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Aly Raisman’s gold medal has taken on more symbolism than she might ever have imagined.

So I happen to be the Interim Director of Education at one of the Newton synagogues that DIDN’T win a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics!

Mazel Tov to Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman, whose family belongs to Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Mass., for bringing home two golds and a bronze for the USA. (Rabbi Keith Stern sums up our community’s collective joy here).

To borrow the lexicon of that popular Passover ditty, Dayeinu, it would have been enough to just know that the girl on the Olympic podium was American…

… and it would have been enough to swell us with pride to know she was — bonus! — from nearby Needham, Massachusetts.

… and Dayeinu, Aly also happens to be a mensch who grew up at Beth Avodah and chose “Hava Nagila” as her floor routine music!

After being immersed in Aly-mania for a while, the first thing I thought of was one of my favorite YouTube videos: “I Am Jewish” by poet Andrew Lustig, a student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

I could watch Andrew perform his riveting rant/poem all day.  It is forever relevant and relatable to us all.  His words are stirring because though serious, when appropriate they are delivered with humor and a smile.  He speaks to so much of who we are as modern Jews.  While each of us is our own link in the long chain of Am Yisrael, we also share a collective history and experience.

Andrew begins by channeling our community pride when a moment like Aly Raisman’s gold medal happens:

I am the collective pride and excitement that is felt when we find out that that new actor, that great athlete, his chief of staff… is Jewish.
I am the collective guilt and shame that is felt when we find out that that serial killer, that Ponzi schemer, that wife beater… is Jewish…”

And he peppers the rest of his spoken word poem with clever references to the universal Jewish experience. There’s at least one analogy here that will resonate with everyone:

“I am an IDF sweatshirt and the Chai around your neck. I am a $100 Challah cover you will never use and a 5 Shekel piece of red string you will wear until it withers away. I am your Hebrew name. I am your Israeli cousins. I am your Torah portion and your 13 candles. I am your Bat Mitzvah dress and the cute Israeli soldier on your Birthright trip.

Check out the full video:

Andrew’s poetry is set to Enya’s “Watermark,” which is extraordinarily purposeful. This piece of music was chosen from all the myriad of instrumentals in the world, and I am sure it is not only because of the way it sounds and because of the way it makes us feel when we hear it.  Many other compositions can evoke the same feelings; I wonder if it was chosen in part because of its name. A watermark is a recognizable image or pattern in paper used to identify authenticity.  A poem about Jewish identity speaks to authenticity.

Who is an authentic Jew?  What about us makes us Jewish?  What defines our Jewish selves? Jews are forever measuring other Jews’ authenticity.

As we kvell over Aly Raisman’s Jewish pride and identity, the most impressive part of the story is this. Aly told the media that she chose “Hava Nagila” because she wanted an upbeat song that the audience could clap along to. There are many soundtracks she could have chosen. “Hava Nagilia” got the nod, not because she was making some kind of statement, but just because she loves the song — it is an integral part of her being.

Mazel Tov, Aly!  Your poise and strength inspires us all as we pursue our own gold medals in life — albeit without the pressure of a billion people watching our every move.

Oh, and if you didn’t catch Aly’s “Hava Nagila” routine, I consider it my second favorite YouTube video!


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