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Questions About Identity

So I’m coming out.

Not as a bi woman (Lol I’ve already done that. And if you didn’t know… well now you do.)

But as a Jew.

In my four years at Boston University, not once have I mentioned that my ancestry, heritage and ethnicity, are of Jewish descent. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • I don’t practice Judaism as a religion (I couldn’t even spell it correctly on the first try.)
  • I’ve never fully participated in the culture or traditions of Jewish life (though I do know a fair bit about them)
  • I didn’t feel like I had the right to openly claim this part of my identity.

The last bullet is largely due to the first two. In a liberal university setting, suddenly the question of identity became very important. Who was what, who had been through what and who claimed the history that comes with identity.

Recently in class we discussed Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee. And Yee raises a lot of questions about stereotypes, identity and assimilation. Is culture (and by some extension what someone identifies as) ethnic, geographic or some combination? Can you have one without the other? Is this type of thing learned or complicit? What can you claim and do you have to have accompanying experiences to do so?

Obviously there is no black and white answer. What makes up a persons identity and culture is varied and complex and completely dependent on the individual case. My story, and entry point to the conversation is no exception.

For those who don’t know there are three main facets to being considered Jewish: the people, the religion and the culture. Of course this is oversimplified and the conversation could go much further even here but I digress. The long and short of it is because I have a Jewish mother, I fulfill the first of those three categories. For me growing up, that didn’t feel like enough. However, it was enough for my brother.

My brother fully embraced this part of our identity. He would read books on the history, try and learn Yiddish and wear Hebrew symbols around his neck. He went as far as referring to himself as a Messianic Jew. And for our family who lived, breathed and ate up Christianity from birth, that was problematic. Though at the time I didn’t comprehend fully as to why.

My connection was a bit different. From a young age, my mother took time to teach us about Jewish traditions and even came to our elementary school classes to teach about Passover and Hanukkah. (However, these holidays and traditions were never observed in our house.)  I was taught the Shema prayer. I was given a Star of David to wear as a necklace. I was also taught about how my great uncles family was wiped out during the Holocaust with him being the sole survivor.

The time came for a 8th grade class trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. This was my first major experience learning about the tragic and horrifying events of World War II. Walking through the museum and seeing how the Holocaust came about, I could not stop thinking, “This could have been me.” When we got to the part where everyone was to enter the recreation of a gas chamber, my step faltered and my breath stopped. I slowly entered clutching my friend’s hand and muttering under my breath the only thing that felt right at the time: the Shema prayer.

Beyond that experience and eating up whatever young adult novels about the Holocaust I could get my hands on, I never spent much time learning about what it meant to be Jewish. I happily told classmates and friends, “I’m a Jew!” until it became common knowledge. In my world where everyone was a Christian of some kind, that statement made me different. It gave me something to claim.

Fast forward to now, things have changed. I learned quickly that my new surroundings contained many people and communities claiming the title of Jewish. I suddenly felt like my minor connections and my lack of knowledge and experience wasn’t good enough. I felt like a poser. So I didn’t say anything.

Until now.

After the class about Ching Chong Chinaman, I sat down with my friend Sarah Schnieder, for a long discussion. She brought up a question that I’m still wrestling with now:

When it comes to assimilation, is there a point of no return? 

Can I now, explore, learn and embrace a history and culture that I have ignored for so long? Is fulfilling one of three categories enough? If I choose to “opt in” to this identity, is it disrespectful to those who have lived within it their entire lives? Furthermore, if I choose to reclaim this part of myself, why would I be doing so? 

Right now I have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. (To be honest, I feel blessed to even have the option of choosing what to do.) For now, my knowledge is too limited. I do not know what it means to me to be a Jew. The only thing I can do moving forward is keep my ears and heart open and learn as much as I can.

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