Embracing a Jewish Identity
At 11 years old, my mother found out that she was Jewish through a painful experience. Everyday outside of her home in Kiev, Ukraine, she would play with the neighborhood kids. Whenever the “Jewish boy” would come out to play, the other kids would tease him and laugh at him, and my mother would follow suit. One day, one of the kids turned to my mother and said, “What’s wrong with you? You’re no less Jewish than he is!”
My mom, having spent her entire life in the same house in Kiev since her first birthday, replied, “Of course, I’m not Jewish! I’m Ukrainian, just like you!”
The other kids were not as deluded as she was, and from then on they included her in the teasing. Astonished and panicked, my mother ran home to interrogate her own mother. To her surprise, she learned that she indeed was Jewish. In full disbelief, my mother demanded to see her parents’ passports.
My grandmother, who, two decades prior, had seen half of her extended family wiped out by Hitler and Stalin, made a decision to reveal her daughter’s identity only when she reached adulthood. Until then, she felt, this information might give her child a complex. But faced with my mother’s unwavering demand, my grandmother had no choice but to explain the truth and rectify any damage that had already been done. She showed her both passports, each one listing “Jewish” under nationality.
But my grandmother was in luck, as her daughter was a strong girl who instantly became determined to never again hide her identity. From that day on, my mother was committed to being publicly Jewish no matter the cost. Naturally, she would raise her own daughter with Jewish pride.
So from the day my memories began, I knew I was a Jew. I knew that there were other Jews in the world and that, even if we didn’t know each other personally, we were forever connected. I remember seeking out Jewish kids at school, in my dance classes, on vacation, in the theater and on the bus. I remember trying to figure out if we looked differently from the others, if we had specific names and whether we had a different language. As I grew older, each inquiry was put to rest. Jews in Soviet Russia did look a little different from the rest. Many of us did have names that were out of the ordinary and, most importantly, we had our own language. In fact, we had two!
Though my mother was a proud—and always curious—Jewish woman, she could teach me no more about my Jewish identity than to instill in me a natural love for it. And it was her uncompromising love for a yiddishkeit essentially unknown to her that led her to place me in a Jewish educational system as soon as our family emigrated from the Soviet Union.
I spent the ages of 10 to 16 learning how to read Jewish texts, understand Jewish values and live a Jewish life. I did this in a few different schools, in a few different places. After we left Kiev, my family lived in Italy and then New York City, until we settled in Toronto. Throughout that time, my knowledge and understanding of Judaism grew quantitatively. However, to live a real life committed to Torah Judaism, spiritual growth has to be qualitative. So I spent the next few years searching for quality.
I wanted to be inspired, to achieve, to create and to be recognized as an individual so badly that I was willing to read anything, write anything and talk about anything just to reach my goal. But the more I tried, the further away my goal remained.
Eventually, everything I learned to value seemed to be missing the one ingredient I was interested in most: truth. The love of Judaism that I was taught since I was a baby had become hidden deep within me, but nowhere close to the surface. The education for which two immigrants sacrificed their lives was not reflected in my thinking patterns or in my lifestyle.
Through a number of various divinely inspired events, I ended up in Israel after college graduation. Though I was finally on the path of truth, I nevertheless resembled the child that learned in all those day schools and in all those cities but never fully grasped the essence of her existence. What came in Israel were months of brutal awakenings, serious introspection—and the time to make a commitment to growth.
Blessed with a great support system, proper guidance and wonderfully patient friends, truth began to seep in. I started to see, for the first time, what being Jewish really means. I saw the beauty in things that I could have never imagined myself appreciating. I began identifying with people from whom I would once stay far away. I was being taught to think like a Jewish person, to view life through a Jewish woman’s eyes and to feel with a Jewish heart. All of a sudden, clarity and love and trust in Hashem’s guidance pleasantly overwhelmed me. I started to learn for the sake of wanting to know truth, rather than finding ways to validate what I already knew. I saw strengths in people whose names I would have previously struggled to remember. I felt pain for people whom I had never seen.
Most importantly, I began to identify and desire so badly the values and lifestyles of the great people around me and the holy people I learned about. I believe that I too began to scratch the surface of real holiness.
Despite these realizations, it wasn’t until recently that I understood what a person must do to go beyond scratching the surface of holiness. It is precisely in the act of learning to appreciate holiness that a true Jewish identity blossoms.
In my Haggadah class, we learned that it says: “Go and learn what Lavan did to your forefather, Jacob…” Why does the Haggadah have to instruct us “to go and learn”? Isn’t it a given that a Jew reading a Haggadah is learning about what transpired between Lavan and Jacob? Two girls in my class (roommates, funnily enough) interpreted the question differently. One said that the deeds of Lavan were so horrid that a Jew cannot, by the essence of his nature, fully understand how evil people act. Therefore, in order for a Jew to properly learn what happened and see the full picture, he has to look outside of himself. The other girl said that Lavan is symbolic of all non-Jewish values and norms. Today, in our current exile, we are fully entrenched in a lifestyle that resembles nothing Jewish and promulgates values that belong to the other nations. Moreover, to recognize the problems that plague us today, we must fully elevate our concerns above the superficial. Only then it will be completely evident that the world’s values are not fitting for a Jew.
These two points are the key to beginning to understand kedusha. A Jew must know that his or her essence is separate from the rest of the world’s; it is Godly. The potential of a Jew’s essence is limitless; its nature is pure, built to emulate Hashem. Therefore, we have to teach ourselves to see the world through our Godly purpose. We must work hard to live according to our nature of being truthful, giving, humble, hardworking, sensitive to others and introspective.
Similarly, we have to try to connect to values that derive from the real source rather than blindly follow man-made rules. Even subtle things like music and literature can influence our understanding and the way we relate to the world and other people. We must bear in mind that Hashem made a Jew to be a thinking being.
Furthermore, we must continue to trust our rabbis even when things do not seem clear. We are expected to rely on our laws even when they seem outdated. Sometimes we are given only a small piece of the puzzle and are expected to find the missing pieces to create a gorgeous finished product. The good news is that it is possible.
I was blessed with a mother who fostered a consciousness of my heritage and taught me to value and love it. I am truly thankful for the education and guidance that I received throughout my life. But the thing I am most grateful for, really, is the opportunity to connect to Judaism in the most intimate way. It is the prospect of seeing, analyzing and understanding the world through holiness that allows me to cling to Hashem and lead a life of truth. This is, by far, the most exhilarating, fulfilling and ecstatic experience a person can have.