My Jewish Identity (or lack there of): Why did spending a year in Israel completely altered my concept of what it means for me to be Jewish?

I was a late bloomer. I was, and although for some hard to believe, shy. And yes, sadly to admit there were many times of social awkwardness in my younger years. But I knew this way of life was not for me, and I slowly began to develop my identity of self. It started towards the end of high school. But really it wasn’t until college that I really felt it, I was finally – cool.

Once I began to feel comfortable with my individual self, and as everyone does during this large leap of self-awareness, I took on different traits to see how I could further develop Jess. There was Party Jess, Studious Jess, Social Butterfly Jess, Sexy Jess, and to draw in the topic at hand – Jewish Jess.

I would go through these identities in different waves, sometimes too strong, and sometimes too weak, but through many years of trial and error, of extremes and lows in each trait I settled into the Jess, much more balanced and with a more defined sense of self than ever before, that walked across the UO graduation stage last June.

Now of course each of these strong aspects of my personality have some great and pretty hilarious stories of development, but what has driven me to write this article was an unexpected twist in Jewish Jess. Really upon reflection, Judaism has really been the only personality trait with the most stability throughout my life. So it only seemed natural for me to spend a year in Israel when I was lacking direction everywhere else in my life journey. Imagine my surprise to find that living here has made me feel less of a Jew than I have ever felt in my life.

I’ll explain how this happened with a short comparison of the American Jew and the Israeli Jew. As a minority in America, we are constantly bombarded with reminders that we are not like the rest of the population. The real kicker’s Christmas time, but I’m also talking about every year that I’ve had to explain what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were to my teachers (and professors), I’m talking about every time someone says “Oh I didn’t know you were Jewish – cool,” I’m talking about this assumption that we are something we’re not – Christian. Due to this, American Jews desperately try to hold on to everything they’ve got to identify with Judaism. Whether this is through the lens of Orthodoxism, Conservatism, or Reform observances, the methods practiced are to reinforce what it means to be Jewish and to connect us together as a people spread wide and far in the Diaspora. For me this was done as it was for many of my Jewish friends. I was sent to Sunday school, had a Bar Mitzvah, was sent to Jewish summer camp, sang Jewish folk songs even if I didn’t know what the words meant, lit candles and ate challah on Friday nights, knew many of the prays for services, wore a Star of David necklace for many years, and spent time with other Jewish people doing similar things. From this I classified myself as culturally Jewish. I have not believed in God for a very long time and anything religious my practice I would call traditional. These are things “Jews do” and I want to identify as Jewish and so I do them. I love matzo ball soup. I love tearing apart a loaf of challah. Everything I hold as Jewish reaffirms my identity of self and brings me comfort and contentment.

But this all gets flipflopped when the minority part of the equation is taken out. In Israel, being a cultural Jew is just being. What I did to identity as Jewish in American can now be accomplished by stepping into a grocery store (it’s a Jewish grocery store). By going to the mall (it’s a Jewish mall with Jewish shops). By going to a concert (the band is Jewish and so is everyone dancing around me). No longer do I have to pick things out to do specifically Jewish, because everything I now do in a land of Jewish people is, by definition Jewish. So why do I feel like I’m not?

Finding out that being Jewish is not by definition being Israeli has been a destruction of my foundations. I thought I would step off the plane and be just as home as in Eugene, but it hasn’t been like that. Israelis do weird things like park all over the sidewalks, they don’t understand my social boundaries, I still don’t understand their language, and people seem to be okay with not being polite. So now I am stuck with this cognitive dissidence and learning how to deal with it. Its not that I don’t love Israel, I do. It is just learning to see it as a foreign country and not home sweet home that creates this conflict.

And as I reflect now I have learned to appreciate what a special situation we have in American. It is a place where Jews can express their Judaism in ways that Israelis are not able to. There are as many degrees of religious and cultural observance as one can imagine, not a black and white – you either observe all the way or do nothing at all. The paths to finding one’s own Jewish journey and identity are flexible and individualized. I cannot be in Israel and do what I need to do to be Jewish. As contradictory as this sounds, it is comforting to put into words. I have had an amazing time spending the year here, learning more about life and myself than I ever expected, but I also know I could never live here.


Blogger Steven R. Neuman said...

Such a good post.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Jess: your blog is truly excellent and you write so eloquently. I am changing my last name to Mauer and will henceforth direct all my friends to this blog and claim that it's been me writing it all along.
All the best,
London Jess

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Jess,
This truly moved me. I didn't know this kind of writing was in you. I am seriously proud of you.

I love ya,

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think you were cool way back when! :) great post


11:47 PM  
Blogger BigMitch said...

I really enjoy reading your insightful and eloquent posts.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Wow, Jess. This article is suprisingly well writen and full of insight. Not that you aren't capable of it, but it seems like something a seasoned journalist would write for the NYTimes.

I'm glad to see that your journey has provided you with a lense into what it means to be you, in both the cultural and personal sense.

Many great hopes for a great journey in Isreal, and I still owe you a drink when you return. ;)


12:10 PM  
Blogger Nadine said...

Dear Jess, I happened to stumble upon your blog while looking for a pic of a camel on the web for my own blog entry! You are an amazing writer and I appreciate your perspective, your critical and honest questioning. While I have a bit of a different take on things, I am interested in many of the same topics as you are (jewish identity, role of israel, jewish upbringing and its effects on later life)... maybe you want to check out my blog? It'd be cool to exchange ideas now and again! Hope to hear from you, Nadine

12:23 AM  
Blogger dr.zaus said...

interesting. i've spent the last year or so in israel (i actually got here about two months before you left, just in time for the war hoorah), although i was living/working here as opposed to being on a program. i was looking at otzma as an option, and i would have loved to do it, but it unfortunately didn't fit in my plans.

i said "interesting" before, because after reading this post, your last four paragraphs really resonated with me. i've come to pretty much the same realizations you have, so it was neat to see somebody else saying my thoughts.

1:17 PM  

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