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Hineni/Hygge: The Tale of A Viking Jew

I am the second generation descendant of Danish immigrants to the USA.  I am also a Jew by Choice. These things are not mutually exclusive, nor are they unrelated.  It is just complicated.  How does one reconcile having DNA from a country with more pigs than people with being Jewish, a religion that abhors pork?  On my own journey to Denmark in 2018, I came to realize that these two identities can and do coexist.

When I officially converted to Judaism as an adult, I went through a phase of feeling like I had to reject my biological heritage. It was as if the mikveh supposedly washed away the old me and brought forth a new Jewish me. 

I went through a time of hiding my maiden name, which is Danish, and focusing on my married name, which is Jewish.  It annoyed me when people who were Jewish would assume I was Christian and wish me Merry Christmas and Happy Easter.  I felt Jewish with every breath. Why couldn’t everyone else see it?  All they saw was a fair skinned, blue eyed woman with European features who did not look even remotely Jewish.  I started wearing Jewish jewelry. A shma ring.  A Star of David.  A hamsa.  It didn’t matter. Jews looked at me and didn’t see another Jew.

The word “conversion” implies a transition from one thing another.  I feel a more appropriate term is “adoption”.  I adopted Judaism.  Yes, it changed me but in an additive way. It didn’t replace anything.  Perhaps if I had been a “practicing” Christian before, it would have been different, but I was not.  I had always felt something was missing. There was a faith sized hole that Christianity didn’t fill.  When I visited Israel the first time in 2012, Judaism fit right into that empty spot. It fit very well, like it had always belonged there. 

This addition of Judaism to my life, to my identity, filled me up.  I felt at times like I was bursting open.  The cracks made me vulnerable and ultimately helped me grow.  I was stretched in new ways that made me more me.  But there have been some uncomfortable moments of reckoning.  Where do I fit into  the conversation about whether or not Jews are “white?”  Because this one is.  My family’s immigrant experience was very different from that of my Jewish husband (and my own Jewish children).  I have no direct connection to anyone who was lost in the Holocaust, but yet I feel that heartbreaking loss like it happened to me.  I have never experienced antisemitism directly.  

In 2018, I went to Denmark with my sisters on a “heritage tour.”  We met distant cousins.  We visited our great grandfather’s old farm.  We drank aquavit and Carlsberg beer and learned to pronounce difficult words in our ancestral language. Everyone looked like me.  I never felt so Danish and so proud of it until that trip.  Weeks earlier, I was a bat mitzvah at a celebration in Cherkassy Ukraine.  I then went straight to Israel and celebrated the 70th Yom Hautzmaut. I felt so Jewish and proud of it.  I was bursting open and growing and proud of all that I was and all I had become. 

I am reminded of a day long ago when I met my husband’s grandfather, who was an ardent Zionist and proud Jew. We were a bit worried how he would react to me not being Jewish. He saw my name, Rasmussen, smiled, gave me a squeeze and said, “Ah, a Danish name.  The Danes helped the Jews in the war.”  He passed away several years before I myself traveled to his beloved Israel or converted to Judaism.  But I always felt like he was part of my story, that he unwittingly helped me build a bridge between these two identities before I even knew I needed it.  Abe Purchik, z”l, your memory has been for a blessing.

Hineni. Hygge.  Here I am and I am comfortable with it.

Besides, what’s more badass than a Viking Jew?

About the Author
Julia Malaga is a Jewish communal professional with a strong interest in strengthening Israel/Diaspora relations and building living bridges within the Jewish world and between the various Tribes of Israel.
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