the joy of easy identity
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.

About the author

Laya Millman

24 Comments

  • i think what you’re saying is great. i think you slightly misunderstand the jewschool post, though. CoA isn’t saying that he only feels Jewish in the diaspora, but rather than he enjoys the struggle and the work and the constant identification that the diaspora enforces on us, in a world with fewer yeshivas and no good rugulach.

    jews have always been the other. the word “ivri” means the other. if we are to be a people apart from other nations, perhaps it helps us to feel that apartness sometimes.

    i love israel, and i wouldn’t mind living there for awhile, hell, perhaps forever. i think you’re right to call for a new sensibility, and a positive identification that doesn’t spring from otherness. i just want to value the experience of creating identity in reaction to otherness as well. it has spawned marvels, from the babylonian talmud on down to some pretty good blogs.

  • To be fair, “otherness” is a key part of Judaism. We are called the Ivrim, “those from the other side,” and we are constantly told to keep separate from the ways of those around us. That said, it is not separateness for its own sake—it is separateness in order to elevate ourselves and those around us. That is what is missing from many Jews today, this emphasis on moral refinement and instructing the world.

  • Whenever I begin to question myself about my place in the world as a Jew, or my place among other Jews for that matter, I usually prepare some shakshuka (I like the yolks to be a little runny) and eat it. Voila, all my questions are answered.

  • Wow, I was going to say something but I’m impressed by Mastiff’s comment. 😀 That’s really true… Also, this tends to be unpopular or eye-roll-inducing, but I think the “center” of Jewish identity has to be Judaism, as a faith/religion/moral system/etc. Whatever you define that to be, whatever denomination you are — anything that’s only based on culture and ancestry doesn’t stand up, IMO. That’s why a ton of people are converting to Judaism now — they’re interested in our view of God, how our faith and tradition defines our way of life. I feel like that’s why Israel seems disorienting for people who base their Jewishness on cultural “pride” or a sense of otherness — ultimately, it’s like you don’t know WHY you’re Jewish. And I think in an age of a consumer approach to religion, mass proselytizing, assimilation, etc., it’s very important to know WHY you are who you are. For me, the only question that’s really important is, why be Jewish? If you can’t answer it, why not consider being something else?

  • I think that’s what’s missing from the new “hipster” Judaism is any knowledge of – or interest in – Torah. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. But I am hopeful that unaffiliated young Jews with no Jewish background who attend, say, a Heeb shock-value Purim party, may start to feel Jewish for the first time in their lives, and for some this could lead to increased interest in Jewish learning and observance.

  • I don’t agree with your midrash on the word “Ivri,” Mastiff–we are Ivri’im because we have crossed over, not because we are separate. We crossed over from the world of idolatry into the world of monotheism (even if we kept sliding back…); We crossed over from the age of divine kings to the age in which the abstract God was king; We crossed over from the world in which human beings were no more than property into a world in which even the trees have their rights. Crossing over into a new world–transcending the boundaries of social conventions that limit the potential of the human being, that prevent the human being from ascending to the heights of the Likeness of the Eternal–that is our duty. But this crossing over does not occur in order to be an “other” for “other”‘s sake. It occurs because we know that we have an internal drive, an understanding of the truth, which drives us to consistently wrestle with our limitations so that we may overcome them.

  • hell yeah lay! what a great post. i’m gonna post a real comment soon but right now i’m on my way to german class (second semester started up 2 days ago!). and btw, happy b-dayyyy to me! call me??

  • As a Nation we are refered to as an Am Kadosh. (Often Mistransalated as a Holy Nation based upon the misconstrued translation of the word Kadosh which contrary to popular belief and good old King James does not mean Holy – Holy implies G-d like, which implies good but that’s an evaluative statement, and Kadosh does not imply intrinsic value)

    We are an Am Kadosh, a people who are separate, distinct. (Once again this is absent of value judgment) We have a unique role and mission in this world. What this means is that we are different. We are other. We have to recognize this fact.

    However… and this is the key. We cannot ignore the other side of the coin. To simply be different, other, does not define us. We are defined by our mission as an Am Kadosh to be a Ohr LaGoyim – A light unto the nations. To set an example for the world around us. We are to teach the world Morality, to bring it to a recognition of G-d, and to perform and teach Tikkun Olam – repairing the world and striving to do our part in creation by moving the world toward perfection. This is what defines us.

    It is true that we are other, but it is what makes us other that is important. It’s ok to be a Jew who recognizes the otherness, but it is not ok to be a Jew who solely defines himself by what he is not. Rather we must define ourself by who we are, and realize that it is who we are that makes us Kadosh.

    I am not a Jew because there is Anti-Semitism.
    I am not a Jew because of the Holocaust.
    I am not a Jew because of the fact that others label me as such.

    I am a Jew because of my lineage which is special.
    I am a Jew because I find beauty in Tradition.
    I am a Jew because of Shabbat, and Holidays that are meaningful to me.
    And I am a Jew because I have a mission in this world that I cannot and will not Ignore.

    Does this make me different? Yes. Does this mean I’m something that is other? Yes. But at the end of the day that is not what defines me. I’m defined by my actions, my traditions, my beliefs, and my collective history.

    This problem of perspective does not just lie in the definition of who we are as Jews, but also in how we view our own traditions.

    Shabbat Kodesh. The sabbath is also other, different. And it is very easy to define it by what it is not. We can’t work. We can’t drive our cars. We can’t… ect… Again we slip into the mentality of negitive definition, as opposed to viewing what it is, and the purpose it serves. This is the question and the mentality that we have to develop throughout our lives, and our personal introspections. Who are we? Why do we do things? Why do we find meaning in things?

    It is our Job to realize that we are indeed different, that we are indeed other. That it doesn’t necessarily make us any worse or any better then that which we differentiate ourselves from. Rather, what makes us better on a personal level and on a communal level is when we determine who we are in a positive sense, and take pride in what makes us different, pride in the essence of who we are that makes us an Am Kadosh.

    What Laya says in her post is incredibly potent, timely and important. I can only hope that people understand that larger message and implication rather then get caught up in what it means to be a people who are separate. We are separate, the question is why. I at least would like to believe it’s because of something I am rather then something I’m not.

  • Excellent, thought-provoking post!

    And there is definitely a parallel dichotomy here:

    Ethnic Jewishness is inherently bound up with “otherness”.

    But Torah/morality-based Jewishness has intrinsic, inherent content of its own, and is only tangentially about “otherness”.

  • Great post Laya, I could not agree with you more. The complexity of being a Jew in Israel is profound. It foces you to dig just a little bit deeper if you allow yourself that freedom of exploration. right on laylay and happy almost international women’s day!

  • This Laya can write.

    mumble: everything is something because it is not something else. Figure-ground. You couldn’t see a figure if it were not in contrast to the ground behind it. To define is to de-fine, or state where it ends. And something else, which is different, begins. end of mumble.

  • “Otherness” as it relates to Jews can also be understood as the root of the Jew. As stated before “ivri” (and its various permutation) connotes both “crossing over” and “otherness.”

    Chassidus teaches us that although we are exactly physically the same as every other nation in the world, the essence of a Jew, what makes the Jew “otherly,” comes directly from Hashem.

    To my mind this is both a great benefit and a weighty responsibility. It is where we can get the koach (potential strength) to achieve lofty goals, but it is also where distancing from Hashem (and each of us both comes close and retreats from Hashem at different times) makes many of us yearn for something greater.

    This duality of both yearning and potential has separated Jews from whatever society they have found themselves in the diaspora. Sometimes the separation was a comfortable one (USA for example) and sometimes uncomfortable (nearly every other one), but the Jewish yearning for utopia and the confidence that there is the potential for achieving it, has led Jews to be at the forefront of (IMHO) every socially progressive movement in history ((Even if I “politically” disagree whether the “movement” was of net benefit or not))

  • Laya, wonderful and thought-provoking post, and other people, great comments.

    You all know I have a love/hate relationship with Israel (love the country, sometimes hate the people, like last night at a local event when several burly Israeli men felt they didn’t have to wait on line for sushi like everyone else and pushed me quite hard). And as far as my religious self is concerned, that’s in flux right now, whether I were to be in Israel or anywhere else.

    But as for identity, I want to draw what i think is an important distinction: we, as am kadosh, are definitionally separate from everyone else. The question is how we translate that into our individual circumstances. Living in smaller communities, we are forced to define ourselves by what parts of society we opt out of, how we differ from the others who surround us. In the bigger communities, like my New York, even though there’s a large community of the different, within that group there’s so much difference on the micro level that we have to find ways to define ourselves, not for ourselves but in order to explain ourselves to others in a way that they’ll understand. And then, of course, there’s the issue of labels. And don’t get me started on that.

    Identity is complicated. Even saying you identify as a Jew will provoke the question of “what kind of Jew”? Or at least it will in the contexts I’ve visited.

    I’ve sometimes wished I could strip away the Jewish part of me and uncover my “true identity,” but have since realized that the Jewish part of me is the core, and all the rest is commentary and accessories. Important commentary and accessories that bring out the shimmering, prismatic highlights of me, but still, the core is Jewish.

  • Esther, I believe you have to have a leap of faith w/ the Israel thing. I too held your view about it in the past, but I finally ‘got’ Israel a few years ago.

    The same behavior that you focuses on would occur w/ American Jews as well. I know this bec. I work in a restaraunt and I see all kinds of shennanigans by Americans Jews, some w. Kippot.

    So please do not prejudge the entire people.

  • Thanks everyone for the comments

    We are a people, and an odd one at that. obviously we are different and we are challenged with our unique mission

    The fact of our difference, our otherness is not in question. What I am arguing is that if that undefined difference and othererness is the essence of our uniqueness, well, that’s just lame.

  • […] And then on Jewlicious today, one commentor, on a thread following a swipe from Laya at one of our contributors, writes: I think that’s what’s missing from the new “hipster” Judaism is any knowledge of – or interest in – Torah. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. But I am hopeful that unaffiliated young Jews with no Jewish background who attend, say, a Heeb shock-value Purim party, may start to feel Jewish for the first time in their lives, and for some this could lead to increased interest in Jewish learning and observance. […]

  • I feel most Jewish when reflecting on my antipathy for Christianity and Islam.

  • I would like to believe that I could find alienation and ambivalence in any community I was raised in, but that might just be the universalist talking.

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