These days, one of the recurring messages you’ll find is that your identity is ever-fluid. Call it a “Millennial” thing or whatever you’d like, people have the freedom to choose who they’d like to be. In fact, that’s what so many struggles today seem to be about - the right to preserve a unique identity.
Growing up as a child of Russian Jewish immigrants, the concept of choosing and preserving my own identity is now more relevant than ever. My father once described himself as a man with no home country, a “quintessential nowhere man,” due to being born in the Soviet Union and its eventual dissolution. That sentiment found its way into my life as well, having been a first generation American and not knowing exactly how to assimilate parts of my Russian heritage into the culture I grew up in.
The same thing went for my Jewish background. Somewhere in the years of my parent’s generation and their emigration to America, my family’s Jewish background was lost in translation. Because of the chaos occurring in Europe during that period of time, especially with prejudice towards Jews, my family wanted to start anew, and that meant leaving bits of our genetic identity behind.
Growing up, I knew that we were Jewish, and I even went to Hebrew school during the day as a young child. However, while there was a strict adherence to Jewish schooling where I spent a good amount of day, there was nothing really to continue that education when I came home. We didn’t talk about it, and we didn’t practice. While other kids I knew were growing up Jewish, I was growing up Jew-ish. I knew it was this thing that was somehow connected to my family, but I didn’t really know what it meant and I didn’t really care to.
This all changed after college. After college, the question of identity came back roaring in my face. I was let loose in the big world as a new adult and had to fend for myself. The only thing was, in order to fend for myself, I had to know who I was and what I stood for. I began searching internally for pieces of myself to form an identity that I was proud of. Judaism became a large part of this for me.
By chance, the job I found happened to be with the non-profit organization, Reboot, whose mission it is to create cultural initiatives and provide tools and resources to make Judaism a unique, personal experience. I didn’t expect to get called in. It was as if a big part of the identity puzzle fell into my lap. So I thought, “Well, I don’t have to be a big Jew in any sort of way, but I can explore the roots of my family and connect to it.” Through my work and the young professional, cultural Jewish world, I met others like myself and learned about ways of connecting to this side of me that I haven’t had access to before. Other great organizations like Lab/Shul, Moishe House and Base Hillel helped me discover different ways of incorporating Jewish culture into my life.
More so, I discovered how my Jewish self connected with other interests and factors of who I am. It wasn’t an isolated part of me that only came out around Jewish folk, it was melded with other aspects of me to become a whole. Through my own interests in the topic of unplugging and meditative clarity, I came into contact with the Jewish ritual of Shabbat and explored how those two ideas could merge in my life by discovering The National Day of Unplugging and other programs. Through my passion for music I discovered amazing Jewish music to expand my own repertoire. The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation helped out big with this one. All in all, this new approach to my Jewish self seemed unintrusive; I didn’t have to be a certain way to be Jewish.
And so, that’s how my Jewish self went from just being “that thing,” to becoming “my thing.” My thing is still very much in motion. My thing is in constant flux. My thing says “you’ve done it, you’ve figured it out!” Then my thing says “much to learn, padawan.” It’s different this time. At least this time around, I know it’s my thing.