Wrestling Match #3: Jewish Identity and “Doing Jewish”

I’m on a roll here today. Who knew that creating a blog would lead me to write this many posts in less than a day? In any case, I’ve just noticed that my posts today have had a bit of a theme, and it’s a theme that keeps popping up for me all over the blogosphere today, so there must be a reason it’s there. That theme really centers on the question that almost all converts (and many Jews by birth) have to ask at one time or another: Who is a Jew (and why)? Michael Benami Doyle at ChicagoCarless explores this theme over and over again, both in his pre- and post-mikveh posts, but one of the ones that jumped out at me today had this to say:

The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.

 The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim.

I’ll just give you that quote for the flavor of it – but go read his post for yourself. It’s important. In a similar fashion, Ruth Adar of CoffeeShopRabbi had this to say about the legitimacy of Jewish identity:

[T]here was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece…. Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. 

Emphasis mine, in both instances. Now, one of them says “don’t let anyone else define your identity,” and the other says “the support of the community is important.” They’re both right. I don’t need anyone else’s approval to be the Jew I am becoming, but that feeling of community? Absolutely necessary. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: you need the support of your dad or mom until you get your balance (the community), but you’re the one who has to learn how to get your balance (doing Jewish) – they can’t tell you what it is or how to get there. All they can do is be supportive and give you confidence while you learn. Okay, so I needed to hear that today. I needed to hear that it’s normal to feel anxious when someone questions my sincerity, and that it’s normal for me to be throwing myself into Judaism headfirst with both feet. More so because despite all the work I’m still needing to do, I can’t stop studying Hebrew (so far, I can recite the aleph-bet and I’m working on the nikkudim). I can’t bring myself to let go of the prayers that are becoming more and more a given when I reach for my cup of coffee (Baruch atah Adonai…) or wake up in the morning (I tend to say the short two-line Sh’ma, because that’s the one I know by heart). I can’t stop listening to Neshama Carlebach’s music and looking up the transliterations (and meanings) of her songs so I can sing them too. I can’t seem to stop pestering my Jewish friends with questions and anxieties. And I haven’t even gone to a Shabbat service yet, or talked with a rabbi yet! I’ve just been to a very welcoming Seder and talked – a lot – with Jewish friends. So why have I written so much in this blog on its very first day in the world? Well, it’s that whole “needing to ‘do Jewish'” thing and not really having a place – yet – to ‘do Jewish’ beyond here on the ‘Net. For example: It’s Shabbat, and definitely after sundown, but tonight I can’t really observe it in the traditional way. I don’t have wine or candles in the house, I don’t have a gluten-free bakery nearby where I can pick up gluten-free challah, and I don’t want to bother my partner with my observation of private Jewish ritual when he’s home. This blog is also about trying not to make it so that my Judaism isn’t the only song I’m singing, because no matter how much the harmonies entrance me, to those around me it can seem kind of one-note after a while. My male partner, my fiancé, is not planning on converting, and that’s fine. But I struggle not to have every conversation revolve around this new thing I read about Rabbi Akiva or that comment on a blog that spoke to me. So I bottle it all up and then unload it on my best friend (she’s Jewish) and sometimes I feel like I’m overloading her with it. Sometimes she’s worried that our relationship is going to go away or change into something neither of us wants because of my studies. And I can’t have that – for either of them. I need to get a handle on this “doing Jewish” thing so that it doesn’t alienate my loved ones. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, too. It’s after sundown on Shabbat, but I’m not able to observe Shabbat tonight. (I don’t intend to be shomer Shabbat anyway – I’m converting Reform, so I’m going to take the mitzvot I can do now, and try not to beat myself up for imperfect observance as I learn.) But I can at least write about this path and this journey. I can put this information here instead of overwhelming my loved ones with it. So let that be my Shabbat observance for tonight. (For reasons why this works for me, see the second story on this page, about Rabbi Israel of Rizhin.) So who am I? I am a Scots-Irish Hungarian (with bits and bobs of many other Western European heritages) American with possible Jewish ancestry, who was raised Catholic and has always felt Jewish. I am a ger, and someday (hopefully someday soon) I will be recognized as a Jew by the community. Some of my Jewish friends, including my best friend, have told me that as far as they’re concerned, the day I meet the beit din and enter the mikveh is a formality only, and that they consider me a Jew now, because of my obvious yiddishe neshama. So I’ll keep on praying over my food and in the morning and at night, and as soon as I can make it to the Fairfax district, I’ll be wearing a kippah everywhere except at work. Why? Because, as Rabbi Ruth Adar says, “I would be a real Jew when I acted like one. How does a “real Jew” act? Well, that’s up to the individual Jew, now isn’t it? So now that I’ve put that out there, I need to get my grading done, because for me, part of being an observant Jew is doing what I promised I would do.


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Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

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