Exploration of existential possibilities is relatively easy in good times. When I turned away from my birthright, I knew it was a rejection — a turning of my back on my family, an act of disregard for the demographic fate of the Jewish community, which would lose me and my progeny forevermore. But I would still express love for my family in other ways, and my rejection of Judaism seemed like the infliction of a very small harm. True, there aren’t that many Jews in the world. But really, how important was little old me, my kids, and those who would follow us? And anyway, the Jews were doing just fine — in the U.S., in other liberal democracies around the world, in Israel. My contribution seemed pretty close to infinitesimal, utterly irrelevant in the grand scheme of Jewish history.
But things look and feel very different in dark times. Not that I’m now deluded enough to think the fate of Judaism in the world depends in any measurable way on whether or not I call myself a Jew or rise in defense of Jews when they face threat or come under outright attack. Of course it doesn’t. I’m as infinitesimal and irrelevant as ever. Yet the fact remains that my youthful shirking of my inheritance no longer feels like a liberation. It feels more like an act of cowardice, perhaps even an expression of decadence, a sign that I took certain things for granted that no Jew should ever treat as a given.