Why Putting Me in the “North American Jew” Box Doesn’t Work


April 21, 2016 by Katia

Box 3

Photo credit: Roman Kraft via unsplash.com

“So, I overheard you say that your son calls his dad Abba?”

“Yes, we speak Hebrew at home. I’m from Israel.”

I see the light flicker in her eyes. That light of recognition that comes on once you’ve placed someone in a box.

“What Shul do you go to?”

Quick stutter. “We don’t. We don’t really practice that way.”

A confused giggle marks me losing her, or rather her losing me, no longer able to populate that cushy box. She was going to marry a Jewish man and was studying to convert. She knows all about orthodox vs. reform Jews and you realize that the infographic her brain is producing right now indicates that if you’re not an orthodox Jew then you’re probably a reform and in either case you would belong to a Shul, so what exactly are we looking at here?

I’ve encountered that puzzled look several times since moving to North America eight years ago. I’ve seen it on Jewish co-workers and random acquaintances at social gatherings. To the North American Jewish person some of the external attributes of being in touch with your inner Jew include incorporating Yiddish words into your language. I was once approached by a Jewish colleague and asked how I would spell the word Bubbie. I felt the weight of responsibility that came with the question and I was worried about letting him down. As an Israeli I’m expected to be an über-Jew, the final authority on that sort of question. The only problem is that as an Israeli I grew up speaking and writing Hebrew, not Yiddish, and most definitely not Yiddish in English letters.

I’m not as inclined in my early forties to dwell on that sort of thing as I was earlier in life, but I sometimes think that by North American standards and in comparison to the local convention I might be deemed as “less Jewish” than a local person of the same faith. My Jewishness is of a different brand, one that flies under the radar as it doesn’t conform with the local checklist of parameters.

My Jewishness — and I use this word deliberately to denominate the sense of Jewish identity as opposed to participation in religious practices and rituals — was shaped by a different context. It was shaped by a different language and different historical events. I do feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people around me, in my new country and continent, but I feel that we’ve taken slightly different paths to arrive at the same final destination. My Jewishness was shaped by growing up in Israel.

In celebrating the Jewish holidays in kindergarten, I was a majority rather than a minority. I grew up near the holocaust. Its tangible presence was felt everywhere: school and family visits to the Yad Va Shem museum in Jerusalem, TV shows, public discourse, Holocaust Day memorial ceremonies at middle school and high school, but also the random exposed arm (pale and weakened by age or leathery and sun scorched) revealing a dark grey purplish number. My different brand of Jewishness was shaped by being a soldier, then a university student in Tel-Aviv in the late 90s and hearing those explosions (on buses, on the street), letting fear guide me through my daily routines. It meant watching the ensuing news coverage, listening to eye witnesses and survivors recounting their stories and experiences and understanding exactly what they meant when they said they were saying a “Shema Israel” prayer for protection as the events were unfolding or what it meant when they said that they’d go to the Synagogue the next day and pray “Birchat ha Gomel”. That sense of an axe hanging over our heads made for a very different sense of humor, one that I doubt would be understood or appreciated anywhere else. My Jewishness was shaped by my family traditions that lived inside the bigger national ones. It was shaped by our yearly pilgrimage to the neighbourhood Sephardi synagogue, with my mom , grandma and great aunt, where we would gather in the backyard along with other women and children, waiting for the men to open the windows so we could listen through the crack to the Shoffar and the singing.

I’m Jewish, but my Jewish may not have much in common with yours. It may look nothing like the North American norm and I’m rarely bothered by that except for when it comes to the question: how does that affect my children? Do I need to conform with the local formula in order to allow my second generation immigrant kids an easier integration? I’m afraid to say that six years into parenting, I’m still figuring this one out. I think that my ultimate goal and desire is for my kids to feel comfortable in their own skins and I think that that dictates not changing mine. I think we will continue having our uniquely-customized-to-fit-our-family needs Shabbat dinners and celebrating the Seder our own way, at 4:30pm. We’ll continue gradually introducing the history of our people to our kids and telling their teachers that Ben and Daniel celebrate Rosh Ha’Shana. We’ll continue teaching them other important values, such as flexibility, and we will practice what we preach by putting the emphasis on the first syllable in the word Shana instead of putting it on the second one, as one would in our native language, Hebrew.



Sometimes I’m deep, sometimes I’m funny. For more posts follow IAMTHEMILK on Facebook.

11 thoughts on “Why Putting Me in the “North American Jew” Box Doesn’t Work

  1. Catherine says:

    That’s interesting. I’m not Jewish. I’m Roman Catholic—and I”m not an uber Catholic. Some of my family are Jewish. And what’s funny is that I’ve never heard nor seen the label “North American” Jew. My family are “Long Island Jews”. Which, apparently is a different type of Jew from Mid-Western Jews. Or….Riverdale Jews. Basically, all that matters is what values we pass onto our children and if we’re nice people. I’m sharing this post with my Jewish family members!

    • Katia says:

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing the post, Catherine! I don’t know if North American Jews are “a thing” I was just basing this on my current geography and as a means of distinction between where I was and where I am 🙂 I completely agree with your view on the the importance of our values and the way we raise our children. In my day to day life I don’t feel any different than my non Jewish friends nor my Jewish North American friends. We’re all moms, we all share the same joys and struggles. I do occasionally feel different when I realize I don’t match someone’s expectation of me.

  2. Lizzi says:

    This is beautiful, and I love learning more about your particular brand of Jewishness, and your particular outlook. I love how you’re gentle, yet absolutely resolute. I *really* love that you acknowledge the differences, but also that mostly, in the important ways, you’re probably the same, and I so SO hope you don’t experience prejudice from people whose way of thinking isn’t as advanced as yours.

    This post was a little haven of loveliness, it really was. You’re getting it SO right 🙂

    • Katia says:

      Thank you for this overwhelmingly wonderful comment. I know that you completely understand this. I think that what unites us, as the previous comment suggested, is far broader than a set of common practices. I’ve very rarely come across prejudice and it used to scare me but having lived here long enough I know that it’s not common and that somebody else’s prejudice by no means defines me. And thank you, thank you, thank you. Your words mean the world to me. ❤

      • Lizzi says:

        ❤ ❤ ❤
        I'm so glad you don't let other people define you. I love seeing you forge your own beautiful pathway for your family, and how carefully you consider in your mind before doing so. Something I could do with learning 😉

      • Katia says:

        Well, I can’t say that I’ve mastered not letting others define me but in this particular regard for some unknown reason I have.

        I absolutely love your heart and I can’t wait to meet you one day!

      • Lizzi says:

        BRILLIANT, on both counts.

        I don’t know how I define me. I expect I’m pretty lax about it 🙂

  3. I. Love. You. Jew, not jew, you’re you, to me. You’re amazing in all of your ways.

  4. Story Storks says:

    Is this about being Jewish or is this about being an immigrant? Could you substitute your religion in this blog for something else and it still be the same blog. Your accent? Your look? It’s not meant to be a provocative question, it’s just an ‘I wonder’. It is a really lovely thoughtful journey that you take us on.

    • Katia says:

      It’s a great question and I don’t view it as provocative at all, but rather thought-provoking. I think that when it comes to self definition then Judaism is probably secondary. I more often feel like an immigrant, the person with the slightly different accent etc (although I have to say that nine years into immigration, I am far less preoccupied with that). What I tried to explore here is other people’s expectations of me upon finding out my background. I think I don’t confirm with any model and I’m just constantly trying to define myself to myself. 🙂

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