Life & Style

The complexity of identity

Image By: Zoe Bendoff

In this quarantine time I’ve been yearning for some light, entertaining TV to occupy my time. And yet, somehow, I’ve ended up watching mostly holocaust movies. And, it’s been making me think a lot about my religion.

I am Jewish. Both of my parents are Jewish. All four of my grandparents are Jewish. I have told my mother several times that one of these days, I’m going to do 23 and Me with the hopes that I will have something interesting revealed about my lineage, like I’m one percent Inuit or Pacific Islander. She just rolls her eyes and reminds me that it will positively say that I am 100 percent, absolutely, unequivocally, Ashkenazi Jew.

However, I’ve only come to understand where I fit into this Jewish universe during this pandemic.

I started going to Hebrew school in elementary school. I understood Judaism as pre-pubescent boys with Jew-fros and teachers with rimless glasses far too small for their faces criticizing the way I wrote my Alephs.

After the first few years of Hebrew school, we started to learn more about the stories of the Torah. We learned about Moses and Abraham and Joseph.

My mind always wandered during those classes. Sunday after Sunday I would sit in that synagogue and struggle to maintain my attention. (Though, admittedly, not very hard.) 

I soon realized what the issue was.

Moses, Abraham and Joseph were all men. All the stories we were told were about men. I felt like I couldn’t relate to these stories. I didn’t see my place in them. I felt like I couldn’t be a meaningful participant in Jewish society unless I was making Jewish baby boys.

I felt like being a feminist and being Jewish could not coexist. I chose feminism and cast Judaism aside for a while.

A few years later, during my freshman year of high school, I met one of my best friends. She is Filipino. I was fascinated by her culture. I loved listening to her and her family speak Tagalog and sing karaoke. I envied her culture and all its nuances and traditions. I wished I had a stronger connection with my own culture. But I recalled the choice I felt I had to make about my identity.

At this time, my best friend was getting very interested in science. She wanted to pursue medicine but didn’t want to be a nurse because most of her family members were nurses. It was a common profession among the Filipino community and she wanted to forge her own identity. She decided she would be a doctor.

I related to this feeling of not wanting your religion to define your path. I too wanted to forge my own identity separate from Judaism. I didn’t want to be a banker or lawyer. I didn’t want to do the professions my community had done either. I wanted to do something that was unusual in the Jewish community. I wanted to defy categorization 

When I started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison my junior year of college I took a class on feminism. I discovered two of my biggest role models: Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. 

They were what I wanted to be. They were the missing women in my Hebrew school history lessons. Free thinkers and writers who changed the way we thought about society for the rest of time. Women who tapped into something so profound out bled the waters of a movement.

They became my role models. I wanted to write about what it was really like to exist today just like them. I wanted to be a journalist.

Friedan and Steinem made me feel like I could achieve something totally my own, without being bound by the constraints of Judaism. 

That summer my family visited Berlin. We saw the train stations where Jews were carted off to death camps and the villa where the Nazis developed the “final solution” to the “Jewish question.” 

I thought this would be where my religious reckoning would come. I would face the darkest days of Jewish history and a zealous sense of Judaism would be infused into me. Suddenly the sexist history of the religion wouldn’t matter anymore. 

But I didn’t feel that. I felt like being in that space of ocean air under a curling wave. Something huge was crashing over me and around me but I wasn’t getting soaked somehow. 

Learning more about the persecution of the Jews didn’t enable me to accept the pillars of the religion in the way I thought it would. It affected me deeply but not in a religious way. In simply a human way. I felt empathy for my ancestors but didn’t feel emboldened to adopt a more devout religiousness. I felt more empowered to be a journalist than a more religious Jew. 

That trip was about a year ago now. In the past few months I have found myself revisiting topics of the holocaust. I’ve watched TV shows such as “Unorthodox,” “The Plot Against America” and “Genius” and movies like “Inglorious Bastards.” 

I’ve realized that a lot of what Jews have done since the Holocaust is try to deal with the Holocaust through their chosen vocations. Artists reimagine a just ending to the Nazi regime like “Inglorious Bastards” depicts. Jews launched into living the Torah literally like the Hassidic Satmar Jews of Williamsburg depicted in “Unorthodox.” Authors imagine an anti-Semitic America like in “The Plot Against America,” trying to put themselves in the shoes of the European Jews.

I think a lot of Jewish people feel the way I do about the Holocaust. It was a tragedy that defies understanding and Jewish creators have used their art to try to understand it.

Social scientists like Ashe, Milgrim and Zimbardo spent their careers trying to understand how regular Europeans could stand by and allow their friends, teachers and colleagues to get massacred. The evils of the Holocaust confounded some of the most brilliant minds in modern history and continue to today. 

I am about to enter the professional world as a journalist because I love telling stories and shedding light on communities whose stories many of us don’t understand. 

Perhaps I too want to better understand the Holocaust with my career. Perhaps that disconnect I felt with my religion wasn’t just about the lack of women in the Torah stories but also about my inability to grasp the events of the Holocaust. Maybe this feeling of being so close and so far from Judaism all at once led down that path of wanting to be a journalist.

The other day my mother told me that, in fact, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were both Jewish like me. I had never known that two of my biggest role models were Jewish until last week. I wanted to be just like them and I realized that, in fact, they were just like me. 

I had spent my identity seeking days trying to escape my Judaism. I chose my feminism over my religion and it led me right back to my religion. 

I realized that this was no coincidence. The fact that two of the founding mothers of feminism are Jewish is no act of chance. 

Jewish women get a reputation for being nosy and opinionated. I always wanted to run from these traits and be polite and restrained, never giving into those disagreeable stereotypical characteristics.

However, it occured to me that those are really just the traits of great journalists. Nosiness is really just curiosity. Opinionatedness is an attempt at explaining the phenomena of the modern world. Freidan and Steinem were such successful writers because they were Jewish and possessed stereotypically Jewish traits. That is what made them the influential figures that they became. They were curious and determined to figure out a way to explain the world. They were Jewish women. And without those traits they would never have done the incredible work they did.

I realized that perhaps I was exactly that stereotypical Jewish girl I was so desperately trying to escape becoming. I was opinionated (I say as I write an opinion column) and nosy and stubborn.  And I am so grateful for it. 

I found my way back to my Judaism. I’ve realized that one does not have to choose one identity. I can be a woman and Jewish and a journalist and something else that is all my own. I can possess stereotypes and be one of a kind all at once. I contain multitudes.

My best friend came to this realization as well. She is currently studying to become a nurse, just like all her Filipino relatives. But she is still and always will be a one of a kind. 

I urge underclassmen looking to find their path to embrace all aspects of themselves. That is how we create strong senses of identity and make the mark we are destined to make on the world. Humans are dimensional enough to contain stereotypes and novelty, old world and new world. You can wear your ethnicity proudly on your sleeve and still be a one of a kind because you are inherently unique in just being you. And understanding all components of your identity will make every contribution you make to the world that much richer and more meaningful. 

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