Interview'I am constantly struggling to understand my Jewish identity outside of religion'

The conversation starter

Andrew Lustig’s viral video of his poem ‘I am Jewish’ has gained a lot of Facebook buzz and over 270,000 viewers in a mere month. And counting

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Andrew Lustig. 'I am my melody of Adon Olam. The words may be the same but I am my melody of Adon Olam.' (Photo: Miriam Ross-Hirsch)
Andrew Lustig. 'I am my melody of Adon Olam. The words may be the same but I am my melody of Adon Olam.' (Photo: Miriam Ross-Hirsch)

We meet on a street corner on a blustery Jerusalem winter late afternoon. He, sailing in on his bike; me, standing shivering, gripping my iPhone. I am a bit nervous: It’s not every day you meet a new instant celebrity.

Andrew Lustig, 23, from Long Island’s Five Towns, is no more and no less than a nice Jewish boy. He studied theater and graduated from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 2010. He’s currently studying Jewish texts on a year program in Jerusalem, and before that he worked as a salesman at a Kate Spade handbag shop in Manhattan.

“I loved it,” he says to my incredulous look.

He’s young, unassuming, confident and chatty. He dressed up for our interview in a bright purple sweater and has a string of colorful beads around his neck. He’s wearing a kippa today, but doesn’t necessarily leave it on all the time. He’s checking things out, finding himself and working on his Jewish identity.

It is the latter quest that’s brought him to the attention of over 270,000 online viewers through his poem, “I am Jewish.” Posted on Vimeo and YouTube in early January, it is immensely popular and has spread rapidly from Facebook page to page with amazing agility. An example: During the time it took me to write this piece he’d gained another 1,000 views on YouTube.

In the video, Lustig fluently recites his poem while standing against a backdrop of lush swaying trees. Some excerpts:

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…”

“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.

The poem was written last year while applying to year abroad programs dealing with social justice and traditional learning in Israel. All the essays for the applications got him thinking about his Jewish identity — “not something to take lightly” — and made him realize he wanted to understand it “more deeply than gefilte fish and dancing on Shabbat.”

“While writing the essays I kept asking myself, ‘Who am I?’ So I just started with ‘I am’ and listing the things that make me Jewish.”

Lustig at The Times of Israel offices.
Lustig at The Times of Israel offices.

Lustig performed the poem a few times in Manhattan slam poetry clubs and at last year’s LimmudNY, to a lukewarm response. It wasn’t until last summer, while participating in the summer program at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University — an “artist colony, open-minded beit midrash in the middle of nowhere Los Angeles” — that he was encouraged to take it forward and make it accessible to a broader audience through video.

“I thought it was good,” says Lustig, “but I was afraid to show it to the world.”

Lustig credits two of the arts mentors as giving him the push he needed, music teacher Harold Messinger and 3D arts instructor Raffael Lomas. Both are credited as producers. Fellow student Tracie Karasik did all the filming during July at Brandeis-Bardin and subsequently edited the footage, adding a slide-show guide to Jewish history at the beginning and musical soundtracks.

The video went up at the beginning of January and quickly became a viral sensation in Jewish communities and beyond. “It’s amazing that me speaking about what I feel can impact so many different people.”

In our interview, Lustig makes it clear the poem is his way of “speaking to Jews, not for Jews.” He doesn’t consider himself the spokesperson of young American Jewish identity today. But he acknowledges that “the poem resonates; my words are people’s words.”

He’s received hundreds of comments on YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, and to his personal email, which is posted in the information section of the video on YouTube, along with the poem itself. Lustig, who currently fills his days at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem learning Jewish texts, says, “You learn a line of Shmot [Exodus] then go sit with the Rambam. So much of what I get from my poem is coming from the commentary.”

Many of the comments are from average citizens all over the world — Australia, America, Israel, Serbia, Croatia, UK and France, to name a few of the countries represented. Often comments begin with, “I’ve never done this before…,” “This may be creepy, but I just wanted to say how this impacted….”

I spoke about identity with a community that wanted to reach out

Says Lustig, “I spoke about identity with a community that wanted to reach out… so many people are breaking their own rules for me. I’m trying to respond to everyone who writes. The things they say are equally meaningful to me.”

In general, Lustig sees the poem as a conversation starter: “In my Jewish identity, so much of it is a choice. My parents set the perfect balance.” But other communities, says Lustig, are not so lucky, and in some of the comments he’s received he sees a more hard-line approach — along with assumptions he will spend the afterlife in Hell.

A line in the poem that has been the focus of much criticism: “I am the complicated reason you take the cheese off of the burger you eat at the Saturday morning tailgate.”

“I like criticism. I’ve learned a lot. One thing I’ve noticed in the more observant threads is there are three approaches. One, supportive. Two, people saying ‘Good for you, but it’s not for me.’ And the third is questioning: What does this mean? And coming to the conclusion that I’m going to hell. That this is not Torah.”

Now that there’s momentum, he says, “Let’s get Jewish communities together, be on the same page. It’s never been about the viewership for me. Let’s try to get ten people who experience Judaism very differently make their own videos.”

For Lustig, the poem encapsulated a moment in a lifelong quest towards understanding his Jewish identity. “I hope ten years from now I can write the same poem with very different words. Which, I don’t know. I know I don’t want them to be [he begins reciting ironically] ‘I am the big black hat on my head… I am praying eight times a day… I am not touching women…'”

As far as his next project, he gives a shake of his tawny mane and shrugs, saying, “I’m not a big fan of sequels. I go through months without inspiration and then may be on a train and start to cry and scribble on a napkin.”

The world is his kosher-style oyster.

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