Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why ask why? Building My Jewish Identity

Alright, I have realized I am tired of explaining my Jewishness to people.  So outside of my sponsoring Rabbi and the Beit Din, I am done.
I find myself constantly doing this with anyone who knows that I am converting.  I need to stop.  Once I convert, I am Jewish and it should not matter I was not born and raised that way.  Yes, I have a lot to learn, but on the other hand who doesn't?  I have a lifetime of study ahead of me as does any other observant Jew.
I find myself explaining these personal things yet again in my Torah class or to a new person I meet who happens to be Jewish.  Not everyone needs to know my business.  I realize there will be occasions that I may need to share this with others, but not ALL the time.  I found myself thinking I have verbal diarrhea when it comes to this subject.
My rabbi gave me an article called "Ethnicity is Not Judaism" by David Essex...
It talks about Judaism being based on Torah, Israel and the Sages, not being traced to the shtetls of Eastern Europe.  While 1/2 of me can be traced to Italy and 1/4 of me to the Civil War, that last 1/4 can indeed be traced to Eastern Europe.  Grandma did wear a babushka (you know one of those gorgeous scarves women wore from that area, whenever it was slightly windy). 
So what is my problem here?  I would say I am ashamed of my family's own identity crisis.  I am ashamed that my family felt it was so bad to be Jewish that they blew it off and converted.  What the heck were they thinking?  Where were their values?  What brought this on?  I wish that for one day I could go back to my great-grandfather's life and be that "fly on the wall".  Realistically, I will never know the answers to these questions.  I will never know what was so terrible in their life that they decided to abandon Judaism or did they have some sort of crazed Christian evangelical light bulb go on in their heads?  Honestly, I think it boils down to one simple thing, it made life easier.  I did not live in their time, nor did I walk in their shoes, but my gut feeling is simply someone followed the path of least resistance.
The problem with my gut feeling is that in any event, I feel guilty for what they did.  Which logically is totally not my fault.  Albeit, I live in 2010, on the East Coast, where it is comfortable for me to find a Jewish life.  They didn't. 
For some reason, they chose to settle in Western Pa.  Originally, they were in Cleveland and Sharon, Pa where there were some Jews.  Then they went to New Castle, PA.  Good luck being Jewish there.  I can only assume it was the work and the possibility of having a little money for a change that attracted them to New Castle.  But here I am making excuses for them again. 
Bottom line, it is unfortunate my great-grandparents did what they did.  On the other hand if they hadn't I would not be here, a child of intermarriage both ethnically and religiously.  While I am convinced G-d does not chisel our destiny out for us and free will is an option..I am here because he put me here and I certainly have a right to exist.  I also have a right to be Jewish.  This goes regardless of what my grandparents decided.  I have to live my own life.  Judaism has given me the structure to live it in a more productive way.  It is the right solution for me and the right religion for me.  I need to become more comfortable with the fact this was an individual decision and not just some sort of magical genetic trait.  I need to continue to work on building a Jewish way of life and accepting my new identity because it is what I want.
Building Identity Piece by Piece
19th of Sh'vat, 5770 / י״ט בשבט תש״ע


  1. My Grandmother's family settled in Pennsylvania too (outside of Pittsburg in the middle of nowhere) but I'm certain they shrugged off their Jewish identity long before that. She was not raised Jewish by any means. I am curious, what sorts of questions do people ask?

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  3. Actually, very few people ask a direct question, except the "Why are you converting?" question. I give these explanations without necessity...I think I am trying to dodge what I think others are thinking, rather than just allowing myself to just join my Jewish community. This is why I have decided to try to stop explaining my presence there. I am there because I want to be.

  4. Kathy you are a real inspiration to me. My family left Germany just before 1930. They assimilated in upstate NY near Albany. I ended up becoming a Baptist Minister but I have periodically attempted to attend Temple. Now after all these years I am in my own process of conversion. While at the Baptist Seminary in Texas I shared my beliefs in no mediator necessary and was not accepted in any church I could find. Rabbi Gold at the Reform Temple invited me a long for the journey and now 20 years later I am working toward conversion in Topeka, Kansas. Thank you for sharing your story.


    George King

  5. George,
    Stay in touch. I know how it is. In a way you have to be a bit of a non-conformist, which isn't easy. However, I really think it is worth it. Unfortunately, you sacrifice the approval of many to feel comfortable with yourself.