The polarity inherent in ethnology always seemed strange to me. On the one hand, there is the researcher, an isolated Westerner who must leave his natural milieu to come face to face with native existence. On the other hand, there is the autochthon, whose life has everything, but who is not conscious of it. The researcher lacks ethnic life, while the native lacks cognitive self-awareness. I always used to wonder why these two qualities could not coexist within one person or tribe.

At an ethnological seminar in Paris I once delivered a half-serious paper about this paradox. Everyone smiled, but nobody could figure out how things could be otherwise. Then later in Rome I found a key to such coexistence. The very first page of Mishnah that I read in Rome gave me the clear impression which has never since changed that here is the perfect example of conscious auto-ethnology written by people who lived a folk existence, believed in it, and at the same time were able to understand and analyze it. The same "researchers" who consciously examined the laws, metaphysics, economy and all the minutiae of Jewish life in the Talmud were at the same time popular heroes like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Picture the anthropologist Levy-Strauss as a red Indian!

Later, when I was already deeply involved in studying Talmud, I discovered that the way it is written and studied answers a basic need that I had been harboring since childhood. My parents used to tell me not to wave my hands while speaking and not to talk in a singsong. When I asked why, they said that it made me look like a Jew. It was in Israel that I first saw yeshiva Talmud study in action with the forbidden hand motion and singsong. And then I understood how atavistic this behavior must have been in me.

Jewishness is a question that can be neither answered nor avoided. The existence of each individual Jew is actually the answer, most often without his being aware of its meaning. Usually, before this question is asked, the answer is already there, so strongly predetermined by education, environment, and other circumstances that I don't believe that even the most independent mind among us is really free to postulate it unconditionally. And when we verbalize it, things become worse. Most of us try to present the result of unknown impulses and influences as conscious choice...