In his article “Identity and Jewish Education”, Cohen (2008) postulates that sociologists determine Jewish identity according to the three B’s components: “Belief, Behavior, and Belonging” (p.75). I was born in a secular family of four children. However, my father used to attend synagogue only on major holidays, to be part of our Jewish community or so I think; or as Cohen describes it, to feel a sense of belonging.
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In regard to Jewish behavior, I strongly remember a powerful memory of a Jewish ritual that happened twenty nine years ago. I was just ten years old when my dad’s mother died. The picture I had in my sad sobbing eyes will stay with me forever. I remembered my father sitting on the floor and crying; the top part of his shirt was torn in the middle. Both my mother and my sister were sitting on the bed with red puffy eyes.
As soon as my mom noticed my presence, she got closer to me and hugged me. She told me that my dad’s mother “turned to be a butterfly and that she is flying towards her freedom now.” Only later I knew that my dad’s torn shirt was a symbol of a Jewish tradition ‘mourner custom’ for the death of a first close relation.
Nevertheless, my beliefs, in regard to Judaism, have changed dramatically throughout my life span. When I was fifteen years old, my parents made a decision, which set me into deep thinking for the next few years. They embraced the Jewish culture with such devotion that I could clearly tell they had strongly decided to keep a distinct boundary between the Jewish laws and the outside world.
The death of my brother’s father in-law prompted my older brother as well as my parents to make the decision. The rabbi, who presided over the mourning period, argued them to become staunch Jews in a bid to make my brother’s father in-law enter heaven. As a teenager, I was furious and mostly afraid to change my lifestyle.
I thought that the rabbi was taking advantage of my parents at such a moment to pull them out of their secular way of life. Consequently, due to the rabbi’s advice coupled with a seven days seminar called ‘Arachim’, my parents turned to be very sacred. The rest of us did not want to be associated with the idea.
Nevertheless, despite my parents’ acceptance of the change, they did not drag us into it probably because they thought they would force us to hate and shun our Jewish identity altogether. In his article “The Jews Within,” Cohen’s suggests that “the death, or divorce, of a spouse seems linked with further declines in Jewish activity in the home or community,” however, my personal experience, as I described above, thought me differently.
Following my parents change of faith, I strongly resented any activity concerning the Jewish rituals. Even though my parents tried to convince me to participate in some activities, I still could not change my opinion. I felt that the ‘Halacha’ took my parents away from me, because it demands a strict behavior.
Cohen (2000) postulates that “Sabbath is another area of practice that requires attention and resolution” (p. 61). I, definitely, can identify with this statement. For one thing, my parents were no longer able to drive on Sabbath. In addition, my brothers and I were forced to participate in the ‘Kidush’ on Friday evenings; for a teenager, it was quite a problematic situation since I was supposed to have joined my friends, but instead I had to stay at home.
Lastly, since my mother would not allow cooking or making a fire during the Sabbath, we were always under pressure and stress to prepare dinner right in time. I can also remember a specific event that caused a huge argument between my parents and me. It was during the Sabbath following the birth of my eldest son.
My father, among other parents, asked God to bless my newly born child. Before the event, I was told by my parents to not give a name before my baby’s circumcision. I remember asking my father the reason behind this request, however, he was reluctant to answer me. I was so upset with this requirement since I did not understand the logic behind it.
It was only after the rabbi’s teaching that day, that I learnt a lot about the naming of children according to the Jewish law. According to the ‘Halacha’, the naming of boys occurs eight days after they are born; that is, during their circumcision. On the other hand, naming of girls occurs on the Sabbath following their birth. I have also observed this in the naming of my youngest twins.
In addition, in providing chairs to the participants of the circumcision of my son, I realized that my mother had provided an extra seat. As if this was not enough, she also provided some wine, which she said was for the little baby. I wondered how my mother could give wine to such an innocent infant though I did not give it much thought.
Once the ceremony was over, I did not hesitate to ask my mother about the significance of the extra seat and the wine. She told me that the extra seat signified the presence of Elijah. It is meant for the continuation, or rather for the propagation, of the Jewish faith in all generations.
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Concerning the wine, she explained that she gave a few drops to the baby to relief his pain. I also learnt about the role of the ‘minyan’, ‘sandek’, in the early life of my baby boy. I was surprised to find out, at the age of twenty seven, not only about naming of Jewish children, but also the practice of circumcision.
As cited in Cohen’s article (2000), …women have been more involved in the intimate aspects of their families than men …Jewishly committed fathers, in contrast with jewishly committed mothers, emerge as principled, learned, educationally oriented, and involved in synagogue life. Mothers are remembered for their immediate relationship with the children and other family members, for their greater responsibility for the home, holidays, and kashrut (pp.55-56).
My mother played her role as a Jewish parent to educate me on the significance of our traditions in the Jewish society. I made sure that I followed every bit of it during my adulthood. My paternal grandmother has also played a pivotal role in shaping my Jewish identity. Whenever I visited her, she could shower me with advice on how to maintain the integrity of the Jewish culture.
I remember her comforting nature during my youth stage; she once told me that it is normal for young people to neglect the Jewish laws in their attempt to appear sophisticated or ‘civilized’ especially in the eyes of their friends who do not follow the religion. Similarly, Cohen (2000) postulates that: …Jewish religious activities decline in the late teen years, (as does religious activity among other groups).
It begins to climb again with marriage and jumps upward even more sharply with the arrival of children and, in particular, when the first child reaches elementary-school age (p. 45). Clearly, my grandmother was right because, as I mentioned before, I was struggling to maintain my identity especially during my high school education
I began participating in much Jewish’s activities, literally, a few years after my marriage, in particular after my arrival to the U.S. My husband and I came to New York 9 years ago. Similarly, to the Jewish immigrants that are presented in the movie “Hester Street” directed by Silver in 1975, we also decided to come in order to look for opportunities to fulfill ourselves.
However, it was not until the birth of our twins that we decided to embrace the Jewish culture; it was our choice. Moreover, in order to serve as good role models for our children, my husband and I started going to the synagogue in our Jewish holidays, which we did not attend before as an adult.
Though there are moments that I feel so inadequate compared to my community, I know that I have done my best to maintain the Jewish culture for the sake of my children. In referring to first theme in ‘The Rise of the Sovereign Self, inalienability of being Jewish’: Cohen posits, “No matter what I do or don’t do, no matter what I believe or don’t believe, I’m still a Jew, and a good Jew – and no one can alienate me from my valid claims to identify as a Jew” (2008, p. 78).
Last but not least, my military service has also been instrumental in shaping my Jewish identity. It has been a privilege to serve as a secretary of the Psychologist of the Grand Commander in the Israeli military. Saluting my country’s flag, as a Jew, has made me self-righteous of my identity.
But before I close, it is important to note that, while visiting the National Museum of American Jewish History, I was stunned and excited to read these lines: “For more than 350 years, Jews have benefited from the freedoms and opportunities of America, and America has benefited from the work, creativity, and talents of Jews” (‘National Museum of American Jewish History’).
It is needless to tell what I felt in that moment. Not only do I feel proud of being Jewish, but I also strongly believe that with the help of all other Jews, we shall be able to uphold the Jewish culture in many ways in the future of the United States, as well as of Israel.
Unfortunately, as Cohen laments, “Jewish social ties (Marriage, friendship, neighbors, institutional belonging, attachment to Israel and the Jewish people) are in decline, as is, more generally, Jewish ethnicity and collective identity” (2000, p.82). This sad but true and sincere observation threatens our very resolve to uphold the Jewish culture especially in the US. However, as for now, we shall do our best to maintain our roots that run deep into the Jewish culture.
Cohen, S. (2000). The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Cohen, S. (2008). Identity and Jewish education. In R. Goodman, A. P. Flexner, & L. D.
Bloomberg, L. D. (Eds.), What we know about Jewish Education: Prospectives on Research for Practice (pp. 75-82) Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions.
National Museum of American Jewish History. Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today
Silver, J., dir. (1975). Hester Street. USA: Midwest Films.