Points of Identity

I used to call myself a Jew.  As a child, I didn’t give much thought to my religious heritage.  I knew that one set of grandparents were the ones we did Hanukkah and Passover with and the grandma on the other side was the one who always came for Christmas.  I suppose I was partial to Christmas because it was more about the gifts – my brother and I received our yearly big present (I remember a Lego train set and Razor scooters particularly fondly) for Christmas.  Hanukkah was calmer – a time to stand together as a family after sundown and say a blessing sometimes followed by a small present exchange (this was the time of year when my poor mother was inundated with Craft Fair earrings from her two sons).  Passover was the polar opposite: sometimes we went to Abba and Bonnie’s house (friends of my parents), where I spent my time playing with Abba’s collection of windup tin toys and running from strange Jewish women attempting to pinch my cheeks, sometimes we went to my grandparent’s house in Brooklyn for a more family-oriented celebration (though just as hectic) and once, just once, did we try to explain the Haggadah to my non-Jewish grandmother.  Each holiday was different and each was fun in its own right and not once did I wonder why my family celebrated all of them.  But I knew that I was a Jew because my mom was a Jew.

I remember only one Jewish-related activity in Libertyville, Illinois, where I grew up.  I was on a play-date with my friend Ben, and being two eight-year old boys, we were interested in Pokemon, model rockets, and other things of that nature.  When I picture Ben, I recall that he was rather portly – he had a round face that was more than baby fat – and that he wore a funny little skullcap.  I think I knew it was a yarmulke but I can’t have given it much mind because I don’t remember it very well.  We never talked about being Jewish but this play-date happened to fall on one of the nights of Hanukkah and I was staying for dinner.  As Ben’s parents prepared the menorah (a traditional menorah, which amazed me, as my parents used menorahs in the shape of an adobe cliff-dwelling, a motorcycle, an octopus, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex) they asked me if I knew the blessing, and I confidently said, yes, I did.  We gazed briefly at the lights and I took my biggest breath, preparing to repeat the quiet singsong verse my parents had taught me.  I was caught entirely by surprise when Ben’s family blandly spoke the words, and was even more shocked to discover that there were more words after what I thought was the end!  And they didn’t give each other presents!  I tried to hide my embarrassment by mumbling some gibberish as they spoke, and I wished for it to be over.  The first thing I asked my parents when they picked me up was, “Why do they do a different Hanukkah from us?”  My parents told me there were lots of different Jews who did different things which was satisfying enough for me.  I preferred our Hanukkah, anyway, because of the presents.  I also quite enjoyed the story of Zlateh the Goat.

But when we moved to New Hampshire, I was confronted with my own identity in a new and frightening way.  When I discovered that I was the only Jew in my school, at first I told my friends this proudly.  But my pride became confusion when even my best friends started using expressions around me that I had never heard.  Suddenly, if my friend J was cut off at the traffic light, he was “Jewed”.  If I didn’t have the most coins when we played Mario Party, I wasn’t using my Jew nose well enough to sniff out the gold.  My co-lifeguard, who was blonde and blue-eyed, made crude jokes about his grandfather in the guard tower.  I began to notice the swastikas penned above the toilets in school and listened with confusion when Jew jokes were laughed at while black jokes were scorned.  There were a few ways for me to respond: I could have strongly embraced my Judaism and discovered other friends who respected my choice; I could have told my friends that it was inappropriate and threatened to stop hanging out with them; I could have ignored it and laughed along.

I chose the latter two options.  I had two very close friends whose company I valued much more than my personal ethnic identification, so when they made these comments I gently chided them and told them to use other, more tasteful humor.  I ignored my basketball teammates and focused harder in practice.  I avoided people I was genuinely afraid of (classmates with barely-concealed swastika tattoos, for example).  But never did I consider the first option.  In Eboo Patel’s best-selling book about his path to creating the Interfaith Youth Core, he describes a similar confusion about his Indian-Muslim heritage while in high school.  He creates a polar choice with one good and one bad option: the good, becoming closer with his own faith while trying to understand others, is directly countered with the bad, losing his faith altogether instead of connecting with a valuable piece of his identity.  He might tell me that I lost an opportunity to connect with an important part of my history.  But in the years following high school, I realized why I did not turn to Judaism as a stronghold against ridicule.

Judaism was a stronghold I could not defend.  Like all faiths, it was too easy to attack from all sides and it was riddled with weak points.  I did not even want to say I was of “Jewish heritage” unless prompted.  I wasn’t ashamed to be Jewish; I just felt sturdier as nothing at all.  I still occasionally tell people I am Jewish – if I overhear someone making an inappropriate comment, for example, I use it as a shame-bomb – but otherwise it’s a part of me that is buried deeper and deeper other more critical parts of my identity as I grow.  I have found that, in an increasingly secular world, calling myself a Jew places me in a group with which I associate little, opens me to criticisms and questions (about my stance on Israel, for example), and frankly forces me into a position “against” other ethnicities and religions, regardless of my feelings (because it will always be assumed by some people – I am not implying that all Jews hate members of other groups).  I am fine with factors of identity I can’t really control – being born a white male, for example – but otherwise I choose to identify with more meaningful things than Jewishness – being an Amherst student, a feminist, or supporting the environment.

I used to call myself a Jew.  Now I just don’t see the point.