The excerpt below by Debbie Friedman is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (2005, ed. by Judea and Ruth Pearl, permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing).
This is the first time I have had to think about the “why” of the words “I am a Jew.” I have never defined myself or my work before.
I was born into a Jewish family, exposed to Jewish experiences and Jewish people.
The concept “I am a Jew” never crossed my mind until I was asked to reflect on your words.
I actually chose to be who I am. I felt that my life was incomplete. I was looking for connection. I was always drawn to the Jewish people and our history and particularly to the values that were so easily translated and incorporated into life. It chose me back when at a point I began to interpret those values. Through songs and prayers I was able to reconstruct the same ideas and share them with others.
In your last moments, when you uttered the words “I am a Jew,” you gave some people their first experience of acknowledging their Jewish selves. Those who never identified before were awakened by your strength and conviction.
In every interaction—be it a concert, or when I function as a sh’licha tzibur, or at a healing service—in any of my relationships, no matter what I do, I am a Jew. I feel the presence of the Divine and a link to the past. I know there are many who have come before me who have made their mark. They, like you, have left pieces of themselves so that we, the living, might incorporate them into our lives in order to reconstruct the places in our world that have been shattered.
I am a Jew because I know that it is not meant for me to do this work alone. I am engaged both with the Holy One and with all of those with whom I am involved.
I am a Jew because I know the world that you and I and many others like us envision is a world yet to be created by us.
I am a Jew because in spite of all the hatred and violence in this world, I believe we must hope and live together as if the world were sheltered beneath the wings of the Shekhinah. We must live as if we were enveloped in a world of love and compassion. I am a Jew because together we must pray for the day when all people will sit beneath the vine and fig tree—when none shall be afraid and when all the words that come forth shall be words that speak of the family of humanity.
The world you had envisioned is a world that we will continue to build through song and prayer, through action and acts of lovingkindness.
Often we dreamers are laughed at for our lofty thoughts. In truth it is love and peace that are two values that cannot be touched or defiled by anyone. They are held in one’s heart and soul in the most sacred parts of us, and they soar to the highest heights in the heavens.
I had to write you because, though we never met, we were engaged in a shared dream of a world in which all human beings would be seen as precious—to be celebrated and loved.
This piece was not to have been a tribute to you, but it would have been hard to write about “I am a Jew” without making reference to you, since you were and will always be the one who made me think about why I am a Jew.
Your memory is a blessing.