April 21, 2016 by Katia
“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.
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