Rabbi Kass' Viewpoint: Zelig And Judah
On television recently, I saw a replay of Woody Allen’s famous movie, Zelig, the story of a “chameleon man” named Leonard Zelig who possesses the amazing ability to take on the characteristics of anyone he finds himself near. Hence, in the presence of Asians, his eyes become slanted. Among fat people he acquires substantial girth. In proximity to underworld figures he looks like a gangster. In the company of African-Americans, his countenance assumes swarthier features. Indeed, he is accused of marrying an African-American woman on the pretense that he was the brother of Duke Ellington.
Leonard Zelig also happens to be Jewish. At the outset of the film we are informed that he is the son of a Yiddish actor who played Puck in the Orthodox version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” We also learn that the Ku Klux Klan is highly agitated by the Zelig phenomenon because a Jew who can change himself into an African-American or a Native American constitutes a triple threat.
Woody Allen really doesn’t do much with Zelig’s Jewishness except to make it the butt of a few wisecracks. In truth, however, Zelig’s Jewishness is no accident because throughout our long history of persecution and oppression many Jews have sought survival by taking on the qualities of whatever group historic accident happened to inject them into. Like Leonard Zelig, they became chameleons in order to be accepted. In abrogating all sense of self, Zelig represents the ultimate conformist. As the well-known writer, Irving Howe, comments in the movie, multitudes of American Jews have likewise chosen assimilation as the most effective channel for “making it” in this country. If they were indistinguishable from their neighbors, they reasoned that they would surely fulfill their aspirations and feel completely at home. In so doing, however, they become shallow human beings whose deliberate rejection of their past left them totally adrift, without identity, and the benefit of a sense of purpose, meaning and direction in life.
Leonard Zelig solves his psychological problem only when he recovers an awareness of who he is and develops a capacity for self-respect and self-love. As Jews in the twenty-first century, we are also involved in a journey toward self-knowledge and self-understanding. The first step toward this goal is to recognize that the word “Jew” is a shortened from the name “Judah,” which was the most famous and most important of the twelve tribes who comprised the original Israelites; Judah was the leader of the rest of the tribes, and thus in time the whole nation came to be called by his name, the people of Judah, or Judeans, and later on, just plain Jews.
Judah had a flag which symbolized its values. The flag was blue, as blue as the sky on a clear day, and on it was painted the figure of a lion. Judah excelled in physical prowess and strength. The tribesmen were brave and courageous, the finest soldiers of their people. But the lion of Judah was engraved on a background of blue in order to remind the Jewish soldier that there is a God above who insists that one must be compassionate and just to both the weak and the strong. The flag taught them that the lion of Judah must keep in step with the ideals symbolized by the blue of the sky.
I can’t think of a better definition of the Jews. As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this month, we should be grateful for who we are and what we are as Jews. As long as we remain committed to the qualities of Judah we can avoid the trials and tribulations of Leonard Zelig. Then God’s blessings will rest upon us as individuals, as members of the Jewish community, and as part of the family of humanity.
Have a great holiday!