Be it in the film Tribe (which I loved) or in Jennifer Bleyer’s essay Among the Holy Schleppers, I see it all over – A Jewish identity based on otherness, being an outsider, or an undefined difference that is supposed to render you special.
Granted, defining Jewish identity on difference is one step better than an identity based on victimization, but still – 4,000 years of history, and otherness is the best we can do? Who are you? Well, I’m not sure, but I know that I’m different. Different than what? Not so sure of that either.
The “Jewish Pride” that’s in vogue seems to be taking the form of embracing that otherness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But does that really tell us much about who we actually are?
Now, I can relate to the temptation, I spent most of my young life feeling like “the other” in countless ways, from being the only Jew in school to the only white girl in the ‘hood.
When I got to Israel, however, I found for the first time people who I felt were “like me.”
Suddenly I was a Jew in the land of the Jews, I was an Anglo in an Anglicized Jerusalem. There was nothing about me, my background, my passions or my identity that was fundamentally different from the people around me. I realized with terror in my heart that I was not so different anymore, and I realized I didn’t know who I was.
I’d like to think that my own journey to forge some sort of actual identity is in some ways analogous to us Jews as a people now that we have a homeland. No longer are we defined by our alien nature. As Leon Pinsker might say, we are no longer ghosts among the living.
We can now be a people who defines itself by its content and not by its exclusion, and that to me is one of the main pleasures and challenges of living in Israel; being an active part of a people poised to discover who we are when we are not defining ourselves by who we are not.
Nonetheless, that challenge does not end at the borders of Israel. For American Jews in particular, living in this golden age of acceptance, perhaps the time has come to figure things out with a little more chutzpah. Let’s take advantage of the times we are living in, shall we?
I’m sick of hearing stories of Jews who can only feel Jewish when they are in the diaspora, or surrounded by non-Jews (ie, defined by otherness). It’s just too easy. Particularly in a time when just being part of a minority gives you instant cachet.
I wait with baited breath for a new paradigm of Jewish identity to emerge out of the petri dish of hipsterdom. But I’m just a blogger, not a Jewish community professional (for better or worse). Even if I am correct in identifying a problem, who am I to say what should fill the identity vacuum if and when we do get over our otherness?
No one really. I’m just an average Jew who defines my Jewish identity by the decisions I make because of that fact.
I feel Jewish when I recycle, because it makes the world a better place. I feel Jewish when I welcome a guest into my home. I feel like a Jew when I remember not harden my heart. Because I am a Jew I fight to keep the peace in my home and my relationships. Because I am a Jew I do not disengage from my community, despite my need for individuality. As a Jew I have made my home in Israel and have wrapped up my fate with hers. As a Jew I pay homage to my history and will not abide by ignorance of it in my self or any children I bear. As a Jew I work to connect to Torah. As a Jew I struggle with myself, my history, my people and my God.
So who are you? If we start thinking about who we are and stop thinking only about who we are not, we might actually be someone.