When my sister and I talked about getting tattoos, and my father asked us not to, at first I couldn’t understand why. After all, he’s the laidback, ex-hippie type, so I couldn’t see why he would be so against it. It is only recently that I realized why. The first tattoo my father ever saw was the numbers on his father’s arm.
That’s just one example of the things you deal with growing up Jewish these days, and growing up as a Jewish believer in Jesus can be even more complicated. I struggle to find and understand my identity sometimes, and being Jewish is only the half of it. The other half of me must confront my faith. Sometimes my life can’t help but feel like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms.
Both of my parents are Jewish. My grandparents are Russian and Polish Jews who immigrated to America. My father’s parents survived the Holocaust, but his grandparents did not. In the 1970s, my parents became believers in Yeshua (Jesus). At a young age I also accepted Jesus into my life.
There are so many things I’ve always enjoyed about being Jewish—lighting the menorah on Hanukkah, going to bar and bat mitzvahs, dancing the hora and eating latkes and matzoh ball soup (my mom makes it better than anyone). Because being Jewish is so much a part of who I am, it took me a long time to fully grasp that some people wouldn’t like me because I’m Jewish and that there are some who simply hate our people.
When you’re six years old they don’t teach you about the Holocaust in school, but I learned about it at home. My parents were the ones who told me that what had happened to my grandparents and greatgrandparents was an experience that would affect my life, my children’s lives and their children’s lives. Because I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I cannot learn about the world wars the same way as someone who is not. I cannot watch a clip of Schindler’s List in history class without taking it personally. The word Nazi” gives me the sickest feeling. It’s hard for me to separate history from the present, knowing that for my grandparents, history is a reality they must face daily.
But in addition to discrimination I have faced in my life for being Jewish, I have faced the same for being a believer … and from my own family. None of my extended family believes as I do, and therefore every family get-together is and has always been a strange reminder that my sister, my parents and I are different. I have never felt very close to any of my cousins. In some ways, I live my life differently than they do. Through all the bar mitzvahs and weddings and trips to visit my family in Florida, I have had to hold my tongue or turn my back on things to which I would normally react.
And then there are my friends. One of my best friends is an extremely religious Jewish girl named Miriam.* We met in high school through another friend of mine who is also a Jewish Christian (which was not common in my high school, or really anywhere), so Miriam knew that I was a believer before I even told her. She has decided to never talk about my faith. We were sitting at a friend’s apartment last summer, and someone asked her if anyone in her family was Christian. She replied, “No, I’m Jewish. Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” She didn’t look at me, but I knew her comment was directed at me. Miriam understands that I’m Jewish; she just thinks I’m “confused.” I am unhappy that I can only be so close to Miriam, as she finds my life to be so “messed up.”
The reaction I get from Miriam is a toneddown version of what I get from most other Jewish people. Because of the faith I claim, I cannot be considered Jewish by most of the Jewish community.
This is not to say that everyone in the Jewish community is the same. In fact, I think that to make generalizations about all Jewish people is to stereotype them. In many ways (other than our faith) my family doesn’t fit into what might be considered the “typical” Jewish American family. My mother’s mother is far from being a “classic Jewish grandma.” She was a beatnik and an artist in her younger days, and her voice strangely sounds more “Queen of England” than “yenta.” I’ve learned that not every Jewish family looks, sounds or eats in the same way. From what I can tell, the characteristics that show up in my family, as well as many other Jewish families, are patterns more than anything else. The Jewish girl inside me wants to go to Israel, take Hebrew again, and meet a “nice Jewish boy,” as my grandmother would like me to. Yet, my struggle to find my place in the Jewish community at large will always be more complicated for me than for other Jewish people my age, because of my faith.
And as much as I work to retain my Jewishness, I sometimes feel the same struggle with my faith. I will always be Jewish, but I cannot claim to be the model believer because I see my life as a work in progress. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that sometimes denying my faith would be an easy way out of many situations. But I am not willing to give up on my faith.
There comes a point in one’s life where your faith isn’t just what your parents believe. When I got older I realized this; that I had to deal with my beliefs on my own. I believe the same things I have since I was four years old, but as I got older my faith has become less about what I’ve done and more about who I am. The temptations I’ve faced in life have often tested my faith, and I admit to giving in sometimes. At this stage in my life where I’m supposed to “know who I am,” I’ve only now begun to start realizing how much my faith shapes me. My faith in Yeshua is the most important thing in my life, and the throes of being a teenager have tested this. In both my culture and my religion, I still struggle to keep up with each.
What I do know is this: I am not half Jewish, half believer in Jesus. Every day I wake up I am 100% of both. I will not wake up one day and decide to denounce my faith or my heritage. I waver somewhere between each of these communities, with each throwing something in my face, telling me I don’t belong. If someone told me to pick one for the rest of my life, I would never be able to. I cannot deny who I am in either, but I have spent my entire life trying to deal with both. I didn’t really figure anything out until I stopped trying to see each of these aspects of my life as individual, or independent of the other. Being Jewish makes me more of a believer in Yeshua and being a believer makes me more Jewish. Were I to try and embrace each separately, I would be missing the point.
*Not her real name