But your nose is so small, you eat cheeseburgers, you don’t seem to count every penny in your wallet.
Growing up in a non-religious household in the United States, I never thought too much about what it meant to be Jewish. My Jewish identity boiled down to eight presents on Hannukkah and two long days listening to gibberish in temple in September. I had a Bat Mitzvah but didn’t understand the meaning of it, just reveled in my party afterwards.
Even though I didn’t practice Judaism frequently at home, I was constantly reminded of my religion because of that question. When asked Wait, you’re Jewish? I never thought of the significant undertones. There seemed to be a negative connotation associated with the question—it was never followed up with Oh wow great! That’s so cool, rather You don’t look Jewish. It was more of an interrogation than a simple inquiry.
Unconsciously I started to feel shame or embarrassment when someone would startle at the revelation of my religion. No one ever asked my peers You’re catholic? But you don’t dress like a nun or pray every Sunday! It made me feel like there was this huge distinction between us.
In college I learned about the literary technique of “othering”—the idea of a majority purposefully separating themselves from the minority other to remain superior. I don’t think that the people I’ve met my whole life have consciously categorized me as the other because of my religion. But simply by asking the question, implies a sense of inferiority, creating a barrio between them and me. One that only exists because of social constructs and one that shamed my sense of religion. Why did the distinction have to be made? Why were people so shocked to discover I was Jewish? Why did it even matter?
These constant questions changed when I moved to Israel this year to teach English. I knew I would have a huge impact on my students, young Israelis in elementary schools, but I never imagined how the year would change me.
Right away I noticed the plurality of the community, with a shared sense of pride of what it meant to be Jewish. Native Israelis, Russians, Ethiopians, Americans, Australians, French, the list goes on and on. In a society so mixed, I had never before felt such an understood sense of unity. It wasn’t necessarily the myriad of holidays celebrating our past, but the acknowledgment that all the Jewish people living in Israel have a common trait that binds us. We share the burden of our history, the struggles of our present, and the promise of our future.
It was this sense of unity coupled with an intense pride of being Jewish that changed my perspective. No one asked me this entire year if I was Jewish. Yes, I guess you could say it was assumed, but I like to think it’s because it’s not something I should have been asked, something I was meant to hide; rather something to be proud of. After walking down the highway on Yom Kippur, dressing up for Purim with my students, and having a barbeque on Yom Haatsmaut, I have shed my fears and shame of being Jewish, and fully embrace it.
Last month I travelled abroad for a weekend. I was well aware of the anti-Semitism plaguing Europe recently, so while standing in customs, I wondered if people would notice the Hebrew writing under the Masa Logo on my backpack.
This fear of whether people would care that I’m Jewish, whether they noticed my backpack, is a feeling I don’t think I’ll ever shake. It’s ingrained in me because of societal expectations: of othering the Jew. But the fact that I consciously chose that backpack over my teal Jansport shows that I’ve changed this year—that living in Israel has taught me to be proud of my Jewishness, to flaunt it so to speak.
I had another interesting experience while in Europe, one that I haven’t shared with many. Out one night with a friend, we ended up sharing a table with four men. They were friendly and talkative. We had spent nearly an hour together before the infamous question surfaced.
I had decided to show off my poor Hebrew skills, not thinking of what knowledge of the language would indicate. They instantly asked how I knew Hebrew, and my friend and I told them that we hade been living in Israel for a year.
And then, drum roll please…Wait you guys are Jewish?
I’m not going to lie, that question silenced an hour of good conversation, and we sat there in awkward silence for at least 15 seconds.
My friend and I left soon after, but not before we answered their question. We told them that we are in fact Jewish, and that we spend almost every weekend in Tel Aviv, one of the best cities in the world. No, we don’t keep Kosher or rest on Shabbat, but we can read Hebrew and have been to the Western Wall.
Although I don’t think these guys actually cared about what we were saying, I was proud of myself. Proud that I let them know I was Jewish and I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It is worth noting though that we did hide this information for the first hour, telling them we were from New York, glossing over any details. Once faced with the question I was more than happy to share, but before that there was still something in my head that hushed any conversation about my religion.
My year in Israel has definitely changed my mentality towards a lot of things. I have developed some Israeli chutzpa, standing up for myself much more and choosing conversation over passive aggressive behavior. I’ve also embraced Israeli hospitality and the familiarity of Shabbat dinner. I know how to push my way onto a bus, but I also always give up my seat for the elderly. Most importantly, I am Jewish and I’ve never been more proud.