When I was growing up, being Jewish meant to me that we ate challah on Friday nights, put on a Purim play once a year (in which I always got to play Queen Esther), and lit Hanukkah candles while the Christmas tree gleamed in the other room. I loved learning about Jewish history, reading the stories, and celebrating the holidays with all their delicious food. Synagogue was a bore, though, and I spent my time there clambering around the balcony with other children while the singing wafted up to us from the congregation below. Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot meant inviting my neighborhood friends over for apples and honey or cookies and tea in the sukkah.
I loved sharing my holidays and stories with my friends, and I never really thought of myself as Jewish in opposition to anything else. Some people were Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim, and so on. It was a natural part of my life and my identity, and I didn’t think much on my place in the larger world as a Jewish person.
As I got older and entered high school, I grew less interested in the religious rituals, waiting impatiently for Shabbos prayers to be over so I could eat, declining the opportunity to go to shul. I started to really think about spirituality and the existence of God, and I decided I couldn’t really find a place for them in my internal life. I learned about astronomy and biology and history, and my appreciation for the magic and majesty of the universe grew, but with no spirituality alongside it. It was actually more incredible to me that all the millions of galaxies, the thousands of species on earth, the winding history of our planet, were by random chance than by design. So I moved away from my earlier easy identification with being Jewish. Now I felt I was Jewish because my family was, but it didn’t really matter that much to me. Being Jewish didn’t mean much of anything to me personally other than a family history.
Recently, two changes have happened in my life that have once again shifted my connection to the word Jewish. After leaving home for college, I lost the steady/regular occurrence of my parents observing Shabbos and annual holidays. I missed the connection to those rituals that had been handed to me without much need for action on my part. I started seeking my own connection to Judaism as an adult, and suddenly, my connection to the word, the label, the identity Jewish had much more meaning again.
At the same time that I was seeking to strengthen my connection to my Jewish culture and heritage, around the world there was a rise in antisemitism. People were hurt, even killed, for being Jewish. Others seemed to think nothing about spouting antisemitic hate, brandishing new forms of Nazi salutes, baring their hatred with pride.
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Though most of those events were concentrated in Europe, for the first time in my life I felt scared of being Jewish. At the same time that I was seeking connection and community recognition of being a Jew, small bursts of fear would color my thoughts. What would I do if I ever told someone I was Jewish and they reacted negatively? I had learned my people’s history growing up, the violence we had faced time and time again, but it had always seemed far removed, a thing of the past. Now it was a possibility in my present.
At the same time, as the Israeli-Palestine conflict continued, and I began to learn more about it, I felt ashamed for being Jewish while Israel did things I found abhorrent. And I saw people cite Israel as an excuse for antisemitic behavior.
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All these conflicting emotions – guilt for losing my connection to Judaism in the first place, fear of antisemitic behavior, and shame for Israel’s actions – were difficult for me to come to grips with. I struggled to move through them even as I held tight to my identity as a Jewish person. Throughout my entire life, as I’ve moved from childish enjoyment of holiday rituals, to teenage apathy toward religion, to my adult desire to rekindle my relationship with my culture, being Jewish has always been an important part of my identity. Even as my relationship to my heritage has changed, I’ve never wanted to be anything other than Jewish.
I understand that a country’s actions do not reflect on to every Jew in the world, and not even every Jew in Israel. I feel that the growth of violent antisemitism should be a call to seek connection and strength, and that I should not hide my identity in fear. And I know that, however much I lack in my knowledge or my practices, I am still Jewish in my bones and heart.
As I seek clarity within my complicated feelings, I am still proud to be Jewish.
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[Headline image: The photograph features a menorah sitting on a kitchen table, with three candles burning brightly as the others fade.]