Jewish Enough

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Photo by Brian Chang.

I’m running late to class, and, as usual, I’m stuck on Cross Campus strategizing how I will dodge my way across the traffic on Elm Street. I spot the Hasidic Jews who line the sidewalk, coaxing select pedestrians — those they assume to be Jews — to consider orthodoxy. As usual, they ignore me as I walk toward them. Ordinarily, this would not bother me: I am not interested in their literature. Today, however, I feel myself slowing down, trying to attract their attention, and I’m annoyed when they continue to look past me. Why have they never identified me as a possible recruit? Why have they never identified me as a Jew?

Yes, I am blonde. And, no, I don’t look “stereotypically Jewish.” But, then, neither does my friend whom they do call over, who has a very visible cross dangling from his neck.

A year ago, being dismissed as “not Jewish enough” — exactly how I feel when rejected by the Hasidics — would not have fazed me. I was very comfortable with my “Jewishness.” But since coming to Yale, I have begun to doubt my Jewish identity.

My parents raised me as a Reformed Jew. I attended Hebrew school every Sunday and Wednesday and was duly Bat Mitzvah-ed when I was 13. Forty Jewish classmates in my high school graduating class of 110 had followed a similar path. Yet most of them were significantly more reformed than I was — many of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs did not involve a single word of Hebrew, and I was one of only a handful who actually kept the fast during Passover. Back home in Chicago, it had never seemed strange to me that my mother had converted to Judaism, or that my closest friend from Hebrew School was half-Chinese (her mother, too, had converted). In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories is of our families eating potstickers together as an appetizer for our Jewish holiday meals. I knew that these were not necessarily aspects of Judaism that a more orthodox community would embrace, but I had never thought of myself as “less Jewish” because of them.

Then I came to Yale. I soon realized that I did not fit into the typical Jewish stereotype that people held in the back of their minds: I did not keep kosher; my mother had converted; I was blonde. Suddenly, because of all these things, I was somehow not a “real Jew.” My classmates, Jews and gentiles alike, reminded me of this fact every time I ate bacon.

This feeling was only intensified when, as a freshman eager to wade into the social mix at Yale, I first visited the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. My enthusiasm was dampened by what seemed to me to be very narrow “Jewish” events offered at Slifka — and since I had never thought of Judaism as my primary identity, I was not too eager to participate in Yiddish classes or discussions about the Talmud. By January, I was hesitant to participate in any Slifka event because it seemed that those who did identify themselves first and foremost as Jews had come to dominate the building. The people who devoted a large portion of their time to Slifka had forged tight friendships with one another, and by not attending events that I had deemed “too Jewish,” I had been left out of the community altogether. When I ventured to Bagel Brunch (one of the only Slifka events I never miss) with a friend who was very involved with the Hillel community, I felt too uncomfortable to participate in the conversations he had with his other friends from Hillel about their recent trips to Israel or changes in the Kosher Kitchen.

I broached the idea of not feeling “Jewish enough” to a few of my Jewish friends — some Reformed, some Conservative, some non-religious. They all agreed that there was a division in the Jewish community at Yale between a group that one of my friends dubbed “the Kosher Kitchen crowd” (the Jews who take their meals at Slifka or are otherwise intensely involved in the Hillel community), and the rest of us. Jews who want a less intense involvement in the community, we concluded, are gradually locked out.

Curious, I then surveyed my non-Jewish friends about other cultural houses and groups on campus and found similar reactions. One friend mused that he did not feel “black enough” to be involved in the African-American House. Another friend wished that La Casa would have more events outside the organization so that it could be more welcoming to students who were not already deeply involved. These students — who do not consider themselves primarily defined by their ethnicity, race, sexuality, or religion — tend to fear getting involved with identity or cultural groups on campus. Ironically, it seems that such institutions are prone to splinter, narrow, and alienate portions of the populations they were created to support. As I turned these findings over in my mind, I began to suspect that this fear represents a global phenomenon that does not just exist inside the Yale bubble.

This speculation was supported by a conversation with Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish Chaplain and Director of the Slifka Center. With regard to cultural unease, Ponet suggests that “maybe we’re in an age of the gradual disintegration of identity politics.” Perhaps, he says, more students are feeling disconnected from the cultural houses and the religious communities on campus simply because they identify more as a human or an American than they do as a member of any specific race, ethnicity, or religion.

But Ponet and I also agree that there is something very special about the question of Jewish identity. Wondering if you are “Jewish enough,” he tells me, is a quintessential Jewish experience: “Maybe part of being a Jew is worrying [about] what it is to be a Jew…The fact that you are asking this question [of whether you are ‘Jewish enough’] and taking this time to sit with me to me just confirms that you are a [real] Jew.”

Yet this question of what it means to be a Jew seems to be fracturing Jewish communities everywhere. In fact, it is nearly impossible today to define what a “Jewish person” is. Different people have different criteria: faith, heritage, practices, or the simple fact of declaring oneself to be a Jew. The existence of these divisions often means that Jews can, consciously or unconsciously, create communities that are unwelcoming to other Jews.

On college campuses, where we begin defining our own identities, this problem of stratification is particularly relevant. Ponet believes that the issue is as old as Slifka itself and admits that he had initially believed the problem to be confined to Reformed Jews (like myself), who felt uncomfortable coming to a Slifka Center whose culture was oriented toward Conservative Jews. Now, Rabbi Ponet acknowledges that the problem has expanded: “There are many different types of Judaism,” and the more variations there are in Judaism, the easier it is for Jews to create divides among themselves.

As we continued to talk, Rabbi Ponet and I eventually came up with a way for me to think about Judaism: as a second or third identity. Many of the people who are currently “regulars” at the Slifka Center identify themselves primarily as Jews. But for Jews like myself, being a Jew is an important part of who we are, but it is not the only part. Ponet and I agree that what Slifka ought to be doing — and is now doing — is trying to reach out to these people who want to be involved, just less intensely, more tentatively, or even just occasionally.

In order to engage those Jews who think of their Judaism as their second or third identity, Ponet tells me, Slifka has already created an Engagement Team made up of rabbis and students. Their job is not an easy one. The problem, as Sam Gardenswartz ’13, the student head of the Engagement Team, identifies it, is a natural one. There will always be a group of people that will populate Slifka because: “a) they need to be [there] because they pray three times a day or for the kosher kitchen, or b) because that is the place where they immediately feel at home. So for those people it’s good that Slifka becomes this kind of smaller community. So then the question is: how do you balance that with the desire for everyone to feel included?”

The faculty head of the Engagement Team, Slifka Executive Director Steven Sitrin, feels that Slifka has not done a very good job of finding the balance that Sam indicates is needed: “We spend so much time making the people who are here all the time comfortable that we don’t realize we are making an environment that is not so comfortable for other people to come into.”

The Jewish community at Yale has recognized my problem and they are working to solve it. Knowing that this effort is taking place makes me more comfortable with the idea of making another foray into life at Slifka. Ponet’s words also assuaged my Jewish identity crisis: I am not alone in questioning whether I am “Jewish enough.” This question exists as part of the broader culture of a university community, as part of the Jewish culture itself, and as part of my own search for my identity. It is not for my friends or the Elm Street Jews to decide what my Judaism is. If I want to be a Jew who eats bacon and thinks of her religion as her second identity, then so be it. That will be my Judaism, and it is “Jewish enough” for me.

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The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life is working hard to encourage more people to take advantage of its resources. There are approximately 3,000 Jewish students at Yale, and, according to Steven Sitrin, the new Executive Director at Slifka, about 2,800 do not take full advantage of the Slifka Center, its facilities, its activities, or its resources. In pursuing various ways to make all Jewish students feel welcome, Sitrin pledges: “We are not looking for one solution, but 2,800 different solutions.”To that end, Slifka has established an Engagement Team this year, whose mission is to ensure that the Center is more welcoming not only to first-time visitors but to those students who perhaps think of Judaism as their secondary or tertiary identity. The team is composed of Sitrin, faculty head; Sam Gardenswartz ’13, student head; the rabbis at Yale Hillel; a student representative from each class; and two sophomores who act as freshman coordinators. The following is a list of exciting opportunities the Team has been working to create:

Shabbat Guides: Now, when you attend Shabbat dinner at Slifka, you can follow the events of the night through a guide.

Mix and Match Tables: There is a new rule at Shabbat dinner: no one may sit with the same people he or she sat with the four previous Friday nights. This rule should encourage regulars at Shabbat dinners to meet and converse with those who are new to the dinners or attend them only occasionally.

Jewish Life Fellows: Jewish life fellows are not new, but they are stepping up their game this year by hosting more events in their individual residential colleges. (Who can say no to Bar Pizza in a Sukkah?)

Wednesday Night Lounges: The Engagement Team will invite clubs or student organizations to Slifka on Wednesday nights to hang out, chat, and meet people involved with the Center.

Class Trips: The Engagement Team will be planning an annual trip for individual classes every year, allowing students to meet other Jews in their year in a fun, relaxed, off campus setting (like trips to New York and Boston to visit a museum or attend a baseball game).

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