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Affirming My Jewish Identity in America

September 24, 2010

At the end of my junior year of high school, I received an award from my high school's Office of Community and Multicultural Development. A few CAMD Scholars each year receive a grant to pursue a topic of multiculturalism that cannot be studied in great depth in a classroom. My project was titled "The Changing Face of Judaism: A Search for Jewish Identity in America." I spent the summer researching the many ways Judaism is perceived. Why do some people consider Judaism an ethnicity rather than a religion? Are the religious aspects more important, or the cultural? Where does this notion of being "half-Jewish" come from?

bubble tea
"Dad tried to buy me bubble tea, my favorite, saying that he'd buy it, not me. I refused and was frustrated at what I felt was his lack of respect for my practices."

Now, this reflection is not about what I discovered while researching. If you want to read that, I can send you a 40-page copy of American Jewish history and my predictions about its future (interesting, I swear!). What this is really about is the discovery of my personal Jewish identity.

I grew up in an interfaith household--my dad is from a Conservative Jewish background, my mom an Irish Catholic. We always had a Christmas tree and Easter baskets, but they meant nothing more than chocolate and stockings and dinner at a neighbor's. In my hometown, I was the kid who dressed up as Esther on Purim and whose dad came in to talk about the origin of the dreidel. No one doubted my Judaism, especially me.

When I left for boarding school, I had to reaffirm my identity. People told me I was "half-Jewish" because only one of my parents is. I was making friends with Evangelical Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists--people who were more in touch with the multiple meanings of "God," who wholeheartedly believed and practiced their religion even without their parents on their backs. I took courses on Existentialism and Religion in America. I connected with new ideas that contradicted the way I was raised.

So I prepared for this project (yes, I was a little naïve) intending to strengthen my connection with Judaism by becoming more observant. I started attending Shabbat services weekly, abstaining from spending money from sundown to sundown; I read the Torah, prayed every day--things were going pretty well. Although my friends were supportive, I often couldn't go out with them on a Friday night or take a trip into Boston on Saturday. Judaism became cumbersome, yet it was rewarding to be a "good Jew" and practice so meticulously. I felt like I was a part of something larger than myself. I thought I was feeling God more prominently than I ever had before.

Then summer came. Wide-eyed, I met a Jewish scholar for my first interview. Things went smoothly and to this day our conversation is the most important one I had. However, as it wrapped up, he told me that I wasn't a "real Jew." To become one, I'd need to convert.

Let's just say this threw me off balance a bit. Here I was, more devout than any Jewish kid I knew, praying and reading and teaching first grade at Hebrew school and keeping kosher and I wasn't a real Jew?

I planned my conversion all summer. It seemed like the only way to reaffirm my Jewish identity.

But one Friday night I went to temple, only to realize that there weren't services because of the annual camping trip. I called my dad, who said: "Let's meet in Cambridge to buy Papa's birthday present. You can help." Reluctantly, I went, justifying the situation by spending time with family--a key element of Shabbat.

Dad tried to buy me bubble tea, my favorite, saying that he'd buy it, not me. I refused and was frustrated at what I felt was his lack of respect for my practices. We picked out a gift, and then went back to the car. Near the car, a man came over and asked for some change. We struck up a conversation and I admired his honesty. I wanted to give him the few dollars I had in my wallet, but I also didn't want to spend money because it was Shabbat. In my eyes, not buying signifies that I am content with what I have--I don't need anything else. But this wasn't really buying, it was giving to someone else who needed--it was a mitzvah. Good deeds are the heart of Judaism. But still, it was Shabbat, the most holy of all Jewish days!

I didn't give him money because I was making my decision based on Jewish law. I think I made the wrong decision.

After that incident, the words of the scholar haunted me. I began to doubt Judaism. Maybe those kids at school were right. Maybe I wasn't a real Jew because I'm not Halachically Jewish. I'll admit, I read a book called "Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost its Meaning." I hadn't lost faith in anything, but I started questioning. I attended (and enjoyed) Episcopalian and LDS services while visiting friends.

Light bulb: There are other ways to worship!

As I continued learning about Judaism, I realized there are parts I don't agree with. It's not that I ever stopped believing in Judaism or that I was searching for something else, it just hit me that there is more than one method to express my Jewish identity. In fact, there are endless ways.

And this is what I truly discovered that summer. Expressing my Judaism isn't locked into practices that hold little personal meaning. It's not defined by my parents' upbringing. Acting and feeling Jewish is about my own personal belief and connection with God--not my parents', not a rabbi's or a professor's or some kids' in my Spanish class.

I believe in my God. Now I pray with my words. I do yoga and meditate to feel closer to Him. I feel the most Jewish when I feel connected to God--when I'm playing an instrument or cooking with my mom or volunteering. I turn to certain parts of the Torah to guide me through difficult times and I go out with friends on Saturdays and thank God for giving me these loved ones.

I, and only I, define my Judaism; that's the beauty of being an American Jew.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Lily Shaffer

Lily Shaffer is a recent graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. She is postponing college to take a Global Citizen Year in Ecuador, Brazil, or Senegal, and will be sharing her year at Global Citizen Year's fellows blog. Upon her return, she will be attending Pitzer College in California with plans to pursue civil rights law. She is an active member of Temple Shir Tikvah, in Winchester, Mass.

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