Hardships, humor and heritage: What it means to be Jewish today

Quinn Cooper, 7, of Sacramento wears a “Jew fro” during the 2015 Jewish Heritage Festival at Raley Field on Sunday. The annual event, organized by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, celebrates Israel’s independence.
Quinn Cooper, 7, of Sacramento wears a “Jew fro” during the 2015 Jewish Heritage Festival at Raley Field on Sunday. The annual event, organized by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, celebrates Israel’s independence. Special to The Sacramento Bee

What happens when you get a couple thousand Jews in Raley Field? A lot of different opinions on what it means to be Jewish in 2015.

The pride, joy, humor and challenges of being Jewish were all on display or open for discussion at Sunday’s Jewish Heritage Festival, celebrating Israel’s 67th birthday. Jews from Los Angeles, Long Island, Chicago, Oregon, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Israel and Sacramento enjoyed corned beef and pastrami sandwiches and rocked out to The Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group in white shirts and black ties, from Yeshiva University in Manhattan who have performed for President Barack Obama and taken YouTube by storm.

“The challenges faced by Jews in America are different today,” said Al Lipson, 78, of Rocklin. “We face the problem of maintaining our loyalty to Israel and the Jewish faith coming under increasing fire from the American left.”

But Jews have been tempered by 4,000 years of anti-Semitism, Lipson said. “You have to suffer to appreciate what life’s all about.”

Humor serves as a tremendous coping mechanism, retired physician Steve Orland said as he worked the B’Nai Israel booth, which was selling a children’s book, “Kvetchy Boy” (kvetch in Yiddish means to constantly complain, often producing a laugh). “Kvetching came out of centuries of Jewish suffering,” Orland said. “Do I just sit there and die, or do I kvetch?”

Bob Zeff, 91, also was selling an assortment of Jewish books, including Yiddish proverbs and expressions. “My favorite is, ‘May he swallow an umbrella and may it open in his belly,’” Zeff said, then went on to explain the difference between a schlemiel and a schlemazel: “The schlemiel is the klutz who drops a can of paint off a ladder, and the schlemazel’s the guy unlucky enough to be under the ladder.”

Quinn Cooper, 7, didn’t know any Yiddish, but he was one of dozens of youths who tried on a bushy wig of black curly locks. “This is my Jew fro,” Quinn said proudly. “I want to see the Maccabeats sing ‘Sukkos Style’ (a spoof of the Jewish feast Sukkos),” he added.

Quinn’s mother, Melissa Cooper, said the challenge is “figuring out how to be assimilated but still maintain your Jewish identity.”

That’s something the Maccabeats specialize in. Their song “Candelight” – to the beat of Taio Cruz’s hit “Dynamite” – has gotten more than 10.3 million views on YouTube.

Hannah Belay, an Ethiopian Jew who teaches at Sacramento’s Shalom School, took in the festival with American and Israeli flags in her hair. The key to being Jewish, she said, is “we must accept everybody as they are.”

Belay’s friend and fellow teacher, Ruthi Ofek, said the Nazis put her parents on a train that would have meant certain death, except that it broke down and they were sent home. Eventually, they moved to Palestine, which became the state of Israel after World War II. The Jewish people’s shared history of oppression and genocide has taught her “to be kind and tolerant. There are always those looking for a scapegoat.”

Some of the challenges facing modern Jews were embodied by a dozen demonstrators outside the stadium who condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“Protesting Israel’s policies is not anti-Semitic,” said Adeeb Alzanoon, a Palestinian American state worker from Sacramento. “In a true democracy such as the United States – which gives $3.2 billion a year to Israel – people are free to criticize government policies.” Alzanoon recognized the horrific tragedy that befell millions of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis, but said the Holocaust “is not the fault of the 6 million Palestinians outside Israel.”

There are now close to 3 million Palestinian refugees, including more than 430,000 in war-torn areas of the Middle East who are waiting for the chance to return to their villages in Israel and take their place as Israeli citizens with full equal rights, Alzanoon said. “I don’t think the Palestinians who lost their homes to Israel in 1948 should pay the price” for the Nazi genocide that forced European Jews to flee and ultimately resettle in Israel, he said.

One of the region’s best-known Jewish leaders, former California state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said Jewish Americans “should be both strong in their love and support for Israel and at the same time not be afraid to disagree over the best ways to enhance Israel’s future. It’s part of our great traditions to argue and debate.”

There are between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews in the Sacramento region from four continents, said Barry Broad, president of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. “We’re a religion, an ethnicity and a nationality all rolled into one. We’re all part of this 4,000-year-old conversation.”

Sacramentan Nicole Lawrence, 14, heard the protesters loud and clear, but said it made her love Sunday’s celebration even more. “Everyone’s so enthusiastic about being Jewish, and I get to express myself the way I want to without being afraid,” she said.

But a number of Jews on Sunday said anti-Semitism in both Europe and California schools and universities is on the rise. Natomas Unified School District board member Lisa Kaplan, who remembers the 1999 firebombings of three Sacramento synagogues, said she fears anti-Semitism on college campuses “is actually getting worse. We don’t have colleges and schools standing up for our kids.”

But Kaplan said Sunday’s event drew its strength from the sense of community that unites all Jews. “We’re all together as a family, and you don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate.”

Stephen Magagnini: (916) 321-1072, @StephenMagagnini