I am a life-coach who uses texts – Jewish religious tracts, general literature, newspaper articles, poetry and song – to help people achieve personal breakthroughs. In this blog I share my case notes with you in the hope that they will speak to you personally and help us all to build better selves and a better world. All stories are highly disguised, often composites, and always published with the agreement of the clients.

One of my first cases concerned a young woman who had grown up in the US with divorced parents. Her father was not Jewish, very pro-Israel and open to matters of the spirit. Her mother was a former Israeli with an ambivalent relationship to Israel and Judaism. My client was struggling to make sense of her identity (do we blame her?) and brought in the book the Color of Water by James McBride. The book is written by the son of a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity and married a black preacher. In many ways the book is the inverse of the books many Jews like to read – we like books where non-Jews choose to join the faith and these books serve to reinforce our own sense of self.

The Color of Water depicts McBride’s attempts to make sense of his past and the past of his mother. The line than resonated for my client, let’s call her Kaye, was “I felt like a tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets” (pg. 211). We used the classic chevruta method utilized in yeshivot to unpack this text. In chevruta two people slowly and deeply analyze a passage aloud.

Kaye came to me very anxious to find out who she “really” was. She had created dichotomies between being Israeli and American, Jewish and gentile, religious and secular, Zionist and non-Zionist and she wanted to be able to check off where she was on each dichotomy. In addition she felt all her choices should hang together i.e. she felt she should either be a Jewish Israeli religious Zionist or a secular gentile American – okay, I exaggerate, but just a little.

This quote gave her the understanding that identity is not a given but can be built as one builds with Tinkertoy sets. Tinkertoys have a limited number of pieces but these pieces can be used to build many different objects. The objects can be taken apart and put together again in a different way each time. Kaye began to feel free to play with her identities, to try diverse aspects of her self out, to emphasize one part sometimes and another part at others times. Once she learned that it is okay to play, she was able to start making meaningful adult decisions about how she wanted to live her life. But the real breakthrough came when she shared with me that she had found out that there were different versions of the Tinkertoy sets and some had parts that others did not. She realized she was not in a prison of her past but could choose to add new elements to her personality some of them disconnected from her personal history.

It is common to speak of the current generation of young people as a generation with malleable and multiple identities and to contrast this with previous generations where identity was less fluid. I have to admit that listening to Kaye I had a different reaction. I grew up with strong messages of who I was and who I wasn’t. Yet, listening to Kaye was enlightening. I realized that my own identity is not as clear-cut as I would like to think. I have always doubted Matthew Arnold’s words “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full” – Was faith ever completely apparent? Was identity ever simple? Or are we all tinkertoy kids building our own selves out of one of those toy building sets?