On Being Zionist, Jewish, Jew – Or Not
IN FOCUS, 1 Nov 2010
The following is an email that was sent to me by an American Jew a few days ago. This is a very interesting text that exposes the depth of the Jewish Diaspora’s identity complex: Tribalism, shame, self hatred, pride and embarrassment…
You’re free to share my story if it interests you, but please spare my name.
My father is a Cleveland-born Labor Zionist who immigrated to Israel with the aspiration of redeeming his secular Jewish soul by pioneering and cultivating the land of his forefathers. My mother is a Mumbai-born B’nei Israel Jew who grew up rather poor in the southern development town of Dimona but worked hard and eventually became a well-paid corporate executive, all while maintaining her traditional Jewish orientation.
I was born in the Holy Land but left when I was four. I lost my Hebrew within a few months of my exile and always considered it a personal tragedy. It was a burned bridge to that curious home away from home that I would visit every few years–the big JCC my synagogue honored, the always-running summer camp my youth group worshiped, the headquarters to which I owed my ethnic loyalty. To have such an Israeli name without the ability to speak Hebrew…chaval (pitty).
I grew up with all the common trappings of the nominal Jewish upbringing. I went to Hebrew school with kids I could barely tolerate. I murmured prayers I didn’t understand. I read from a big scroll on my bar mitzvah–something about how the high priest is supposed to apply the blood from an animal sacrifice to various parts of his body.
It was always apparent to me that I was a bit different from my Jewish peers. It wasn’t just that I was Israeli. No, I was even more exotic than that. I was a rare breed of Jew. I was half Indian. I was 50% special.
Of course, I had been told about protests and hunger strikes in Israel in the 1950s for recognition of the B’nei Israel as full Jews, but it never made much of an impression on me. My mother occasionally complained of being regarded as “not a real Jew” by her Ashkenazi acquaintances, but for some reason this did not merit my consideration. I was Jewish. My penis showed it. Simple as that.
And besides, my friends never questioned my Jewishness. I was smart, funny, and neurotic. I was Woody Allen with a tan. A full helping of Yid with a bit of spice to make things interesting.
I arrived at your conclusion (though with less of a vengeance) about Jewishness at the age of 23. I recognized that my essentially secular Judaic identity was frivolous at best and dishonest at worst. However, rather than abandon Jewishness altogether (not feasible at the time), I decided to consider the alternative. I went to yeshiva–an ultra-orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem.
I tried desperately to bring consistency to my Jewish identity. I read ancient Babylonian ruminations on property rights. I tied leather straps and black boxes to my tired body every morning while thanking my creator for not making me a gentile, a woman, or a slave. I even kept the Sabbath.
But my skepticism got the best of me. I left yeshiva and returned to Jewish limbo–an unhappy Jew with an insecure Jewish identity.
To be fair, it wasn’t just the skepticism that drove me away; it was also the troubling discovery that many Haredi officials of Jewish law question my legal status as a Jew. What I had once carried as an ethnic badge of honor was now a mark of shame. I hated being around people who looked down on me. At first they would think I was Moroccan or Syrian (“Isn’t that cute? An oriental Jew.”), but upon discovering that half of my blood comes from the subcontinent, there would be a very apparent change of expression (“pagan”). I truly hated it. I would never question members of my tribe, why would they question me?
The vast majority of people who identify as Jewish accept me as Jewish, but the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of the most pious of my tribe do not consider me a member is slowly devouring my identification as one of the chosen.
Mr. Atzmon, your diagnosis of my identity is correct, and my very difficult “de-Judaization” is underway. As for your politics, I can take issue. I think there is more nuance to the situation than what you’re letting on, and I think the realization of it involves the application of your critique to non-Jewish tribal identities, as well.
That aside, I write to you as someone who hates it when Jews marry non-Jews, but also as someone who hates that hatred. I write to you as someone who feels personal embarrassment about Israel being so pitifully small, but also as someone who is embarrassed by that embarrassment. I write to you as someone who is suspicious of converts to conservative, reform and reconstructionist Judaism, but also as someone who is suspicious of that suspicion. I also write to you as someone who wonders at how much more difficult it must be to come to this realization without a mother of questionable halachic Jewish status.
Join the BDS-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign to protest the Israeli barbaric siege of Gaza, illegal occupation of the Palestine nation, the apartheid wall, and its inhuman and degrading treatment of the Palestinian people: DON’T BUY products whose BARCODE STARTS WITH 729, which indicates that it is produced in Israel. DO YOUR PART! MAKE A DIFFERENCE!
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