Read an Excerpt
Creating a Positive Jewish Identity
That Supports Your Marriage
Max: I think "devouring" is the word that stands out in my mind when I think of Jewish women. Also "pushy, aggressive, neurotic, difficult, status-conscious, and self-destructive." I think a Jewish female's idea of sharing is that she deals with all of her problems, and then you deal with all of her problems. That's sharing?
Lizzie: Being a Jew means really limiting my social life, because it's hard for me to stick to my commitment to marry another Jew when I meet Gentiles that I happen to like better. Being a Jewish woman means conflict for me, because I associate it with being passionate and intelligent, and that's not always so easy for Jewish men to handle.
Max and Lizzie, two participants in an
ethnotherapy group for Jewish men and women
In this chapter, we first explain the origins of our struggles with Jewish identity. We then describe methodsbased on groundbreaking research on the connections between Jewish identity, self-esteem, and intimacyto help you create a more positive sense of being Jewish. Sorting out your own conflicts and confusion about being Jewish can enhance your sense of self-worth, which is the foundation on which you build a successful intimate relationship. Going through this process is also a crucial step to take before trying to work out religious or cultural differences with your partner. By clarifying your own sense of identity, you will be much better prepared to usethe communication and conflict resolution skills you will learn in later chapters.
Most of us are aware that our ability to create successful, loving relationships is built on our sense of self-worth. If we feel unworthy at some basic level, we will have difficulty giving or receiving love. In spite of their hunger to create enduring love, adults who were abused or neglected as children have great difficulty with intimacy. Children's ability to love and be loved is also damaged by parents who have unrealistic expectations of their children, who are never satisfied, or who treat their children simply as extensions of themselves. These pressured children are often mystified when, as adults, great success does not automatically erase self-doubt or make love easy.
Although it is less obvious to people living in our hyperindividualistic American society, our self-esteem is also rooted in our tribal history. At our core we are social animals. In order to feel whole, we need to have some sort of positive connection to something bigger than ourselves. Developing a positive sense of group belonging is especially important and often difficult for members of minority groups that have a history of persecution and discrimination. Self-esteem problems are common among Jews as well as among African Americans, Asian Americans, and Mexican Americans who are uncomfortable with or ashamed of their group identities. Just as a solid sense of self requires a person to come to terms with all of his or her personal history, a healthy tribal identity requires that the individual face the history of his or her group. For many minority group members, this means finding ways to integrate the collective pride and the pain of the past into an overall positive sense of group belonging. The extreme splits between the good and bad images of Jewsin the minds of both Jews and Gentilespose special challenges in creating a healthy Jewish identity.
Today, Jews face an additional challenge: choice. Identity as a Jew used to be a matter of destiny; now it is one of decision. We find ourselves at a smorgasbord of identity choices. How important to our lives shall we make Judaism, Israel, Jewish culture, ethnicity, or defense of Jewish interests? How much do we want to just blend in and be inconspicuous? How important is it to create a Jewish family? Some Jews are comfortable with the choices they have made, but many others are uncertain, ambivalent, and inconsistent about how they define being Jewish. They may act out this confusion in troubling ways in their intimate relationships, both with other Jews and with non-Jews.
HOW HISTORY AFFECTS
THE JEWISH PSYCHE
Our cultural and religious histories are woven into our psyches and souls. As surely as our ancestors' genes have passed from previous generations into us, our attitudes, beliefs, and emotional makeup are deeply influenced by the experiences of those who have come before us. Who we are, how we see the world, and how we relate to others are all colored by our collective pasts, often in ways we are unaware of. Whether you are married to another Jew or in an interfaith relationship, whether you are secular, Orthodox, or a Jew-by-choice, whether you are a sixth-generation American or a new immigrant, the triumphs and catastrophes of Jewish history influence how you think, feel, and, most important, how you love.
It is one thing to be hated, and quite another to be adored. But because Jews have been so despised and reviled, on the one hand, and literally worshiped, on the other, it is very difficult for the Jewish psyche to integrate these radical contradictions. The uneasy relationships between pride and pain are embedded deeply in the Jewish psyche and have a tremendous impact on the self-esteem of Jews and, as a result, on their intimate relationships. In Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth captured with painful perfection the Jewish ability to create children who experience themselves as "unique as unicorns ... geniuses and brilliant like nobody has ever been brilliant and beautiful before in the history of childhoodsaviors and sheer perfection on the one hand, and such bumbling, incompetent, thoughtless, helpless, selfish ... little ingrates, on the other."
It's not just Portnoy. Rooted in our shared history are very mixed feelings about success, power, money, and Judaism that we act out in complex ways in our relationships.
About Being Loved and Admired
No group of humans on earth has been as talented and influential, relative to their numbers, as have the Jewish people. From Moses to Jesus, from Freud to Marx and Einstein, the impact of Judaism and Jews on world civilization has been nothing short of remarkable. It is apparent that membership in this small tribe is like none other.
Although it can feel good to be somehow connected to greatness through being Jewish, it can also be a burden. Given this legacy, it is very easy to feel that one has somehow not measured up. Falling short of greatness is, by definition, far more common than is attaining it. Not all Jews are brilliant or rich or good. The focus on success and achievement so prevalent in Jewish families no doubt helps create the drive that has supported the accomplishments of many Jews, but the cost of these elevated expectations can be a nagging sense of not ever quite measuring up to impossible standards.
Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenbloom are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenbloom.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
There is another dark side to the success of the Jews: the jealousy and envy of others. Although many anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews are virulent lies, some are, at least in part, based on truth. Jews have been very successful in America and in every nation where we have been given the freedom to compete. Jews are the most educated and wealthy ethnic group in American society. But Jews are all too aware of the danger that the anti-Semite can (and will) twist the reality of Jewish success into lies: "Jews are cunning thieves; they take more than their share. Look at how they control the banks and the media." If Jews are admired for their success, it is also clear that they are hated for it. Thus our historical experience has created a troubling mix of pride and paranoia in our psyches.
About Being Hated
All Jewish holidays can be reduced to a simple formula: They tried to kill us all; they failed; let's eat.
Sacha, a twenty-eight-year-old Jewish man
Jews historically have been among the most despised people on earth. From the destruction of the Second Temple, to the expulsion from England in 1290 and then from Spain in 1492, to centuries living under the threat of pogroms in Russia and Poland, and culminating in the recent horror of the Holocaust, Jews have wandered the earth for two thousand years, fleeing persecution. And although the birth of Israel finally created a Jewish homeland, the small state has existed in a state of war with many of its neighbors since it was founded in 1948.
Of course, the persecution of Jews has always been justified in the minds of their oppressors. Jews stole money, were parasites on society, cheated in business dealings, were oversexed (or undersexed), were effeminate, had horns, and were in alliance with the devil. They ritually killed Christian children to use their blood on Passover; they did kill Christ. Understanding that these beliefs and stereotypes were very real to their neighbors, Jews who lived in the fear of Easter pogroms were not paranoid; they understood that this was truly a dangerous time. Jews have repeatedly been used as "aliens in residence" by kings, czars, and dictators to focus and manipulate discontent. Hitler used the historical hatred of Jews to amass power by harnessing the fear, passion, and prejudice of a nation in chaos.
The shadow of the Holocaust has hung heavily over the generation of Jews born after the war. As the real fear of actual threats became part of the past, what got passed to the next generation was a kind of generalized and diffused anxiety and paranoia. For many baby-boomer Jews raised in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, talking about the Holocaust was forbidden. Although some families couldn't stop reliving it, more buried it in silence.
Alex, born in 1952, described what it was like to be raised by his parents, survivors of the concentration camps: "Their suffering was on their faces. They would never trust a non-Jew, but they pushed us to succeed in the Gentile world. If we ever tried to talk to them about what they had been through, my father would get very angry, and my mother would get depressed. It was clear that we were not to bring it up. But it meant I could never talk to them about the ordinary growing up things I was struggling with. My problems always felt so petty compared to what they had been through."
In recent years there has been a shift in how Jews and non-Jews are dealing with the history of the war. As the aging survivors and killers from World War Two face their own deaths, we suddenly find ourselves barraged by images of and references to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Maybe we are now confident enough to face what happened, or maybe we sense that this is our last chance to learn from those who were there.
For the generation of Jews raised in silence, this recent focus on the past can be confusing and disturbing. Just when we thought that the Holocaust had become ancient history, images of it are constantly being resurrected. Such movies as Schindler's List met with unanticipated success. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., placed the memory of the Holocaust in the national consciousness. That which was hidden is now everywhere, and we are not always well equipped to deal with it. There is a part of the Jewish psyche that alternates between an adaptive numbness and a sense of being overwhelmed.
In some curious ways, understanding and dealing with the anxiety that Jews have passed on from generation to generation has become more difficult as we have become safer and more secure. The immigrant generations in the United States and refugees who had experienced persecution had little difficulty pinpointing the origins of their fear. There were plenty of painful memories to explain their anxiety. In succeeding generations, however, the dread that was passed on became less personal and therefore less understandable, even though its presence was still felt.
We also benefit from our identification with the suffering of our ancestors. Judaism and Jewish history have taught us to identify with the underdog. At the center of Judaism is a focus on tikkun olamrepairing the world. It is no accident that the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt is crucially important not only to Jews but to African Americans and other oppressed groups. Jews have been disproportionately involved in social action, in the civil rights movement, and in the helping professions. Jews' voting patterns are much more similar to those of poor African Americans than to those of their middle-class neighbors. It seems that the impact of history on the Jewish psyche has been to create a curious mix of pain and pride, of fear and compassion that affects every aspect of our lives, including how we love.
Conditional Acceptance and Self-Hatred
Prior to emancipation in late-eighteenth-century Western Europe, Jews did not suffer from a sense of self-hatred, in the modern sense of the word. Trying to "fit in" was not an option for most Jews, as they were physically, socially, and spiritually isolated from the mainstream community. Almost all Jews lived in ghettos, dressed differently, and lived a completely different way of life. We were the People of the Book. The pious Jew had the security of knowing how to do almost everything, because Jewish law prescribed it all. More important, suffering was offset by a sense of collective moral superiority. Suffering had its own rationale; we suffered because we were held to a higher standard. Those killed by anti-Semites were not victims; rather, they died for kiddush hashem, as holy martyrs to God. Whether Jews were celebrating the birth of a child or going to the gas chambers with the "Shema" on their lips, all pleasure and all pain had meaning and purpose.
As integration into the broader society seemed more in reach, the price of acceptance seemed to be that Jews had to abandon the distinct characteristics that separated Jew from non-Jew. Identifying with those in power meant trying to adopt Gentile standards of behavior and beauty, and minimizing the differences between Judaism and Christianity. The real paradox was that virulent stereotypes about Jews became truly destructive to the Jewish psyche only as Jews became free enough to mingle with those who held those stereotypes. In The Jewish Mind, Raphael Patai observed the psychological cost of the emancipation of the Jews. "The pathetic aspect of the situation was that the Jews themselves, once they became acquainted with as much as the rudiments of the Gentile cultural values, and, in particular, with the Gentile stereotype of the Jew, began to be influenced by them and to share them."
The Dilemmas of Assimilation
Rapid assimilation into American culture is the latest and, in some ways, most challenging phase of Jewish history. In societies in which we were barely tolerated or actively persecuted, there was never any question about our Jewish identity. Our lives, however difficult, were imbued with meaning because we were Jewish. However religious we were, whether we were rich or poor, our fates as individuals were intertwined with the fate of the Jewish community. For better and for worse, we were connected.
As integration into the larger society became more of an option, those traits that labeled us as "Jew" seemed to be increasingly troublesome. As a people who valued contact, engagement, debate, and emotion, we were too loud and intense to be accepted into the inner sanctums of Protestant life. We had to tone ourselves down, which was not always easy.
We also tried to tone down and Americanize our religious practices so as to avoid making our Christian neighbors uncomfortable with our alien ways. In recent years, the largest group of Jews has become the "unaffiliated." The successful and very rapid process of assimilation left many Jews without the burdens of anti-Semitism, but also without the benefits of community, meaning, and connection provided by traditional Jewish life. Under these conditions, identity as a Jew for some seemed increasingly a liability rather than an asset.
But hundreds of generations of connection are not so easily jettisoned. We mourned the losses caused by assimilation even as we passionately pursued the opportunities provided by an open and free society. Hence the modern and difficult phenomenon of Jewish ambivalence. We want our caketo take advantage of American individualism and the freedom to do whatever we want, unbound by obligations of the past. And we want to eat it tooto experience the connection, sense of belonging, meaning, and identity that being Jewish can provide.
For many Jews, the process of assimilation resulted in a confusing jumble of tremendous pride and tremendous shame, of nostalgia and embarrassment, of wanting to merge with the tribe and also to escape its embrace. And as we shall see over and over again, the struggle to define our relationship with Jewish life gets played out in our intimate relationships. How could it not?
Ana's confusion is a good example of how this ambivalence can affect intimacy with other Jews. At thirty, she had been through four intense relationships, alternating between Jewish and non-Jewish men.
There are times when being Jewish is really important to me. I want to do Jewish things, to be around other Jews, to eat Jewish foods, to visit my parents. Even though I'm not very religious, there are even times when I am surprised that I actually feel a desire to go to synagogue, almost in spite of myself. It's during my "Jewish phases" that I feel like it's really important that I find a Jewish man to settle down with.
But there are other times when I wish I didn't have to think about being Jewish at all. I look in the mirror and wish I looked less Jewish, wish I were able to be less emotional and more quiet and demure. At those times, I feel uncomfortable around other Jews, like I am almost embarrassed by their behavior. Am I crazy?
Be JewishBut Not Too Jewish: Mixed Messages from Our Families and Society
Ana was not crazy, but she also wasn't totally aware of the conflicting messages about being Jewish with which she had grown up. It was inevitable that as the conflict between continuity and assimilation intensified, many Jewish families gave out mixed messages about the importance of Jewish continuity. The message usually took the form of "Be Jewish, but don't be too Jewish."
One of the authors of this book, Joel Crohn, realized that even his name is an interesting example of the ambivalence that molded the character of American Jews. As the story goes, in 1940 when his great-uncle, Nathan Cohn, a Chicago surgeon, the youngest and only educated and American-born of his siblings, changed his name to Crohn, the rest of the family had to follow suit.
"How would it look, me introducing my brother as `Dr. Crohn,' while my name is Cohn?" complained Joel's grandfather. Joel's own father felt he had been denied the opportunity to apply for a job in the 1940s because his name revealed his Jewishness. With the change from Cohn to Crohn, his name was now generic enough for him to at last receive the job application.
What is particularly interesting about his family's decision was how little they changed their name. By adding just one letter, they simultaneously tried to annihilate and honor their Jewish distinctiveness. They didn't erase Cohn completely by choosing a generic, American-sounding name, as some Jews did.
His family wanted it both ways and attempted to walk an exquisitely fine line: to be invisible when they chose, but also to have access to the benefits of belonging to the group when they wanted and needed it. As for many other Jewish families, the ambivalence that led to name changes and nose jobs had an emotional cost. The price was confusion about what it meant to be a Jew.
HOW HISTORY AFFECTS
JEWISH RELATION SHIPS
With our increasing success, acceptance, and assimilation in Western societies, our discomfort with our Jewishnesseven self-hatredgrew in ways that had a particularly destructive impact on intimate relationships. Even as we were most comfortable with the sense of safety and familiarity that could be part of loving another Jew, we could also become uncomfortable with how he or she reminded us just how Jewish we were.
Psychologists use the word projection to describe how we protect ourselves against owning certain unpleasant aspects of our personalities and behavior by projecting them onto others. This psychological process of projection allows people to disown aspects of themselves they find unacceptable by seeing them in others.
The origins of the concept of projection lie in the Biblical ritual of imbuing a sacrificial goatthe scapegoatwith the sins of the community and then sending the animal into the desert to die. "The sacrificial goat unburdened the community of its collective guilt, freeing it ... to begin anew." Sigmund Freud developed the concept of projection when he lived in Vienna during the late nineteenth century, a time and place in which it was quite obvious how Austrian and German Gentiles could project unacceptable aspects of themselves onto Jews.
Unfortunately, as they attempted to integrate themselves into Western culture, many Jews began to absorb and internalize the anti-Semitic projections rather than resist them. The price of acceptance seemed to be the taking on of the perspective and prejudices of Gentiles. We looked in the mirror and searched for evidence of the stereotypes. "Am I too aggressive in my speech, are my shoulders too stooped, is money all I care about? I must be aware of these traits in order to eradicate them." This is the basis of Jewish self-hatred.
But it is hard to acknowledge these feelings in ourselves. One way Jewish men and women sometimes deal with this kind of self-hatred is to project these "negative" Jewish traits onto the opposite sex. In her pioneering research on Jewish identity and self-esteem, the late Dr. Judith Weinstein Klein found that this kind of self-hatred can lead to a thought process that justifies negative stereotypes about Jewsbut only of the opposite sex. Klein's research showed how these kinds of unresolved personal conflicts about Jewish identity interfere with Jewish intimacy. When people project negative stereotypes about Jews onto Jews of the opposite sex, they unconsciously sacrifice themselves in a self-destructive bid for acceptance.
As we discuss in Chapter Ten on intermarriage, marrying out of the group does not resolve the issues created by Jewish identity conflicts. Jewish self-hatred, ambivalence, and low self-esteem are destructive in all intimate relationships, be they between two Jews or a Jew and a non-Jew. These problems are not unique to Jews. Research on African Americans and Asian Americans, for example, has demonstrated very similar patterns that affect intimacy between members of those groups as well.
CREATING A POSITIVE SENSE
OF JEWISH IDENTITY
am*biv*a*lence (noun): simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.)
Facing and acknowledging your own ambivalence and seeing how it has affected you is an important first step in clarifying your own sense of Jewish identity. Doing so helps you create a more consistent, cohesive, and clear sense of Jewish identity, which is so important in building strong intimate relationships.
Healing the Wounds of Internalized Anti-Semitism
A first step in healing the psychological and spiritual wounds of internalized anti-Semitism is exposing to the light of day the painful stereotypes you have internalized. Psychologist Judith Weinstein Klein described how a process she called ethnotherapy involved a necessary but difficult opening of old wounds in order to let them heal. Listen in to the revealing and disturbing dialogue in an ethnotherapy group for young single Jewish men and women, most of whom had never directly experienced anti-Semitism in their own lives. It will give you a sense of the power and destructiveness of internalized negative stereotypes on Jewish relationships. As you read what the group members say, imagine what you would add to the discussion if you were there. Don't be surprised if your own responses sometimes seem contradictory.
Rina: They [Jewish men] are neurotic. Very out of touch with their sensuality. Nervous and uncomfortable with their bodies.
Brad: There are two things I'm supposed to have along when I'm with a Jewish woman: my Dun & Bradstreet rating and the power of attorney that I'm supposed to turn over to them.
Shelley: Jewish men expect a lot of Jewish women, and they're very dependent. They're overachievers, egocentric, and selfish.
Guy: Jewish women have high material expectationsfurs and jewelry.
Lois: Jewish men expect to be waited onpsychologically as well as physically. They have to be the center of attention.
Sylvia: When I think of Jewish men, I think of my father and my brother. I don't want to see them as sexual beings. I had always put that aside. Therefore, Jewish men have never been sexually attractive to me.
Max: You know, in a lot of ways, Christians have been my ideal. I've always wanted a muscular body, and I don't have one. Jewish men have flat feet, and they're soft and not very athletic. It's always bothered me. I'm not my father's son; in a way, I'm my mother's son.
The outpouring of negativity in the group eventually led to deeper sharing and a greater awareness of the mixed messages about being Jewish each of the participants had received from their own families and from society. Ultimately, revealing their own stories helped group members begin to take responsibility for working through their own conflicts about what it meant to be Jewish. When group members could begin to understand and admit their personal conflicts, they felt less need to project the negative onto the opposite sex.
Jane was a thirty-eight-year-old divorced woman with an eight-year-old daughter. She reflected on her experience growing up:
When I was twelve years old, I loved Barbara Streisand's singing and thought she was really beautiful and sexy. When we would watch her on TV, my parents would constantly talk about her nose: "How can she appear in public like that?" I didn't say anything, but as a young Jewish girl, I felt kind of proud of her and ashamed of my parents.
As an adult I always had trouble feeling good about the way I looked. When I was growing up, my father kept offering me a nose job. It really hurt. It was like my father was saying that I was ugly because I looked Jewish.
I was really pleasantly surprised when I found that Gentile men were so attracted to me in college. I had never felt comfortable with Jewish boys. When I was twenty-eight and on my own, I told my parents that I planned to marry Bob, a non-Jew. They became totally hysterical: "How could you do this to us? Marry a goy?" I couldn't believe it. They hadn't contributed a penny to the Jewish community or gone to synagogue in years. From talking in the group, I'm starting to realize that not all Jewish men are like my father. What a relief.
It is vitally important to be able to talk to each other, to uncover our stories and our history. Only then can we begin to understand and heal the ways our ambivalence, our doubts, and our fears about being Jewish have undermined our intimate relationships. It is painful to open old wounds, face the confusion, and try to deal with the hurt, but the process can free up a tremendous amount of energy. And it can help us build more successful and satisfying relationships. The exercises at the end of this chapter will help you understand and work through your own issues surrounding your Jewish identity.
Drs. Joel Crohn and Judith Klein developed a powerful process that they use in groups to help people work through the mixed feelings they have about their religious and cultural backgrounds. The process, called Ancestors' Shadows, first described in Mixed Matches, reveals the chorus of your family members' voices and their mixed messages that you carry within you.
In the groups, each participant describes in writing what he or she imagines his or her grandparents, parents, and siblings would say if they were really being honest in answering two crucial questions. The first question is "What does being Jewish mean to you?" The second question is "How do you make your way in life?"
After all the group members have written down their responses, a participant is asked to volunteer to be the central character. That person stands in front of the group and chooses people from the group to play the roles of his or her family members. The written sentences become the script for a family drama.
In one group we conducted, Susan, a thirty-five-year-old woman from New York, volunteered to be at the center of the psychodramatic exercise. She chose group members to play out the role of each of her family members. After coaching them on how to speak their lines, she faced her family and listened intently to the chorus of characters she had created.
Maternal Grandmother: I'm Jewish. That means living in fear and trying to forget what happened to my family in Europe. I make my way in life by devoting myself to my family and not expecting much.
Maternal Grandfather: I am a Jew. For me, that means studying the Torah and observing the mitzvoth, and never forgetting what the Nazis did. I make my way in life by being a good Jew.
Paternal Grandmother: I am a Jew. That means focusing my life on the Jewish community. I make my way in life by helping others.
Paternal Grandfather: I am a Jew, and to me that means fighting to protect other Jews. I make my way in life by being tough and smart.
Mother: To me, being a Jew means you don't advertise the fact that you are Jewish and that you do everything to help your children succeed. I make my way in life by pouring myself into my children and making sure that they get the best of everything that life has to offer.
Father: I'm Jewish and that means that you are proud of who you are, but your religion is a private matter. I make my way in life by working hard and providing for my family.
Older Brother: I identify with being an American and fitting in. Being Jewish doesn't mean anything except ridiculous expectations and rules that can never be fulfilled. I make my way in life by doing my own thing and by not making commitments that I can't keep.
Younger Sister: I am a Jew, and that means living in a Jewish community and going to shul and raising my children as Jews. I make my way in life by being part of something bigger than myself.
Then it was Susan's turn to talk about what being a Jew meant to her. Her eyes were full of tears as she addressed the family she had created.
Susan: I am a Jew, and that means I am confused about who I am. I make my way in life by trying to please everybody.
As Susan looked at the people playing the roles of her family members, she began to cry. After a few minutes, she went on to describe her reactions to her experience with the group.
I'm really confused. My dad's father smuggled guns to Israel in 1948. Here I am, intermarried, uninvolved in the Jewish community, and living a safe middle-class life. So I can't tell you what kind of Jew I am. But I don't think you can equate being Jewish and Christian. And bringing a child into the worldthat's a very heavy thing to do. So I don't know what I am going to want to tell and teach him. I feel so unprepared. I think that in a way, I've been trying to be like a lot of my family memberssimultaneouslyand it hasn't worked very well for me. I don't know how I want to be Jewish right now, but I don't think it's something that should be lost.
At the next week's meeting, it was clear that Susan had been thinking a lot about her Ancestors' Shadows experience.
I began to realize that my brother and sister and I, each in our own way, have been struggling to come to terms with the very mixed messages that we received from our family about the importance of being Jewish. I understand better why I have always felt so conflicted about my Jewishness. Sometimes I've been proud of being Jewish, but other times I just resented my family's attempts to control what that was supposed to mean. I guess it's my turn now to try to figure out what is important for me and then really try to talk to my husband about it.
Steve, a twenty-nine-year-old Jewish man, remembered a conversation he had with a friend: "When I was feeling really confused about my Jewish identity, I told an African American friend that sometimes I wish we had a distinct color like he did. If we were born green, we wouldn't always be burdened with having to choose whether or not to identify ourselves as Jews. He said, `You have no idea what you are asking for. You better hope that your wish is never granted.'"
The vast majority of American Jews are Caucasian. Unlike members of racial minority groups whose identity is directly connected to their appearance, Jews are aware that today they have much more of a choice about how distinctive and important they make their Jewish identity.
Bob, forty-five, described the issue well:
When I walked out on the streets of Chicago in my virtually all-Jewish ghetto in the 1950s, it didn't really matter if my parents were observant or not. Everything and everyone was Jewish, so I could absorb the feeling of being a Jew just by going out my front door. Now I live in a California suburb where less than 10 percent of my neighbors are Jewish. Out here that's considered a "Jewish neighborhood." If I want my kids to have any kind of positive identity as Jews, I am going to have to be a lot more conscious and active as well as a lot less ambivalent about being Jewish than my parents were.
Creating a clear sense of group identity in a rapidly changing world is very difficultand very important. We are social creatures, and throughout human history identification with some combination of culture, faith, tradition, and shared group history has provided us with meaning and morality. People have always turned to their tribe for support and a sense of connection. To paraphrase John Donne, "No person is an island."
In Mixed Matches, Joel Crohn wrote of the dramatic shift in how group identity is created. He pointed out that throughout human history, "identity as a member of a group was a matter of destiny, not decision.... We now face the complicated task of creating our own sense of identity. Like painters standing before a palate of colors, we can choose the shades and shapes of our identities. This can be both an exhilarating and a confusing task."
For you to create and maintain a successful and enduring intimate relationship, it is very important to resolve your confusion and work toward creating a clear and meaningful cultural and religious identity. Research on marital stability and satisfaction has demonstrated the importance of agreement on matters of identity and faith. In order to enter into a productive dialogue with your partner about the ways to connect your relationship and your family to a broader community, you need to be as clear as possible about what is important to you. Doing the work to clarify your own sense of identity will allow you to make wholehearted choices with your partner.
Dimensions of Jewish Identity
There are many different ways that individuals identify with being Jewish. Some people identify as Jewish but have little or no interest in participating in any of the ways of being Jewish that we describe here. For these individuals, the challenge is to define why they choose to identify as Jews. For most Jews, however, one or several of the following dimensions define what is important about being Jewish.
· Judaism: practice and participation in synagogue life; observation of some or all of Shabbat, keeping kosher, the high holidays, Passover seders, or other rituals in the home; prayer, study of Hebrew, and related activities
· Ethnic, cultural, and communal connections: participation in Israeli dance; enjoyment of Jewish foods; involvement in Jewish social, cultural, philanthropic, or recreational activities
· Secular Zionism: interest in Israeli politics, culture, and history; interest in traveling to Israel; participation in groups or organizations that focus on Israel's welfare
· Jewish defense: involvement in organizations or activities that defend Jews against persecution and fight anti-Semitism
· Study of culture and history: interest in books, film, museums, and other ways of learning about Jewish history and Jewish life
· Children's education and activities, and meaningful family time: working to create a positive sense of Jewish history, traditions, or religious practices for children in a way that makes sense to them and has significance in their lives; focusing on creating positive self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and a social and moral consciousness connected to being Jewish, which may include sending children to Hebrew school, teaching them about traditions, supporting Jewish youth activities, attending Jewish summer camps, or sending a child on a summer trip to Israel
It is important to remember that these categories are not completely distinct; they often overlap. The study of Hebrew, for example, may relate more to an interest in Israel than in Judaism. A person's passion for Judaism does not automatically mean that he or she has the same interest in Israel or Jewish defense. Also, these dimensions tend to take on different degrees of importance at different life stages. Marriage, the birth of children, aging, and the death of loved ones are all emotionally and spiritually charged events that catalyze changes in identity. Using these dimensions creates a starting point and a kind of vocabulary with which to reflect on, talk about, and experiment with the meaning of that short but complex word Jew.
We hope that you will see the benefits of taking responsibility for shaping your own Jewish identity. Finding ways to connect yourself to the chain of generations that came before you can improve your sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, which are crucial to successful relationships. There is no one path that works for everyone; we urge you to find one that works for you. Take this opportunity to see identity formation as an ongoing and active process, not as an accident of fate.
The following exercises can help you to create a clear and healthy Jewish identity that can help you build a more supportive and resilient marriage. Remember, even though you may be very articulate about a wide range of topics, you may find exploring issues of identity to be both intellectually and emotionally difficult. Many Jews end their formal involvement with studying Judaism when they are thirteen years old or younger. It is a lot easier to work with these issues if you expect and accept that you are likely to feel all kinds of contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive feelings. For many people, such confusion is the norm, and facing mixed feelings is an important step in clarifying your sense of identity. Save anything that you write for later discussions with your partner. Also, because these exercises can sometimes elicit strong emotions, don't push yourself to do more than you are comfortable with. What is important is that you learn more about yourself at a pace that works for you.
Finally, if you were not raised as a Jew, substitute "Christian" or whatever other identity was most meaningful to you for the words "Jewish" or "Judaism" whenever it is useful for you to do so. We will focus on intermarriage and conversion in Chapter Ten.
Facing What You Internalized About Jewish Identity
This exercise involves exploring the negative as well as the positive stereotypes you have internalized about being Jewish. Such exploration helps clear the way for you to begin to more actively engage the process of shaping your own Jewish identity.
Take a pencil and write down the first ten words or phrases that come to mind when you think about the word Jewish. The difficult part of this exercise is that you will be very tempted to edit the list. The goal is simply to pay attention to the words and ideas that pop into your mind. It is useful to repeat this exercise at a later time to see how different your list may be from one day to the next.
Clarifying Your Own Identity: Exploring Five Paths
As you look back over the course of several generations of your family, it probably becomes clear that cultural and religious identities are not static and unchanging. If you are truly happy and satisfied with your relationship to the ethnic, cultural, and religious aspects of your identity, that's fine. If, however, your sense of Jewish identity seems too vague, conflicted, or nebulous, you can work to shape your own identity in the future. The best way to make changes is to experiment, create new experiences, and then make choices.
First complete the following exercise by yourself. We will ask you to return to this exercise with your partner after you have worked through the next few chapters, which teach you important communication and conflict resolution skills. For now, it is important that you have begun the work to clarify and strengthen your sense of identity.
For each dimension of identityJudaism; ethnic, cultural, and communal connections; Israel; Jewish defense; study of culture and history; and children's education and activitiesmake notes that answer the following questions:
1. At various times in your lifeas a child, as an adolescent, and as a young adultwhat was your connection to this dimension of being Jewish? What is your connection today? Are there ways in which you would like to change or develop any aspect of your identity? What might some of your goals be? Think of ways you might want to explore each dimension in order to learn more.
2. Which individuals in your family were most importantin positive or negative waysin shaping your attitudes toward each of the dimensions?
3. What would you hope you could pass on to children (even if you don't have any) about the dimensions of Jewish identity that are most important to you?
Ancestors' Shadows: Exploring Your Past
It is very difficult to work out a clear sense of identity with your partner until you are able to acknowledge all the voices you carry within. Only then can you really come to terms with your own complex identity and make better choices. Look back at the Ancestors' Shadows group process we described earlier in the chapter.
This exercise can help you get a lot clearer about the contradictory messages you received and internalized from significant family members. Using this process can help you better understand why you feel one way about being Jewish today and a different way tomorrow.
Remember, all the significant people in your life, as well as those who were important in their lives, deeply affect you. Even if you never knew one of your grandparents, some version of that person (or reaction against him or her) lived on in your mother or father. Whereas it is easy for you to remember the voices that represent people you feel loved by and whom you respect, it is important to hear the voices you are less comfortable with as well; they can affect you just as much.
Begin by taking a piece of paper and drawing a circle (female) or square (male) representing each of the members of your family, including your grandparents, parents, siblings, and yourself. Leave enough room under each circle to write in two sentences. Underneath the symbol that represents each person, write down your fantasy of what each person would say (if he or she were being really honest) in response to each of the two statements that appear at the end of this exercise. After completing these sentences, imagine each of them speaking their lines to you as people did in the group exercise. Finally, after you have "heard" from each of your family members, write your own two lines and imagine saying them to your intergenerational family, gathered together as a group.
I am a [fill in whatever combination of religious or cultural identity that seems most important to the person], and to me that means ...
I make my way in life by ...