Confessions of a Secular Jew
I am currently undergoing an ethnic identity crisis. So dramatic, I know. And yet this article serves as a cathartic medium, as it helps me articulate my confused and conflicting thoughts, and reconcile what I am: a Jew.
While I will be critiquing particular features of Jewish culture, it is important to note that I am not condemning the religion. Some may believe culture and religion are homogenous, but I have encountered them separately. In my experience, people’s participation in traditions or customs does not necessarily represent their views on God or spirituality.
That being said, both of my parents are of Ashkenazi heritage, with full-blooded Jewish families on both sides. I was raised in an upper-middle-class home with progressive values, and moderate incorporation of Jewish traditions. My parents offered me conflicting viewpoints on the religion; my mother would admire the morals and history, and my father would rant about the indoctrination, guilt, and hypocrisy. Nevertheless, they were both very accepting of my feelings and allowed me to decide the extent in which I’d engage in the religion.
As of recently, I’ve begun to deeply reflect on what it means to wear this permanent name-tag.
I live twenty miles north of New York City, in a suburban river town called Nyack, NY. A whopping 22.49% of Nyack residents are Jewish, which is pretty impressive given the national average of 2.2%. While we’ve never been the majority, I’ve grown up knowing my fair share of Goldbergs, Cohens, Hirschs, and Weinbaums. Having Jewish people was normal for me; I never felt isolated by my ethnicity, nor was I ever stung by anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, I was surrounded by a particular category of Jewish people: the democratic, NGO working, whole-wheat eating, Woodstock vacationing, progressive idealizing Jews. And yet, I understood that this group did not represent all of the “chosen people.”
In fact, just two towns over is a suburb called Ramapo which is densely populated by Hasidic Jews (around 50,000 in the year 2014). Ramapo is known countywide, not just for the significant Jewish community, but for their extreme actions. Ramapo’s Hasidim have made headlines for scandals occurring within the public-school system. Hasidic Jews have taken control of the East Ramapo school board and have made enormous cuts to the school’s budget. They were determined to reduce local taxes tremendously, which would cater to Jewish private schools. The majority of Hasidic Jews send their children to private Jewish Yeshivas or are homeschooled, while 90% of the children attending public schools in East Ramapo are low-income people of color. Through the initiatives of the Hasidic Jews, all extracurricular and non-academic resources were cut in the public schools: no art, no music, no sports, no clubs.
The result of this mistreatment was a massive influx of students from East Ramapo illegally altering their address and transferring to Nyack. I always got along quite well with these students except for one thing: they despised Jews. Their perception of Jews was stereotypical and distorted: curly headed, yarmulke wearing, extracurricular stripping, creativity hating, greedy. At this point, I developed an internal resentment and shame of my jewishness. I wanted to disassociate myself from what those kids experienced and believed.
If I felt that those negative stereotypes were completely erroneous, I probably would have been less affected. But I saw some truth behind them- even in my own family. My paternal grandparents have consistently advocated for my Jewish identity. I have memories of them boasting Jewish pride and growling about anti-semitism throughout history. They always relished watching my cousins sing memorized prayers while whispering guilt into my less religious ears. They would bribe me with Bat-Mitzvah gifts and would slip subtle and some not-so-subtle racist comments into our daily conversations.
After years of processing and reflection, I’ve concluded that my grandparents’ intensity came from unease. I’ve learned that this mindset is a result of fear, anger, and isolation and I resent the fact that I feel obligated to continue Judaism for the sake of my traumatized ancestors. Nonetheless, my grandparents’ point of view should not be dismissed, for it is a collective mentality that has existed among Jews for generations. I’ll broadly generalize this perspective, and term it the “The Jewish Vigilance”.
From the beginning of their history, Jews have been isolated, persecuted, and exiled. They have endured some of the cruelest acts in human history, tormented by racism and extreme forms of oppression. These hardships, spanning thousands of years, have continued to exist as significant components of the Jewish identity. In my experience, being Jewish is not just about observing the holidays and participating in the traditions, it is also about fully engaging in and remembering the adversity weathered by the Jewish people. We are shown we must carry part of our ancestors’ burden; we must run from the Egyptians during the Exodus; we must revolt against the tyrannical Romans; we must crumble in the camps of Auschwitz. The Jewish Vigilance has emerged and persisted over thousands of years of trauma.
This creates a profound sense of community. Just like any culture, there is comfort with those who understand your lifestyle, your values, your history, your traditions.
I believe this trait could be applied to many minority groups, especially those who feel that their cultures’ are threatened. Unity within Jewish culture can also be exclusive. I’ve found that many Jewish people exhibit a wariness towards non-jews, or goyim, questioning their intentions and morals. Moreover, the Jewish Vigilance is discriminatory, since goyim are often seen as unreliable compared to fellow Jews. Jewish Vigilance prioritizes survival- it expects its people to continue the religion no matter the circumstance. This is part of what motivates some Jews to claim land in an ethically questionable manner: the race must endure at all costs.
These values and morals are passed down from one generation to the next, in homes and communities. The mentality with which we are brought up leaves an imprint on the worldviews we develop during adulthood. Due to its isolating nature, Jewish Vigilance resonates with many Jews. It’s almost as if this Vigilance has extended to the realm of the biological: Jewish people have relied on this mentality as a survival mechanism to persevere through ruthless victimization and traumas.
Despite this history of oppression, I continue to take issue with this mentality. As a millennial experiencing young adulthood in 2018, I’m frustrated by the exclusive mindset held by the Jewish generations before me.
Adversity is present in many communities and should be fought on all fronts. The ethnocentric and isolating characteristics of Jewish Vigilance are reactionary forces, set against attempts to promote an egalitarian world. I am grounded by my values, ethics, and aspirations: they stand independent of my ethnic background. And yet, I bear this label and the baggage that it entails.
Moving to France, I’ve encountered quite a few instances of culture shock. Besides the sloth-like speed of meals and the emphasis on politesse, I’ve noticed there aren’t many Jews here compared to New York. What’s more, Parisians always want to know where you’re from, especially if you have an ethnically-ambiguous appearance. My thick, dark, curly hair grabs their attention, and when they ask my background, “Les Etats Unis” usually doesn’t quench their curiosity. They often retaliate with an assortment of “Mais, de quelle origine?”, or “Mais, d’où vient ta famille?”, or my least favorite, “Mais vraiment, t’es d’où?” At this point I have to make a decision, I guess it may seem like a basic one, and maybe in an alternate universe I could comfortably reply, “Oh, I’m Jewish!”
But alas, that’s where this whole thing comes full circle: I’m experiencing an ethnic identity crisis. I don’t want to be defined by my ethnicity and be categorized as a preppy, show-tune loving, NYC suburbia residing, socialist summer camp going, liberal arts studying, frizzy-haired Jew. I don’t want people assuming I’m a gung-ho Zionist, or super devout; I don’t want them to think I hold the same mindset as my relatives or look down upon non-Jews. I want to be the sole sculptor of how people understand me, without the help of Abraham and his tribe.
I know that my personal issues with Judaism are a result of living in one single place, for all eighteen years of my life. As I enter the world as a hopeful global citizen, I am ready to encounter new perspectives on Judaism, those which will challenge my former experiences and judgements. I foresee a lifelong journey in which the Jewish identity will continue to morph and develop in my mind.