Note: Two weeks ago I posted the first part of an essay exploring my Jewish identity. I missed a week – life got in the way. The first part of the essay examined Judaism as a religion. Here is the second part of that essay.
The other strand of my Jewish identity is more deeply engrained and easier to define – my ethnicity. Wikipedia tells me that ethnicity can be understood as a group that shares a set of traditions, ancestry, language, culture (food, dress, rituals), among other things. Far more than the religion, I felt and continue to feel very connected to those elements; they are my history, they are part of my DNA.
Do other ethnicities feel the same way? Is it the same for Americans of Irish or Italian descent, for example? I feel an affinity with other Jews – especially those whose origins are in the New York City area. The sense of humor, the cultural references and worldview tend to be similar to my own. When I meet someone who shares that, it feels like an old shoe in the best way, I am at home.
Some cultural bonds are stronger than others. If I am traveling abroad and come across a fellow American, I may feel a connection, but I might not. Depending on where they are from, they may have totally different sensibilities. To the outside world there may be a definable American culture, but especially these days, there can be essential differences.
I don’t feel the same kinship with Israelis. We may share a religion, but we are culturally quite different. Whether they are Israelis living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or when I traveled to Israel, I notice striking differences. I love Israel and found it beautiful and endlessly fascinating, but it didn’t feel like home. The people are blunter, more direct (maybe that is a good thing, but it isn’t how I function). The food is wonderful, but not the things I was used to.
There is a great fear among American Jews that we are being assimilated into nothingness – that there will be nothing left of Judaism as time goes by. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard sermons from rabbis warning of this, exhorting the congregation to renew their efforts to preserve our identity. I think part of the challenge is the divide between the religion and the ethnicity. Rabbis define Judaism in religious terms, which is understandable given their education and training, but perhaps self-defeating. In my experience, they don’t put much value on being culturally Jewish. For me, though, that is the stronger pull. And the culture isn’t just food and humor. It includes a set of values – questioning authority, being a mensch (a good, kind person), and valuing education are at the core. There is an intersection between the religion and the ethnicity in those values. I think for many the rejection or discomfort with the religion is about the emphasis on faith in God and on a text that is centuries old. That text has much to offer, the Torah is worth studying but for many of us it cannot be the source of all teaching. [I can imagine an observant Jew reading the last two sentences and being horrified and cursing my chutzpah. Who am I to pass judgment on the Torah, how could I be so disrespectful? I mean no disrespect. I am writing how I feel, how I experience the religion. I envy those with unshakable faith, who find comfort and guidance in the Torah.)
I want a Jewish identity to survive in this world. After more than 5700 years of persecution, I don’t want to see us melt away into whatever country we happen to live. For some the religion will sustain them. Some may have found a comfortable combination of the two. For me, it is the culture. Will that be enough? I wonder what choices our children will make.
One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.
At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.
To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.
Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.
One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.
The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.
When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.
Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.
After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.
On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.
My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.
Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.
It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.
We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.
The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.
I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.
In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.
I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings. Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.
I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.
Note:Last week I was chatting with my daughter Leah and somehow the subject of the first time we tried new foods came up. I’m not sure what brought it up, but Leah explained that she had particularly vivid memories of some of her experiences. The conversation took an interesting turn.
“If that were me, it might be a blog post,” I commented
“Are you asking me to write a blog post?” She knows her mother well.
“Would you?” I asked, not managing to conceal my hope.
“I’ll think about it.”
A couple of days later, during our next conversation, Leah reported,“I wrote something. I couldn’t sleep, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I thought I would make use of the time.”
While I was sorry that she had a poor night’s sleep, I was delighted with the product. I think you will be, too.
Growing up keeping kosher, there were things my family would never eat. Then there were other completely unrelated foods we’d never eat strictly due to family idiosyncrasies. As an example, my father considers green peppers spectacularly offensive and calls them ‘vile fruit.’ It’s a pretty great name, but an unconventional take on a fairly standard vegetable. Given these family proclivities, there were a number of common foods I had never tried as I approached adulthood. Maybe it was all the anticipation, maybe it was just being a bit older, but I have several particularly strong memories of some of my “food firsts.” I thought I’d share a few.
I don’t think there’s a deeper meaning or some lesson here (other than the fact that I really love food). But newness can make even the most mundane things an event. What are some memorable food firsts for you? I know my mom and I would both love to hear.
The thing about a ham and cheese sandwich is that when done right it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I love that. It’s so American.
In high school I’d have them at friends’ houses. I might get offered some snack options: “We could have cereal, or chips, or we could make a sandwich…”
“Oh. Hmm. A sandwich? Yeah I guess I could go for that.” As if I hadn’t been mentally preparing my ham and cheese already.
Every time I ate one, I’d have to surreptitiously insert a finger into my mouth to dislodge the gummy amalgam that collected at the roof of my mouth. It was at once gross and wonderful.
And somehow every household had the same ingredients, as if they had all gotten some goy instructional booklet. Thinly sliced ham and white American cheese, each in their own clear plastic zip bag with that deli paper around it. In my mind, it was magic.
I didn’t realize that actual regular people ate their eggs with runny yolks until college. Before then I thought “sunny side up” was just something characters ordered in the movies. I pictured Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” feigning an orgasm in the middle of a crowded diner. “That’s the kind of person who gets runny eggs,” I thought. Wild, brazen.
“Over medium” eggs were my gateway. I progressed from there. Perhaps my father – with his protective and slightly dogmatic tendencies – would not approve of my current predilection for soft-boiled eggs. (Seven minutes and forty-five seconds at a brisk boil.) But every morning I get a little thrill as I fork open my egg and the sumptuous golden yolk seeps onto the toast and greens. It’s rich on my tongue, and I’m willing to take my chances.
Oysters are not only unkosher, on their face they’re incredibly unappetizing. The outside looks like a barnacle suctioned to some long-lost shipwreck; rough and knobby, cold and wet. Inside, they look mucosal.
It was a gray day on the Washington coast when I had my first. A group of us combed the shore, bedecked in colorful rain gear. I found a promising shell and bounded over to a friend to show off my bounty. As she confirmed that I had indeed found an excellent oyster, it dawned on me that I was expected to eat the thing. This wasn’t fishing; no one catches and releases an oyster!
She instructed me to insert the shucking knife near the hinge, and with a twist I revealed my mucosal snack. There was no backing down now.
I ate the oyster in one gulp. It was bright and briny. Salty and slick, but gritty with sand from a poor shuck job. It was as primal and energizing as the ocean itself.
I’m not sure I even liked that first oyster. Or my second or third for that matter, though I like them now. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I felt brave and capable and sublimely connected to our vital, living world.
One note: Many of my adult food firsts are definitionally unkosher because I grew up in a kosher household. This brings up some complicated feelings, and for me, this meditation on new food experiences would be incomplete without recognizing that fact.
You never forget which foods are unkosher. Before each carnitas burrito, each cheeseburger, each cup of New England clam chowder, there’s a tiny moment when your breath catches in your chest, and you renew your decision to step away from your ancestors. At least that’s how it feels to me.
I feel guilty every time. But I also can’t imagine going back. If I did keep kosher, it would assuredly be for my father. (Frankly, there are worse reasons to do something.) But I don’t believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in a spirit, a soul, a metaphysical anything. I certainly don’t believe there is a moral mandate to eat or not eat certain foods based on the laws of kashruth – if there were a god, I cannot believe they would care one iota about which foods I consume.
If my family is disappointed I’m not keeping kosher, I can’t imagine my lack of belief in a higher power is any kind of salve. Is this just adding insult to injury? I honestly don’t know.
I do know that it has taken years of wrestling with what I owe my heritage and what I owe myself to arrive at a tenuous equilibrium. Perhaps time will grant me more clarity. For now, I will at least be sure to savor all of the wonderous things I am lucky enough to experience, and cherish the strong ties to my heritage I am lucky enough to have.