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Religious Identity?

BlueBird's picture

“You’re not Jewish.”- Katy (pseudonym)

“I went to talk to you because after the gym teacher took attendance, I thought you were the one Jewish person in the class.”- Sarah (pseudonym)

Looking at me, and looking at my last name, one may conclude that I am white, a woman, a redhead/ginger, and one may also conclude that I am Jewish, depending on whether or not the last name screams Jewish to one’s ears. The Jewish identity is a little bit complicated for me because I grew up at home learning that being Jewish is a culture as well as religion and something that should be part of my identity. All of the things my father seemingly drilled into my young head were brought into question around Bar and Bat Mitvah “season” among my friends and cousins. As my two best friends of the time were studying for their Bat Mitzvahs, I was busy working on something for my humanist-based religious organization. My friend, Katy, who made the first comment listed above said these words to me as we were talking about who would be allowed to be on the bema at my other friend’s bat mitzvah service. I forget how the conversation came about exactly, but I remember being mildly taken aback but not enough to really bother me with the one comment. After all, I thought that being Jewish was something that my friend and I had in common. Granted, she is conservative and I was just “culturally Jewish,” (an identity that I did not reconsider until senior year of college) but my Jewish identity had not been challenged until that point in time. Perhaps, the following times when I heard similar comments, I was taken aback a little bit too quickly. I did not think that much of them in the moment but after a while, I began to internalize the comments to mean that, while in the context of my school friends, I could not be what my family had taught me. There was, for the first time in my life, a type of dichotomy around what I could be at home and at school in terms of my religion, and the two possible identities in my high school mind were in conflict. This comment was the opening line to when I had to learn to turn my cultural identity on and off in different settings. I remember it being very complicated with projects where we had to talk about our family history and I could never get more than “you are Eastern European Jewish” out of my father when I asked where my ancestors were from. I am not sure if this constitutes multiculturalism because it is not a visible, or perhaps typically thought about way of being multicultural, but I thought it is worth throwing out there.

This sentiment was reinforced to me in many later conversations with my friends that were, by my new interpretation, more Jewish than me. Tension with my friends around religion was a given at this point in time and I found myself coming home and disappointing my father when I told him that I could not be Jewish because I was not a bat mitvah, according to my friends. My father responded to me by saying that I can still have the Jewish culture. In the eyes of a teenager who valued fitting in at school more than a lot of other things, I did not believe I could be culturally Jewish. I had internalized the idea that I could not be Jewish so much that I wanted to change my last name since I would not be “falsely” represented when the teacher called attendance on the first day.

I mention the second comment because it was exactly when a P.E. teacher called attendance at the beginning of my first gym class of high school that I made another friend, Sarah, who also had sentiments on my Jewishness. She was the “new girl” who had attended Jewish day school and I gather was mildly intimidated by the diversity of my school. My classmates, well, let me just say that we had images of people who went to Jewish school so it was going to be hard for her to make friends. She came up to me after attendance and asked me some question about how school works here. We ended up becoming good friends. This past winter break when we were baking pizza and thinking about graduating college, we were being nostalgic about high school. She told me that she came up to me during that gym class because she thought I was Jewish and therefore relatable. The minute she heard that I did not have a bat mitzvah, believe me, I was not Jewish. It is funny the way that one seemingly innocent action, that is, taking attendance, can bring up so many thoughts and confusion.

As I write this, I began to think about who is “allowed” to talk about being multicultural. I also thought more heavily about the different ways that culture can be defined. Outwardly, or by appearance, it seems that I cannot be multicultural because I am white so therefore maybe I should not be talking. After all, I have a privilege that I was born into when I walk around. I can recognize it, but that does not mean that passing judgments are not made. I think, in the same way that in high school, it was only acceptable for certain students to use race to refer to people, I wonder if the discourse surrounding multiculturalism legitimizes only the voices of those who appear outwardly “diverse.”


jccohen's picture

what constitutes multiculturalism


One of the issues your story highlights for me is the complexity within any given category - the ways in which your Jewishness is different from your friends', and also the way that people who went to Jewish day school were seen (also by Jewish-identified folks, I'm assuming?).  And yes, this is really difficult in high school when the pressures to be 'like' others can feel omnipresent.

The other issue you raise, though, is about what 'counts' as multicultural; more specifically, you ask whether dimensions of a person's identity need to be 'visible' to count, and you juxtapose your Jewish identity with your skin privilege as a white person.  So first I want to say that visibility often has implications in terms of dis/advantages accrued from someone's culture/identity, but visibility or not doesn't determine whether something is part of a person's cultural identity.  Now even in terms of what's visible, I'd say that this isn't absolute and that context is important, i.e. someone might be more visibly 'different' (if Jewish, for example) in some settings than in others.  I look forward to our continued exploration of this issue - it's complicated!