This is a question every Jew faces. The struggles within and without are tough. Each person has their own story to tell, to bury, to wrestle with internally and with others. Nevertheless it is a question every Jew is confronted with at some point in their life. I can’t answer for you, only for myself.
While some who know me will cringe that I am revealing the story, my story, my answer to that illusory question. I hope my answer will help others who may face the same question with the anxiety of not knowing how to answer and maybe in turn will share your story, give your answer.
What feels like a very long time ago, 1964, I was born to two nice parents in a nice little mid-West town in America. With Schwinn bicycle, dance lessons, swimming at the park pool and hanging out with friends, who knew my secret? Not even me. I think back and realize how sheltered my life was.
Our town was predominately White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant or Catholic. There were a few Hispanic-Latino families, a few Japanese-Americans thanks to a vet from the war days. There was also some kids from international adoptions. But white and Christian was the theme.
I felt odd. Somewhere in the core of every Jew there is that feeling of being a little different. The funny thing is I didn’t know I was a Jew. I was raised Christian. Going to church, reading Christian bibles, celebrating Christian holidays. Then one day everything changed.
I was sixteen. I attended a semi-country school surrounded by farm land, pick-up trucks, boot wearers. I was in a history class, slouched down in my jeans and Izod shirt. We were watching an old black and white film on reel to reel about World War II. I remember two points, the image of the Autobahn development thanks to the Chancellor’s vision and some rat near a poison box. Really I was more impressed with the great highway system. I was a kid. I’d learned to drive and seeing roads where one could legally drive fast, a dream to a teenager. Oh how naïve.
After school I would go over to my paternal grandparents house, eat cookies, pound on the piano and chat with them. On this one afternoon Grandpa asked me his usual question, “What did you learn in school today?” My answer changed life forever.
“We learned about a little man with a funny mustache who changed the economy around in Germany.” He was in the kitchen and I was doing the Goosestep around the Duncanfife table in the dinning room. He came out of the kitchen tears streaming down his face and handed me a tattered piece of paper. He was choked up. I glanced at the paper entitled, “Our debt to the Jews.” His next few words have been tattooed on my brain ever since. “You do not know where you come from and who you are.”
To see my grandfather so emotional shook me. I couldn’t figure out what everything meant in that moment. However that weekend I felt driven to go to the library and look up our name. In the reference section was a thick book about surnames and their etymology. I found it. Next to our name in plain black and white, ‘German Jew’. What? What exactly is a Jew? I didn’t have a clue but it became my life’s obsession to learn who I was and where I’d come from.
That weekend lead me through years of searching, two conversions, one Reform, then later to rabbinical seminary, then becoming a conservative rabbi, later to convert again to Orthodox in order to make Aliyah to Israel.
And now? Good question. Who is a Jew here in Israel. Funny how terrorists don’t much care how religious one is. But for much of Israel Jews fall into two categories, religious and secular. And by religious it means fully Orthodox. Yet I know many seculars who believe in God but have varying interpretations on halakah. Yet to the religious, they are not living a Jewish life. There’s no middle ground here.
I was such a solid Jew in America. Here, I struggle more than I ever did in the States. To me life isn’t so clearly white and black. Yet somewhere deep inside I know I am a Jew. I am a wrestling Jew still trying to answer my grandfather’s statement of figuring out who I am and where I come from with the sand in my shoes and my Jewish name in the land called Israel.