Roots, Community, and Labeling

It’s no secret that we Jews love labeling. We’re constantly trying to fit people into precise boxes to make sure that our understanding of the world corresponds with the facts on the ground. There’s Chareidi, Yeshivish, Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist, Chardal, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Ultra Orthodox, Observant, and Ex Religious. Within each of these categories there are also of course sub categories. There are also Baalei Teshuva, people who identify as somewhere between Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox, and people who became more religious and “flipped out.”

The politically correct reaction to labeling is to declare that labels are meaningless and that everyone ultimately has their own identity which can’t be reduced down to a simple category. While there’s much truth to this statement, it doesn’t accurately portray the behind-the-scenes significance of just why this obsession persists even while almost everyone is outwardly dismissive of it. It’s because at the root of this Jewish habit lies the pillar of everything that embodies being Jewish: Community.

We use labels to seamlessly integrate into the communities where we feel most comfortable. Community acts as the festive ribbon that keeps everything tied together and also has the potential to unravel and make everything scatter when it’s not firmly tied in place. Jewish practice demands communal participation on a daily basis. Without community there’s no kaddish, no tzedakah, and no aliyah to the Torah. We might abhor certain aspects of conformity in our communities but we’ll still make minor sacrifices if we must in order to be accepted and respected in our chosen communities.

Selecting a community is no trivial matter. Community affects the way we perceive ourselves as well as the way outsiders perceive us. It can have far reaching ramifications for ourselves and our children. This recently came to light for me through a common sibling dynamic where I remembered things differently than my brother and was engaged in a vehement disagreement with him. I remembered growing up in a community where almost everyone kept chalov yisrael and rabeinu tam to the point that not accepting rabeinu tam meant that you were modern and kept early shabbos, instead of there just being regular and late shabbos. My brother claims that this is not the case and that I’m equating the entire community with the hardcore Yeshivish people who lived on my block.

This debate might seem foolish at face value but it’s actually not that absurd. It was an attempt to define a community and more specifically the community I grew up in. The community you were raised in is consequential to the outlook you develop in your formative years. A too rigid and stringent community can potentially have the undesired effect of disillusionment and vice versa an overly liberal and permissive upbringing can be the catalyst for the post yeshiva and seminary colloquial “flipping out.” 

As significant as a community is, there’s still yet another deeper intrinsic layer that people who were fortunate to spend the majority of their childhood predominantly in the same neighborhoods inherently possess. It’s having legitimate roots that anchor you to your heritage and that no matter how much you might try you’ll never be able to fully abandon the branches. It’s immediately recognizing and distinctly remembering your community teachers, classmates, and neighborhood clerks even years later and sharing that tenacious bond. In my case I was also fortunate to grow up within walking distance of my grandparents and almost all of my first cousins. This means that family rituals like walking to shul with my grandmother or cousins are ingrained into my very essence and will always be an integral part of my childhood. These roots ground us, bear the weight of our present burdens, and divinely carry us throughout all of life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.

About the Author
Chava Berman Kaplan grew up in Los Angeles, CA in an orthodox community in the La Brea Fairfax neighborhood. She moved to Israel in her early twenties, first residing in Jerusalem, then Bet Shemesh, and now in Holon. She has two children, ages twelve and ten, who study in a mamlachti school in Holon. She works as an English teacher and has always enjoyed writing as a hobby.
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