A Filtered Life: Jewish Identity
“What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
-Franz Kafka, 1914, diary
I have noticed that Jewish people at the University of Michigan call Jews, collectively, “The Tribe.” It sounds kind of to me like one of those secret societies at an Ivy League where you have to destroy a Rolex to enter.
This is not the Jewish identity I am used to. I am used to one where I'm alone, sometimes lonely and sometimes not. But always by myself. It's ninth-grade gym class, the first day of high school, I haven't made any friends yet, and a bunch of boys behind me yell “Jew” at me as I walk alone. I'm a reporter on my school newspaper and my editor tells me to get to work and “stop playing with my dreidels.” Even on Birthright, I'm preparing to say the Shabbat prayers and I don't know the right words or rhythm, and someone later tells me I'm not technically Jewish because my mom is not.
I’m not part of The Tribe. I don’t know how to get in, and I’m not really sure I want to enter.
Throughout high school, when people lobbed Holocaust jokes at my expense and told me to get a nose job, I dreamed of going to a school where I could have endless Jewish friends. We would bond over our unruly hair, love of smoked salmon and stingy fathers. A sort of millennia-long bonding, springing from our very shared DNA, would make us an unbreakable group of brunette girls in North Face coats.
It didn’t happen. I've felt disillusioned by the Jewish community on campus since day one. When the divestment movement started late in my sophomore year, I felt unable to agree with people who overwhelmingly believed that Jews are a stigmatized minority on campus. There are three buildings on Hill Street alone dedicated to Jewish students. Jews comprise 18 percent of the student population, according to Hillel, not to mention their prosperity nationwide. Yes, anti-Semitism still exists. But I can’t connect with people who truly believe that Jews face similar barriers as Black, Muslim, Asian or other people of color on campus and globally.
I don't have many Jewish friends. I can only find a few with the same values and interests as me. All of my friends have hooked up with and dated more Jewish boys than I have. I want to go to Hillel and be Jewish, but then I go, and I don't recognize anyone, and they all recognize each other. My friends are Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, just plain white or a mix of those things. By and large, though, they’re not Jewish. Sometimes I entertain them by making fun of Jews, and they’re not sure if they can laugh.
I don’t know how this happened. My great-grandfather was beheaded for fighting against the Russian government’s policy to kill Jews. His son Leonard found his body. Leonard immigrated to America in his teens, and died in Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, the father of an Ivy League college professor and a newspaper editor. A long way from Russia.
My grandfather eloped with a girl from China. My father married a Catholic girl who is still in denial that I’m going to raise my kids to be Jewish.
Then it comes to me, in 2014. I’m walking down Hill Street in a crop top meeting my friends to get drunk. It’s Friday night. Shabbat. I see a girl about my age and her family walking to Chabad. She’s in a long skirt, her hair is as dark and unruly as mine. I’m dating a Catholic whose parents don’t know I’m Jewish. I barely know the Shabbat prayers. I eat bacon. But she’s probably the descendant of Jews chased out of Eastern Europe, like me.
We have the same genes. But I’m on the other side of the street.