Repost: Shemot


Entrance to synagogue in Split, Croatia (photo by M.C.)

The people we now call Jews have had many names over the past four millennia.  The names they chose for themselves changed as they evolved from a cluster of Canaanite tribes, to an ethnic group with their own religion and country, to the scattered adherents of a religion and ancestry, to the varied people we know as Jews today.  So did the names other people called them.

Click on this link: Shemot: Hebrews versus Children of Israel for an improved version of the essay I wrote in 2013 on two ancient names for the people we call “Jews” today: Hebrews and Israelites.  In the Ancient Near East, the word corresponding to “Hebrews” (ivrim) meant outsiders, while the words corresponding to “Israelites” (benei Yisraeil) meant the children of an active engagement with God.

Both names appear in the Torah portion Jews are reading all over the world this week, Shemot (“Names”).  It is the first portion in the book of Exodus, also called Shemot in Hebrew.

At least Jews who follow the cycle of Torah readings are opening the book of Exodus again.  But what about Jews who pay little attention to the religion, yet stand firm in their ethnic identities?

A few of my friends in the United States fit that description.  And so do most of the one hundred Jews in Split, Croatia, according to a Jewish man I met in Split’s only surviving synagogue.  The survivors of World War II dismissed their parents’ religion.

West end of sanctuary, Split

“We gather mostly to eat dinner together,” said the man who called himself Albert to English speakers like me.  His eyes twinkled.  “We eat kosher lobster!  We get it straight from the fisherman, and he tells us which lobster is kosher.”

The Jewish community also dedicates itself to maintaining the synagogue, which was created in the 16th century out of the upper floors of two older stone houses inside the wall of Diocletian’s Palace.  The interior of the sanctuary was remodeled in 1728, and has been maintained that way.

During the past year, a rabbi has been coming down from Zagreb about once a month to lead a service.  The first service he led lasted three hours, Albert said.  “We were thinking 45 minutes.  People started to get up and leave.  Afterward I told him he could come back, but we had to have a shorter service.  He asked how long, and I said: 35 minutes.  He said he couldn’t lead a service in only 35 minutes.  I said okay, you can pray as long as you as you want to, but after 35 minutes we’ll go downstairs and have dinner.  He got the idea.”


I converted to Judaism 33 years ago, but I am still aware of the difference between being an ethnic Jew and being a Jew for the religion.  I can never have a Yiddish-speaking grandmother.  I will never acquire the Ashkenazi taste for herring, either pickled or in sour cream.  (I do not know what the traditional Jewish foods were for Croatians.  Not lobster!)  I will never know what it is like to grow up Jewish; I can only guess based on reports from my Jewish friends and memories of how as a child I was excluded and teased for other reasons.

I cannot be described as a “religious Jew” either, because in some ways I am not very observant, and my beliefs are idiosyncratic.  Yet I remain passionately engaged with the religion.  The longer I am away from the two Jewish communities I belong to in Oregon, the more I notice that I am a Jew and I can never be comfortable with any other religion.

When we visit old synagogues in Europe, I always take time to decipher the phrases written in Hebrew letters over the ark or on the wall.  (For my own Torah study I use the Masoretic text, which includes vowel markings (nikudim).  But the words on the walls are always painted or carved without vowels, like the writing in a Torah scroll, and like modern Hebrew in Israel.  I hope to get better at reading unvoweled Hebrew when we spend a month in Israel at the end of this winter.)

Ark on the east wall, Split

Each time I pronounce a phrase in Hebrew and then translate it to myself, my heart lifts, and I feel a surge of homecoming.

The Hebrew over the ark on the east wall of the only synagogue in Split is in Aramaic, but I managed to read it.

Du lifney mi atem omdim, “Know before whom you stand.”  (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 28b)

It’s a tall order.  But as a Jew, as an adopted member of the children of Israel, I will keep striving to do so.

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