therefore is not unusual. But it left a lasting impression on me. Moreover, it sparked a curiosity that I have been nurturing my entire life: who are the Jewish people? And while many may consider this analogy to be fraught with burden, it has liberated me. It is a great responsibly and privilege to be part of a people not bound by time nor space.

My mother, like many Jews from the former Soviet Union, has a very different relationship to her Jewish identity than the average American Jew. And although I realize that painting people with such broad strokes immures the nuance and complexity of what it means to be a Jew, it nevertheless presents a notable difference.

To understand the predicament of the Soviet Jew, one must comprehend Marxist-Leninist ideology, which holds that the ultimate goal for all citizens is to attain class consciousness. As such, all peoples, including Jews, were to unite in a common struggle to overcome class differences. This could be achieved by jettisoning one’s religious and ethnic markers of self-identification. Religion being the “opium of the masses,” Jews in the burgeoning Soviet state were thus forbidden from practicing the rituals of religious observance. Decades of religious prohibition caused Russian-speaking Jews to become religious orphans.

The same, however, cannot be said about the attempted erasure of Jewish peoplehood. Remarkably, in a totalitarian state that rejected any form of ethnic nationalism, Jewish nationhood—peoplehood—informed Soviet Jewish identity. Jews in the Soviet Union knew they were Jews not because they watched their mothers gather the light with their hands as they blessed the Sabbath candles or their fathers wrap tefillin around their arm. They knew they were Jews because they were marked as “outsiders.” In their passports, their ethnicity was penciled in: evrei (Jew). It was not, of course, solely the Jews who were ethnically marked: Ukrainians, Armenians, and Belarusians, for example, held passports with their ethnic identity similarly displayed. But in marking the Jew as an ethnic minority, the Soviets may have caused Jewish nationalism to flower.

So much so that when Golda Meir, the Minister to the Soviet Union from Israel, visited the Moscow synagogue in 1948, hundreds of Russian-speaking Jews flocked to see her. They rejoiced and held their heads high for before them was the promise of Jewish dignity. This sent Chairman of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin into a panic. And lest anyone believe that Stalin’s paranoia was limited to the common Soviet citizen, among the Russian-speaking Jews who gathered to greet Meir during her state visit was Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of Vyacheslav Molotov, second in command to Stalin himself. Zhemchuzhina, née Perl Solomonovna, who had devoted her entire adult life to serving the communist state, was accused of spying for the West and, for being a Zionist—the supreme form of Jewish nationalism—she was expelled from the party and exiled to the Gulag. Indeed, for the “sin” of Jewish nationalism, what many would call Jewish pride today, Stalin revived the oldest hatred. Anti-Semitism, which during the early Soviet period was outlawed by Bolshevik architect Vladimir Lenin, returned with a vengeance. Jews were targeted, accused of spying for the West and for expressing overt Jewish nationalism: Zionism.

Ironically, against the backdrop of a revival of anti-Semitism, Jewish identity began to flourish. Yes, as a reaction to anti-Semitism, but also because Israel, restored in 1948, signaled what had already been beaten into them: if they are ethnically Jewish, then their home must be Israel. It is for this reason that Zionism resonates so strongly for Russian-speaking Jews. Jews from the former Soviet Union, unlike their American Jewish counterparts, are not fazed by the particularism of a Jewish state because they know they are a particular people. 

Of the far-reaching tension between particularism and universalism, the great American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick once told a story:

A man comes to a university and asks a student, “Who are you?” 
The student responds, “I am a Catholic.” 
He then asks the second student, “And you?” 
The student responds, “I am Episcopal.” 
The man then asks the third student. “And how about you?” 
The third student responds, “I am a citizen of the world.” 
“Ah!” proclaims the man, “You are the Jew.”

This clever tale reveals the collective portrait of the diaspora Jew, a Jew who willfully gravitates toward universalism and thus denies his particularism. But not the Soviet Jew (don’t get me wrong, many if not a majority of the those who helped to build the Soviet State, were Jews). By the 1940s, and most definitely, by the 1950s, Soviet Jews knew very well who they are: a nation. This is what my mother taught me: that, above all, to be a Jew is to be part of Am Yisrael; that to be a Jew is to inherit a civilization that brought to the world ethical monotheism; that to be a Jew is a great privilege, for we are a people not bound by time nor space; that to be a Jew is to be a Judean. 

Like other Soviet Jews, for whom religious rituals became obsolete, my mother turned to Jewish literature written by Sholom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Dovid Bergelson, and, most notably, the German-Jewish writer Leon Feuchtwanger, whose historical fiction captured the enormity of a small nation’s history. Books, then, became a vital vessel of knowledge. The importance of secular literature dealing with Jewish history cannot be overstated in the case of Russian Jewry since this literary corpus was, in large part, what made Russian-speaking Jews acutely aware of collective Jewish history. As the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “History answers the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory answers the question, ‘Who, then, am I?’” Jewish identity, at once diverse and protean, has therefore one constant: collective memory.

Soviet Jews knew very well who they are: a nation. This is what my mother taught me: that, above all, to be a Jew is to be part of Am Yisrael; that to be a Jew is to inherit a civilization that brought to the world ethical monotheism; that to be a Jew is a great privilege, for we are a people not bound by time nor space; that to be a Jew is to be a Judean.

Collective memory happens to a people. Together we remember Egypt, the destruction of the Second Temple, the story of Purim, the story of our short-lived experience in Europe culminating with the Holocaust; conversely, together we celebrate freedom from enslavement, life, the giving of the Torah, the strength of the Maccabees, and, most recently, the revival of our national homeland, the Land of Israel. Because we are a family, we celebrate seminal events together. This, then, is the lesson of what it means to belong not just to a small nation but a large family.

Thirty-two years have passed since I learned that the Jewish people are a hand. I have devoted much of my adult life to educating both youth and adults on the history of the Jewish people and not to make them simply aware of their history, but to galvanize their Jewish identity. I have observed the unfortunate phenomenon of Jewish adults who had their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs or attended twelve grades in a community Jewish day school struggle to explain Jewish identity. Most of the time, they cite Jewish values: tikkun olam, chesed (kindness), or tzedek (justice). While one can indeed argue that kindness can just as easily be a Christian value because Christianity inherited a moral code from the Jews, the ways in which these values are presented to Jewish youth emphasize the universality rather than the Jewish context from which they stem. Even in Jewish Orthodox schools, where I must admit students demonstrate excellent literacy in the Torah and Talmud, the centrality of ethnicity to Jewish identity is still missing

Because we are a family, we celebrate seminal events together. This, then, is the lesson of what it means to belong not just to a small nation but a large family.

My desirous vision for Jewish education is rooted in lessons on peoplehood and collective Jewish memory. It is therefore my honor to share one such lesson that I have developed on Jewish identity and peoplehood with readers of White Rose Magazine. Employing the backward design method, I begin by setting the educational goals. Next, I think about the type of transformation I want to elicit from my students: affective or behavioral. Put differently, what would I like for my students to do with the knowledge they just received? Do I seek an emotional or behavior shift?

In the lesson that I developed, the objectives which I have outlined below, prompt students to act; with the knowledge that Jews are an ethnicity, students are equipped to understand that anti-Zionism is an attack on their Jewish identity. With this knowledge, they will be better prepared to take on today’s most potent variant of the oldest hatred, anti-Zionism.

Lesson Title: “Who are the Jewish People? The Story of a Hand”

Desired Student Age: Middle and High School

Length of Lesson: 90 minutes

Lesson Objectives:

  1. Understand the primary difference between a religious and ethnic identity.  
  2. Unpack the five concepts foundational to Jewish history and collective memory.
  3. Trace the origins of the Jewish people as well as the origins of the term “Palestine.”

Lesson Goals: What will students be able to do with this knowledge?

  1. By understanding that the Jewish people are first and foremost an ethnicity, Jews in the diaspora will be able to better understand their own history in order to combat anti-Zionism.
  2. By examining these five leading concepts, Jewish identity will be fortified.
  3. By tracing the origins of the term “Palestine,” we will be better equipped to combat the lie that Israel is an occupational force or that Jews come from anywhere other than Israel.

Download a PDF of the lesson plan here.

My Name is Judea: The Story of a People + a Girl

Synopsis of short story:

Target Age: 8–13-years-old

Have you ever wondered why your parents named you the way they did?
Do you think your name is important to your identity?
Have you ever wondered what your name means?
What would you do if someone would purposefully call you by a name you really didn’t like? 

This is a story about Judea, a girl who faces bullying in school by a group of kids who purposefully call her not by her given name. The more that Judea tries to show to the students that her name is Judea, the more proof she brings, the bullying increases. In time, even the school administrators, teachers, and students forget her real name and Judea herself wonders whether her name is really Judea. She begins to doubt her reality, her sense of self and identity. 

It is her extended family, however, who plays a critical role in reminding Judea of her familial roots, and that her great-grandfather, Judah, is whom she is named after. And in the process of reminding Judea to reclaim her identity, the young girl is empowered. She decides that she will not be a victim and instead, proclaim her name aloud! 

By now you’ve figured out that Judea’s story is the story of the Jewish people and their homeland, Israel. For thousands of years, in the hands of several empires, the original name of Israel—Judea—was renamed. The Romans wanted the world to forget about Judea and the holy city of Jerusalem, so they named it Palestina. But the Jewish family is strong. And just like in the case of Judea’s family, who played a central role in reminding and inspiring Judea to reclaim her identity, the Jewish people’s hearts moved as they longed for a return to their homeland. These Jewish family members were known as Zionists. 

Chapter One

On the first day of school, the teacher laid out the name tags. Mrs. Uma Nathans was excited to greet the fifth-grade class. She took great care to make sure that each name tag was a different color. As she was waiting for the children to enter the classroom, Mrs. Nathans smiled, recalling her school days. 

The bell rang and the kids bounced into the classroom. To Mrs. Nathans, they were still nameless: cheerful smiles and bouncy bodies. “My name is Mrs. Uma Nathans. I want to get to know you,” she said as the kids settled into their seats. “I want you to come up to the name tags that I have placed on this table,” she showed them, “and write your name. After you have done this, I would like you to share with us what your name means, why your parents named you this way. For example, I am named after my great-aunt Ursa, who lived during the time of the suffrage. She was a leader for women and their right to vote!” Mrs. Nathans demonstrated to the students.

Some of the kids already knew one another from previous years. “Hannah,” Miriam turned to her friend, “I never knew why you are called Hannah. This is going to be fun!” Student after student, each took a name tag and proudly wrote their names. 

“But what if we don’t know why we are named the way we are?” a boy shot up.

“That’s ok,” Mrs. Nathans observed. “This will be your homework and you can report back to the class tomorrow.” The boy took the nametag as if it was a treasure, his eyes lighting up with curiosity.  

Chapter Two

Judea was new to the school. Her family had just moved from New York. California was beaming with sunshine she was not so accustomed to. Back home, she had many friends and though she was nervous, she looked forward to meeting new people. She took the purple-colored name tag, as purple was her favorite color. With great care she wrote her name, letter by letter, and stuck the tag on her shirt. When it was her turn to share, she said, “My name is Judea. My mother and my father named me Judea in honor of my great-grandfather, Judah.” She paused and looked around, as if looking for him. “But I never met him.” 

Being new to school comes with many challenges, of course, and when she shared about her name, she noticed kids chuckling in their seats, whispering to one another, most likely about her name, she thought. 

“Thank you for sharing with us, Judea,” Mrs. Nathans tried to quiet the room. In no time, all the kids shared their names, and the bell rang. “That’s recess!” Mrs. Nathans proclaimed. “Make sure to eat a snack and drink your water, it’s a hot day today.” 

Chapter Three

The kids ran out of the classroom as if they were participating in the Olympiads. They burst onto the playground and began to group themselves with their friends. Judea, on the other hand, did not have any friends yet. She stood aside, observing the kids, and hoped that one of the kids would come up and play with her. 

“Hey Paula!” one of the girls shouted toward Judea. She didn’t respond and looked back. Perhaps there was another girl behind her name Paula. But during the sharing they did in class, Judea did not remember any Paula.

“Yeah, you! Paula!” Molly teased.

“Oh, I’m not Paula, I’m Judea,” she corrected Molly. The girls circling Molly began to laugh. Like parrots, they flocked around one another, and repeated the name “Paula” over and over again. Judea felt a knot in her throat and her eyes began to water. She turned red and ran back to the classroom.

The bell rang and the kids gathered slowly around the class door. 

Chapter Four

That evening, Judea came home and hardly ate her dinner. “How was school?” her mother inquired, noticing that Judea did not touch her favorite grilled potatoes and cucumber and tomato salad. 

“Not so good mom,” Judea remarked. “The kids weren’t very nice,” Judea went on, describing how they teased her and didn’t address her by her name. 

Judea’s mom furrowed her brows, came to give her daughter a hug and said, “Sometimes kids can be mean… especially to new kids. I’m sure it will be fine. Let’s take it day by day.”

That evening, Judea lay in her bed and couldn’t fall asleep. For the first time in her life, she wondered why she had this name. It was also the first time that she realized that she does not know any other Judeas. Maybe her name was too old-fashioned? She thought. Maybe it sounded weird? Or maybe they just didn’t like the way it looked written out on her name tag. Doubt began to fill her mind as dawn greeted her bedroom window. 

Chapter Five

Apprehensive about the second day of school, Judea walked into the classroom, this time with her head hanging a little low. She didn’t want to call attention to herself and tried her hardest to be silent. But during recess, the flock of kids grew, as if they had planned this round of mockery. They gathered in the yard, but unlike yesterday, they did not split into groups of friends. “Paula! Paula!” They pointed at her while mocking her. 

She turned around and ran to the classroom. Judea turned just to check if they followed her; they did not. She sat low to the ground, her face buried in her hands. She could hear laughs and giggles from her classmates, and she cried harder. She cried because she was embarrassed. She cried because she was humiliated. The rest of recess, if someone asked where Judea was, they would find her hiding away from her tormentors, far far from the playground. 

Mrs. Nathans was not on yard duty that day but noticed Judea’s red puffy face as the kids trailed back into the classroom. The class settled and she pulled out the map of the world, concentrating on the fertile crescent and the ancient map of Mesopotamia. When the bell rang for lunch, Mrs. Nathans noticed that Judea did not stand up. “Are you not going to eat your lunch?” she asked. 

“Is it okay if I eat my lunch inside today?” Judea asked. 

Mrs. Nathans was no stranger to the many cases of bullying she had witnessed throughout the years. “Judea,” she said, “is everything alright?”

Judea did not answer with words, just with her body. From aside she looked like the number 2, her head sinking down. “It will get better,” Mrs. Nathans comforted Judea, “it’s just the beginning of the year. Give it some time.” 

Chapter Six

Some time did, indeed, pass, but nothing changed. In fact, it only got worse. The more that Judea tried to prove to her peers that her name really was Judea, the more they laughed and taunted her. “You could have forged those papers, Paula!” Molly, the ringleader, folded her arms across her chest as Judea showed them her identification card, with the letters of her name in bold writing. It was impossible. Nothing she did could have convinced them otherwise. 

Every time they didn’t call her by her given name, it was as if her family’s history did not exist. Worse: It was as if she did not exist. She began to doubt everything, to doubt whether there really was a great-grandfather named Judah. At home, she retreated further into herself, spending most of her time in her room, looking at the blank California streets. She didn’t even respond to “Judea” when her parents called her name. 

Chapter Seven

Toward the end of the school year, Judea heard that her family from New York was coming to visit. For the first time in many months, her heart was lifted with joy. She would see her cousins, uncles, and aunts again. For once, in a very long time, she had been hopeful. She went to school and didn’t mind the taunting; she even ignored her bullies. “Paula!” Molly shouted, trying to get Judea’s attention. But she was lost in the sweet thought of seeing her family soon. 

That evening, the door swung open, and the many familiar faces appeared before her eyes. She ran to Esther, her cousin with whom she had grown up. They had not seen one another for almost an entire year. “My, how our Judea has grown!” Esther’s mother remarked as she ran her fingers through Judea’s copper coils. 

As the family members trickled in, one by one, Judea noticed a man she did not recognize. He was tall and stately and wore a gray-striped suit. He was old and seemed to be fragile like a vase that could break at any moment. “Come, come, Jacob,” Judea’s mom took his stuff as she ushered him in. “Please, please feel at home.” 

He took a big breath and searched for the nearest place to sit, his legs tired from the journey. “Thank you, dear Ruth,” he found the armchair in the living room and sunk into it.

Judea watched from behind the wall. “Why are you hiding?” Esther asked.

Judea turned to her cousin and said, “Who is that? I’ve never seen him before.”

“That’s Jacob, Judah’s son,” Esther explained.

“Who?” Judea said aloud. 

“You know, Judah, our great grandfather…?” Esther looked at her cousin a bit surprised. 

Judea remained silent.

“You’re different,” Esther observed. 

“I am different,” Judea snapped back. 

The evening was still early, and Ruth invited everyone to the table. She helped Jacob get seated at the head of the table and said, “We are all so happy to be together again. And so excited that our dear Jacob could be with us here.” 

Everyone smiled and shared their latest news. Everyone, except Judea. It was as if she was not there, but rather observing everyone else. Jacob was a funny man, funny because he spoke with a slight accent. Though she tried to avoid him, deep down inside Judea was curious who he was.

All this was too much for Judea. It was as if she were living two lives. The one at school where she was Paula and the one here, at home, where she was still called Judea. Who was she? 

Chapter Eight

The school year was coming to an end, and Mrs. Nathans had a surprise for the class. She had kept all the name tags from the first day and wanted to give them to the students so that they would have something to remember their fifth-grade year. She put the tags into a ziplocked bag and carefully placed it in her purse. As they bounced into the class, Mrs. Nathans recalled her excitement from the first day of school. 

“I have a surprise for you all!” she announced as they hurried into their seats. And she pulled the ziplocked bag out and waved it triumphantly. Judea felt the familiar feeling of the knot in her throat. 

“Our name tags!” the students shouted. And they jumped out of the seats like rockets into outer space. 

“I found mine!”

“Mine too!”

“Wow I used to write like a chicken!”

Judea did not get up from her seat. She sat frozen. 

“Aren’t you going to get your name tag?” Molly returned to her seat and looked at Judea. “Oh wait, there isn’t one for you! I didn’t see a Paula in the pile!” 

Mrs. Nathans quietly approached Judea’s desk and placed the name tag on the desk. “This is yours,” she said. Judea stared at the letters J-U-D-E-A but did not recognize her name. Out of habit, when the school day was coming to an end, she gathered all the papers from her desk, and stuffed them in her backpack. She did not mean to take the nametag with “Judea” on it, but it must have attached itself to one of the piles and thus found its way into Judea’s backpack. 

Chapter Nine

At home, Judea stood in the kitchen, cleaning out her backpack. She removed old papers, worn-down erasers, and pencils that had stopped working. The papers flew out of her backpack and the nametag fell on the tip of her shoe. She bent down, grabbed it, and headed straight to the trash. 

“That’s my favorite color, too,” Jacob, who had been sitting in the armchair turned to Judea and pointed to his lavender polo shirt. Ceremoniously, Judea smiled. “What are you throwing out?” he asked.

Judea had been trying to avoid Jacob all week. But for some reason, the tenderness in his voice and his warm eyes beckoned to her. She turned and walked toward him. “This…” she showed him the purple nametag. 

“Why do you have a nametag?” he asked. She explained and asked him to have it back. His hands shook and the nametag trembled in them like a leaf on a windy day. “Do you know why you are called Judea?” he asked. The familiar knot formed in her throat again. 

She shook her head. 

“Of course, she knows!” Judea’s mother shouted from the kitchen. 

“I don’t,” Judea said and hesitated before saying, “I don’t even know why I am called the way I am called, who this great-grandfather Judah was or if he ever truly existed!” It all came out of her like a waterfall. Jacob looked confused and her mother came out of the kitchen. All her emotions, her anger and sadness poured forth, and she cried. 

“But of course, there was a man named Judah, and he was my father,” Jacob explained. He proceeded to tell Judea all about his father, where he was born and where he grew up. And that during the war he lost all of his family members, and that he met his wife, Jacob’s mother, after the war. Judea listened and looked at her mother, who nodded all along the way. 

“Your great-grandfather was a very special man. He survived great horrors and lived to tell us his story. You must know his story!” Jacob became animated. It was the first time during that visit that Judea observed Jacob so passionate. As she wiped her tears, Jacob continued to speak about his father. “So you see,” Jacob still held onto the nametag. “Your name carries the memory and life of a great man!”

Chapter Ten

On the last day of school, Judea chose to wear her name tag proudly on the front of her shirt. And every time the kids attempted to tease or make fun of her, she raised her head that much higher. From that day on, she decided not to be defined by her bullies. When she realized that it was up to her and her alone to proclaim with great pride that her name was Judea, she was not easily swayed.

So that everywhere she went she would declare: “My name is Judea! My great-grandfather was called Judah. He was a great man.” 


By now you’ve figured out that Judea’s story is the story of the Jewish people and their homeland, Israel. For thousands of years, in the hands of several empires, the name of the Jewish kingdom—Judea—was renamed. The Romans wanted the world to forget about Judea and the holy city of Jerusalem, so they named it Palestina. But the Jewish family is strong. And just like in the case of Judea’s family who played a central role in reminding and inspiring Judea to reclaim her identity, the Jewish people’s hearts moved as they longed for a return to their homeland. 

These Jewish family members were known as Zionists. 

In 70 A.D. the Jewish Kingdom of Judea fell under the ruthless hands of the Romans. For long, the Romans had despised the Judeans. And when they finally destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews from it, they decided to rename Judea to Palestina. They did this because it was not enough for the Romans to destroy the Jewish kingdom; no, they wanted to obliterate its name from memory. So that no one would ever remember that there was a Judea. To show their pride of conquering Judea, the Romans minted a coin they called “Judea Capta.”

But the Jewish heart does not wane; the two-thousand exile, known as the diaspora, culminated with the Holocaust, a most evil case of anti-Semitism. And still, the Jewish heart did not waver. The Jews have longed for Zion and the return to their Promised Homeland. The Jewish family members who fought for a return to Eretz Yisrael were known as Zionists. These were men and women who left Eastern Europe to rebuild their homeland. These were also men and women who worked very hard to convince the world that the Jewish people are like any other people who have a rich national past. The Zionists did not just believe that the Jewish people deserved their own land, but must return to their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. To celebrate their liberation, Israel minted a coin in 1953, called “Israel Liberata.” This special coin is evidence that though the world may have wanted to forget about Judea, the Jewish people never did. 

Video: Halleluya

The Canvas of The Divine

In Conversation with Lakshmi Ambady

How often have you looked up at the skies and wondered at a majestic mountain, an archaic dinosaur, or bunny rabbits running around up in the sky?

While we may often be bemused by the shapes and formations up there, and we may even get into an argument with a friend as to whether what we see is a grazing cow or a racing horse, the clouds themselves are totally ignorant about how they look to us. They just sail through the wind with absolutely no idea of whether they present an admirable form to the humans below or an appalling one.

It is us, humans, who project these forms to those clouds as per our inclination and temperament.

The entire creation, the whole universe, the cosmos in totality, just gushes through as a flow of the divine. Neither does the sun paint the skies with awe-inspiring hues at sunrise or sunset, nor do the clouds and rains have any intent to play spoilsport to our beach parties and world cup finals.

We are the ones sitting by the side of the stream, interpreting all waves, currents, and eddies being formed in the flow. The stream, on its own, neither has an intent to float our boats to our destinations, nor to drown us by its turbulence.

Different individuals may interpret this painting by Lakshmi Ambady differently, depending on the context available to them.

However, no Indian would have any ambiguity in identifying this painting as representing Shiva. 

What does an art work like the painting shown above add to something that has a well-defined iconography?

The Power of Blur

Formless is where all possibilities of creation exit. In the realm of formless, anything and everything is possible.

At this level, there is no manifestation. It is like the lump of clay which could be sculpted whichever way you want, but there’s no sculpture yet.

Form is the last step in the process of manifestation. Form emerges when manifestation is complete, and there is little possibility of anything else to show up.

Quantum Mechanics refers to this as the ‘collapse of the wave function.’

Traditional Representation of Shiva 

A picture depicting the concrete form of Shiva describes details every aspect of what Shiva stands for. The crescent moon, the snake around the neck, the trident—all have a well-defined significance. 

There is very little to imagine and project other than what is depicted in a photograph.

“Shiva” by Lakshmi Ambady

 An art work is open to interpretation, and could mean different, often contrasting things to viewers.

The smudge could refer to the essential formlessness of Shiva as embodiment of Pure consciousness, his ineffability, his omnipresence and effervescence, or his association with ‘dissolution.’

Dissolution – the Essence of Creation

In Indian philosophy, creation and dissolution go hand in hand. 

Creation is the process that brings sub-atomic particles into a combination that creates forms. 

There is a complete hierarchical structure to our reality. The physical form is the starting point, but that alone doesn’t constitute our reality. Beyond the static form are dynamic events.

A hand colliding with a cheek is an event. A pain response triggered by it makes it a little more significant.

However, it is when we interpret it as an assault on our dignity and self-respect, that it comes alive as an act of “slapping.”

Dissolution is not the same as destruction.

Dissolution is the process of the peeling away of the layers of our reality. It is the gradual blurring of the form into a state of formlessness where new creation is possible.

It starts with the shredding of our stories and interpretations and dissolving our emotional reactions. This allows us to view the elements of our reality beyond our personal traumas and sufferings, as objective building blocks, which, like free radicals that can then be re-assembled in new ways to create an entirely new reality. 

Lakshmi Ambady and her ‘Place of Dissolution’

In this edition, we explore the finer intricacies of Indian art and spirituality through the paintings and poetry of Lakshmi Ambady, an artist based out of Bangalore. Through a strong social media presence, she has a global following of her art. Many of her art works end up getting tens of millions of views.

Lakshmi’s paintings are reflection of a deep immersion and devotion. She picks up simple themes and creates works of art that reflect simple elements of composition, but ring a deep resonance, especially with those who understand the context of Indian spirituality well. 

Her artwork, like her persona, has a simplicity laced with amazing depth, grace, elegance, and aesthetics.

She uses Layasthana as her artist name. Literally, it means the place for dissolution.

Anyone attuned to Indian philosophy knows this is synonymous with the place for creation.

Form vs. Formlessness

Form, once recognized and seen, cannot be un-recognized or un-seen.

The Indian seers knew that Existence is infinite in nature. The moment we scoop out a spoonful of the Universe, we’ve acknowledged we are looking at a finite segment of Existence which is bound to be limited.

Hence, there are no ‘absolutes’ in Indian thought. The key point is not ‘which is the right interpretation,’ but ‘which interpretation resonates with us the most.’

‘Krishna’ by Lakshmi Ambady 

To anyone familiar with Krishna, this painting represents Krishna. The painting depicts two hands holding a flute, with no portrayal of a body or a face. 

It depicts the infiniteness of Krishna. It shows Krishna as the one who is ONE with the entire cosmos.

There are two ways to infinity.

The popular way of depicting infinity is through largeness and expansion. Any mathematician would tell you that infinity is NOT ‘extremely large or expanded finiteness.’ A number, howsoever large, is finite.

Mathematicians define infinity as that which remains unchanged even when anything is added to it or subtracted from it. 

That’s how one of the prominent Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, defines the Divine: 

This is perfect and whole. That is perfect and whole. When anything is taken away from the whole, what remains is the whole.

Infinity is not about quantitative expansion, but a paradigm shift.

In the above art work, Lakshmi arrives at the idea of Krishna’s cosmic form not through an expansion of the form, but through dissolution of the form and a merging with the cosmos. 

It is not two hands playing the flute, but the entire cosmos enchanting us with its surreal melody.

Grasping the Formless

The Divine is essentially formless, but it is impossible to depict ‘formlessness.’

Some cultures approach this dilemma by prohibiting any depiction of the form of Divine.

Indian spirituality goes the other way—it provides complete freedom to depict Divine.

The complexity of representing the formless provides for the creation of a rich cultural heritage seamlessly intertwined with spiritual content.

“Shoonya” by Lakshmi Ambady 

This painting by Lakshmi is titled Shoonya – the emptiness. 

Emptiness signifies something that doesn’t exist. How could a painting capture something that does not exist? Something can only be depicted in terms of something else that exists.

Lakshmi depicts the zero or the emptiness by relating it to galaxies, planets, stars, even us – everything is born out of that nothingness and crumbles back to it.

This has a resemblance to the Indian concept of the indistinguishably of the Creator from the Creation. While the Creator, in His formless existence is beyond the grasp of our minds and senses, we can perceive and grasp the Creation, that explodes out of the Creator and would eventually implode and subside back to Him.

The Canvas of the Divine

What exactly is as an art?

Not every movement can be classified as dance, not all collection of notes a tune, nor every splash of color or pretty picture be called an artwork.

What characterizes an art? 

When does a creation become worthy of being classified as a piece of art?

What distinguishes a masterpiece painting from a pretty photograph?

Art is characterized by distinct intellectual and emotional stimulation.

It is just about feeling great or evoking happy emotions. It is not about whether you like what you see.

A deep art work often evokes a myriad of complex, and often contrasting emotions and thoughts. 

Lakshmi calls this painting The Mind. It reflects the different levels of mind – the visible and conspicuous parts of the mind that grab all spotlight, as well as those invisible silhouettes – the subconscious – that drives everything, as well as the unconscious – that control our personalities. 

There are elements in the painting that you may not care to mention if you were to describe this painting, but they silently and subtly add to the overall composition of the painting to provide it the vibes it emanates.

When we describe a person, including ourselves, we describe conspicuous and tangible elements, but the real persona is shaped by the intangible – the subconscious and the unconscious.

Apart from this intellectual dimension, the painting has an emotional content that is open to the interpretation. 

Does this reflect a grim and sordid lonely night, or does it reflect infinite peace and stillness? 

Is it about someone hiding away from the sufferings of the world, mourning his loneliness, or feeling complete in this natural splendour?

Does the individual in the painting want to disappear in the darkness because life is a grind and has nowhere else to go, or does he simply want to melt away in the darkness and disappear into the oneness of this spectacle?

Another depiction of the full moon by Lakshmi includes the iconic characters of Indian culture, Krishna and his divine consort, Radha.

The image represents much more than beautiful moon or two lovers lost in romance. 

The ineffability of an art-work leads to a state of immersive silence and stillness, which is a form of dissolution too.

An embodiment of total surrender

This painting, my favourite from Lakshmi’s creations, sums up all points discussed.

In this painting, you see the glitters of the jewelry, but even without a clear-cut outline, one can identify the form of the Goddess in this painting. 

The painting indicates the Goddess’ oneness with the entire cosmos – essentially formless and unmanifest, but her presence shines forth in our lives that assures us of her presence, showing us the way all along.

Lakshmi complements the painting with a poem – 

What a fine mistake it was
To allow Her to preside this throne I made.
She’s seeped into every pore of my life,
With a demeanour I’ve never felt.

She’s taken the liberty to drive my time
And take me to places I have never been.
I choicelessly am being chaperoned,
Through spaces now with no particular intent.

The poem represents the intricacies of how a devotee looks up to the divine. 

Lakshmi doesn’t say the goddess takes her to the best of the best of places. She says the goddess takes her to places she has never been

A devotee doesn’t look at the divine as a wish-fulfilling-tree or a cash-cow.

The devotee is willing to go with the divine on a hitch-hiking trip of the cosmos, exploring the mysteries of the universe and the mysteries of her own existence.

Lakshmi’s poetry book,  Moon, Snakes, Love has poems elucidating her spiritual insights with great precision.


The poetry of Lakshmi Ambady is a verbal equivalent of her paintings. She presents her poems as an intricate visual narrative.

In the poem shared below, she describes how a spiritual aspirant prepares herself for her spiritual journey, which includes emptying herself of everything that is ‘hers’ to create space for the divine which not only immerses her with divinity, but transforms her beyond recognition.


Pages of conceit, she burns,
Before she steps in.
She deserts it all
To make room for him.
Slivers of vanity,
She leaves behind-
Everything that shan’t allow 
To seep him in.

All she carrier with her
Is unbending readiness
And devotion,
Her companion, constant.
And when she steps out,
She indeed, never would.
But what you knew of her,
Shall be a memory, so distant.

This takes the proverbial emptying of one’s cup a step ahead to completely destroying the cup, so that the divine could create its golden chalice within us, and fill it to the brim with its intoxicating bliss.

Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/layasthana

Layasthana Website: https://www.layasthana.com

In this brief conversation, we explore the state of Consciousness that Lakshmi brings to her art – paintings and poetry.

NS : Your social media handles identify you as ‘Layasthana.’ What does it mean? 

LA: Layasthana is a term that originates from Sanskrit, a classical language of India. In Sanskrit, Laya refers to dissolution or absorption, and sthana means place or position

Therefore, Layasthana can be interpreted to mean the place or state of dissolution or absorption, often used in the context of spiritual or philosophical discussions. In every spiritual pursuit, the ultimate goal is achieving moksha or liberation, signifying merging with the ultimate reality. This entails “dissolving” into a state of the divine. 

My artist name, “Layasthana,” aptly reflects this concept. I’ve chosen art as a means to dissolve boundaries and enable others to experience, even momentarily, a sense of dissolution when engaging with my artwork.

NS : All of your art – paintings and poetry – reflect deep devotion and surrender. They indicate how you have let gone of all oars and are floating through life in the flow of divine. 

How would you describe this state of consciousness so immersed in devotion and surrender?

LA: That’s a very beautiful question. Before addressing that though, let me talk about the essence of devotion. A devotee, fundamentally, is an individual who has set themselves aside. It’s akin to a love-affair but the only difference is that here a reciprocation isn’t expected. Referred to as Bhakti Yoga, it stands as a path of spiritual dedication centred on profound love, fervour, and surrender to a higher dimension. When one is overwhelmed by something or someone, a natural inclination toward devoutness ensues. 

A devotee comprehends realms that may be beyond our conception. They can grasp concepts that we might struggle with because there’s less of “themselves”. There’s very little room for transcendent experiences, when one is too full of themselves.

In this specific poem, when I expressed allowing the goddess to permeate the essence of my existence, I meant that I was profoundly moved by her presence, yielding space for her dominance in my life. What we identify as a deity is essentially an elevated form of intelligence. Therefore, by yielding control to her, I implied that my life is now guided by this superior intelligence. 

If indeed it is superior, wouldn’t I inherently trust it to lead me away from distress? Even if it does lead to hardship, shouldn’t I have faith that it’s solely for my personal development and growth?

3. Why do you create art? How do you create art?

LA: The primary motivation behind people engaging in art, music, or poetry is often to “express” themselves. Many of these expressions emerge from their repressions and tend to be compulsive and unconscious. We know that any form of expression carries a particular vibrancy of energy, and its strength or weakness largely depends on the artist creating it. 

This is an experiment worth attempting: consistently engage with a piece of music that carries intense pain and desolation for a week. You will gradually observe how this energy starts to overlay onto your life, seeping into your daily activities and influencing your overall energy levels.

Now imagine the kind of art and music individuals devoid of genuine joy and exuberance are producing in the world?

However, in Eastern philosophies, the priority was to first establish oneself in yoga or inner equilibrium before engaging in outside actions. “Yogasthah Kuru Karmani” means, first establish your way of being – then act. In essence, when you establish an internal balance, the compulsive urge to express diminishes. You can then choose to express because you genuinely wish to, and when others witness such an expression, it brings them immense joy.

Here, I want to stress the responsibility that artists carry. I personally refrain from creating artwork when I’m disturbed because inevitably, that emotional state would seep into the art, providing an unpleasant experience for viewers. I see the act of painting or writing poetry itself as a form of sadhana. 

Sadhana serves as a “tool” crafted to facilitate the evolution of one’s consciousness. Therefore, when I engage in painting, I often disconnect from the world and my thoughts, allowing it to become a spontaneous outpouring.

Lately, my artworks have evolved from simple expressions to explorations. Whenever I encounter a new concept or deity in my textual readings that I’m unfamiliar with, I delve into research. Subsequently, I attempt to depict it visually through painting. Thus, the majority of my recent pieces revolve around my self-education about the diverse facets of Hinduism, embracing and being awed by the vast spectrum of knowledge it holds.

NS: A lot of your poems in your poetry book “Moon, Snakes and Love” talk about emptying, silence, stillness, thoughts dying out. Is this a denial of this human existence?

Is this existence just a wait-over to meet divine? Does it have no significant on its own?

LA: What you refer to as “Shiva” embodies the ultimate representation of dynamic action and serene stillness—a profound state to exist in. Stillness, in this context, doesn’t imply immobility or a lack of contribution to the world. On the contrary, actions stemming from inner tranquillity yield conscious and responsible actions and not those that are compulsive. The issue lies in our prolonged emphasis on the significance of our thoughts and mind, which, in comparison to the vastness of the universe, is rather minuscule. 

As one begins to detach from the mind through meditation, the inherent stillness of existence becomes apparent, as the essence of existence is stillness. When you taste even a fragment of stillness, suddenly, your life radiates exuberant intensity and you begin to live differently.

The question of existence being distinct or detached from divinity won’t emerge when one perceives the interwoven nature of all life-forms and the splendour of life’s intelligence. The notion that human existence exists on its “own” doesn’t truly surface when the interconnectedness and magnificence of life become apparent. In essence, everything is energy, just throbbing in varying levels. What you call “divine” is just another vibration of this energy.

NS: A lot of your paintings have a kind of blur which to me as represent an honest attempt to represent energy and consciousness, which do not inherently have a form.

How do you look at your own paintings? What do you often try to communicate through your paintings?

LA: In Indian aesthetics and spiritual philosophy, there is a mood called “Ananda Rasa” which literally translates to the “juice of bliss”. Ananda Rasa specifically embodies the sensation of joy, bliss, or divine ecstasy evoked through artistic expression, emphasizing the idea of transcending ordinary emotions to experience a heightened sense of joy or divine bliss through the appreciation of art and aesthetics. 

Any form of art – poetry, music, theatre, dance aims to create this moment of non-bridging of mind and body in the audience. This is essentially what meditation is – to move towards a no-mind. Which means that the one of the major impediments to experiencing bliss, is the mind. In other words, if one can create art from a no-mind, it can evoke a feeling of bliss in the artist and the audience, however momentary it is. Then art becomes meditative. Then art has the power to transform and inspire.

Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader and mystic from the 20th century categorises art into two – subjective and objective. The modern art he calls subjective art. The ancient art — the real art — the people who made the pyramids, the people who made the Taj Mahal, the people who made the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, they were of a totally different kind. He calls that art objective art. Objective art means something that helps you to become centered, that helps you to become healthy and whole. This art will be just a device for your inner growth, for maturity.

He is saying the same thing using a different language. 

Every day, I receive messages from individuals expressing how some of these artwork serves as a temporary escape from their thoughts. It wouldn’t be accurate to claim that I deliberately create these moments for them, as I lack a specific technique. However, it’s not accidental either. All I know is how to keep my mind aside while I create a piece. Naturally then, it carries the possibility to create an “Ananda Rasa” in the audience.

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