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Are You Jewish or American? Living with a Dual Identity

Statue of Liberty - NYC

Most people are born with more than one identity. Some identities go hand in hand and have blended together throughout the years. For example, American values and Christian values are often associated with one another, yet since they do not contradict each other they can coexist peacefully. Or, for example, if someone has a French mother and Italian father and lives in Houston, chances are, he won’t have a personal identity crisis as to who he is. They can simply identify as both or at a minimum, a Texan. There are however some innate identities that are contradictory in nature, thereby not allowing both identities to compliment each other by coexisting. For example, if someone has one parent that’s a Sunni Muslim and another that identifies as a Shia Muslim, he or she will have to decide as to which parental identity to associate themselves within their community and social network.

For centuries there has been much debate over whether an American identity can successfully coexist within a religious framework. Referring to religions other than Christianity, America has been, for the most regard, a tolerant country. Yet while social coexistence and tolerance are one thing, fitting in is a completely different story. In America’s earlier years, maintaining a religious identity other than Christianity and fitting in with the American culture was close to impossible. This held especially true for the Jewish population of the early 20th century, as these Jews would be put into the unfortunate position of having to choose between identifying as a Jew or risk not being allowed to partake in the American culture and lifestyle.

Discrimination in education via the quota system, Jews not being allowed to purchase properties in certain areas or discriminatory hiring practices in iconic American companies, culminated in open and rampant anti-Semitism throughout the social fabric of the American society. Just think of Henry Ford of the 1910’s, the Ku-Klux-Klan of the 1920’s or Father Coughlin hate filled rants of the 1930’s to get a rough idea as to how difficult it was to identify as a Jew if you truly wished to succeed within the American dream framework. Nowadays however, since America has blended into an imperfect but quintessential melting pot, I believe that sharing the American culture while as the same time living as an open and proud Jew is more possible than ever before. I argue that the barriers of allegiances, limitations, and culture clashes do not exist between the American and Jewish culture of today.

For anyone that shares a dual identity, there is the obvious question of where one’s allegiance lies. In the article Paper Tigers, Wesley Yang states that although he externally has the facial features of an individual from Korea, he is internally an American with American values. Yang clearly associates himself as an American even though he has a dual equal identity as a Korean and an American.

Yet American Jews are faced with the question of which identity is more important to them. For most American Jews, the answer is difficult. On one hand, our instinct is to reply that their Judaism always comes first. On the other hand, being a born and raised American means that the culture is so deeply a part of their identities. Therefore, anyone that will argue that being American and Jewish is not possible will bring up this issue of loyalty.

Although it is a valid point, there is one problem. This argument carries validity only under the assumption that American Jews do indeed have to choose between their religious identities and cultural identities. In the days of yesteryear when the American workweek included Saturday, religiously observant Jewish employees would have to choose between keeping their jobs (thus their American lifestyle) or observing the Sabbath. Nowadays however, the typical workweek is Monday through Friday, and observant Jews do not have to choose between their keeping their jobs or following their religious beliefs. This is one example of many. The fact is that post World War Two, America has become more accommodating to religions aside from traditional Christianity, making the question choosing a single loyalty to live by a non-issue. Personally, as an American Jew, my Jewish identity comes first. However, since no one is making me choose between the two, I can happily live as a Jew and an American.

The second issue with sharing a dual identity is the question of whether one identity limits someone in the general public of a different identity. As an individual striving for success, the question I would have to ask myself is, “Does identifying as a Jew limit my opportunities in America?” On one hand, the fact that America is a melting pot should allow equal opportunity to all Americans living with a dual identity. On the other hand, people subconsciously have a harder time relating to others that are different in any small way, shape or form.

While both sides of the argument are compelling, I have found that having the correct attitude is the answer to this quandary as it is an issue of personal perspective. If one truly believes that their dual identity will limit them, then it will. However, if one believes that he or she has an equal opportunity to succeed and excel, then that attitude alone eradicates any limitation. There is a famous cliché, “The only thing holding you back is yourself.” Along those lines, another overused phrase is “You are a prisoner of your own mind.” Both these sayings, makes a profound statement about the limitations in our lives. In the article Paper Tigers by Wesley Yang, the young Korean American illustrates the crucial role attitude had had in his own success. He mentions Jefferson Mao an aspiring first generation Asian-American student who states that, “I want to be a writer and an intellectual; at the same time . . . Sometimes I feel like I’m jumping the gun a generation or two too early.” In this statement, Mao wrongly states that the only thing holding him back is his own attitude as he believes being a first-generation immigrant means boundless success is not attainable. Nothing physical is limiting people with dual identities from succeeding. On the contrary, as an American Jew, I find that my dual culture allows me to have the best of both worlds, since I am privileged enough to be a part of, and enjoy two cultures. At the same time, if I were to believe that my identity as a Jew limited me from an American perspective, then my belief would be actualized and I would be unable to succeed.

The final issue with sharing a dual identity is the question of a culture clash. As mentioned previously, sometimes two identities are so contradictory that the bearer of the dual identity will have to choose between the two. This is not the case with the American culture and Jewish culture. The foundational bedrock of American culture is the declaration of independence for all. In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution which is the written guide of the American way of life, gives people the freedom to practice any religion. In other words, the culture of America is based on diversity, acceptance, and freedom for everyone to do as they please. Yet on the other hand, the Jewish culture follows set guidelines from the Torah. The Torah and Rabbis provide instructions as to how a religious Jew should lead a moral, ethical and fulfilled life, starting with how he ties his shoes in the morning, all the way to how to ethically slaughter animals by causing the minimal possible suffering. The 613 commandments of the Torah are called commandments not because they are optional but because these structural commandments give us meaning and purpose. So, at a first glance, the American and Jewish cultures do seem to clash as American culture is all about freedom while Judaism is seemingly about restriction. Yet rather than clashing this fundamental difference is exactly what allows the two cultures to coexist! Because the American culture is solely about freedom to do whatever you wish, the Jewish culture that is founded on set guidelines can seamlessly coexist within the framework of the American culture.

To summarize, my dual identity of being an American and being Jewish although starkly different in nature can coexist peacefully without any issues of loyalty, limitations or cultural interference. Both culturally beautiful in their respective forms, my American and Jewish identities can form together to create a blended culture, with the balance of freedom and acceptance while at the same time self-discipline and life purpose. So, as a member of both the American culture and the Jewish culture, I am proud to call myself an American Jew.

May God continuously bless the Jewish people and the United States of America.

Note: This was written before I made Aliyah. I now identify as Israeli.

About the Author
StevenZvi grew up in Brooklyn and in his professional life worked in the healthcare industry in New York City. Wishing to create additional meaning and purpose in his life, he moved to Jerusalem in November 2020, where he lives with his wife, works in the Medical Technology space and volunteers for Hatzalah. He uses his writing capabilities as a healthy outlet not to receive money, recognition or fame. It’s his hope that his articles will have some positive impact on the Jewish nation and humanity worldwide. He may not live forever, but his contributions to society might.
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