For the past few months, I have rather intently felt a struggle between my identity as a Jew and my identity as a citizen of the world.
While the two are not absolutely mutually exclusive, there is no denying that they are not easily reconciled. All groups have mechanisms in place to foster allegiance and ethnic specificity, and I don’t think my struggle is unique only to Jews. My rather common struggle is just manifested in a unique way because I’m Jewish.
Jews are in a unique position because we possess a concept of nationhood that functions without a physical nation. This concept first developed when, in the 500s BCE, the Babylonians kicked us out of the land that, until that point, had been inextricably tied to who we were. We had also simultaneously always had a narrative of ourselves as being separate from other peoples. The Chosen People, in a nutshell. This, coupled with the common occurrence of being intentionally kept separate in many of the places we have lived over the past few millennia, ensured that we had an identity as “Jews” regardless of where we lived. Despite the genocides, expulsions, hate crimes, and the like, we’re still here, in large part because, paradoxically, that separation is de facto existence. And that’s something to be proud of.
Therefore, being Jewish is much more complicated than believing in a certain mythology. This is what I think most non-Jews don’t understand about Jews. It’s not necessarily about what you believe or do. We feel bound to an identity as “Jew” for many reasons, but the most visceral of them is that we have an obligation to the generations before us who clung to our identity even when it meant their deaths.
That’s the guilt comedians like to joke that Jews and Catholics share.
And I feel it. I feel it most when it comes to the family I will create.
While “Jewish” is up there with “female” and “American” in defining core components of my identity, my heart sees the war and hatred that such definitions can foster. I think many people of my generation feel that the world would be a better place if those lines were blurred more. I understand that the blurring would cause a backlash, with a movement towards the opposite, but eventually, if most of us were mixed “races” and religions, the old groups we hated would no longer exist. We’d have to create new groups to hate.
I, of course, don’t endorse hatred, but I do think it’s natural, and philosophically, I don’t believe that humankind is slowly progressing toward a greater good. I believe that we’re changing. Not for the better and not for the worse. And maybe when it comes down to it we’re hardly changing at all.
From this it is hard for me to avoid the logical conclusion that if there will always be some type of division among humans, that, in the long run, it really doesn’t help the world to intermarry. Based on human nature, war is inevitable. But that doesn’t feel like the logical conclusion to me. It feels like war and hatred could be avoided if we knew more about each other, or further, if we were one another.
And as someone who wants to have a family one day, it feels like I would be contributing to the ignorance in the world by limiting my mate to a Jew. Would I not be feeding into the very separation that breeds the ignorance that spurs the hatred in the world?
But then I think of myself as a counterexample. No doubt possessing some prejudices, but I believe that overall I don’t let them interfere with my sense of justice. And I’m a product of two Jews, 12 years of a Jewish education, a kosher home, and weekly Shabbat dinners and synagogue services.
I don’t think it’s enough, though, to not let my prejudices interfere with my sense of justice. I think I also have an obligation to befriend people different than me, and in so doing help dispel their prejudices towards me and vice versa. Perhaps that is all we need for world peace. Not a blurring at all, but an alignment. More of an American model than a French model. We’ll never all be the same; it’s much more pragmatic to focus on learning about one another rather than jump ahead with the goal of marrying one another.
Intellectually, I may resent the separateness and find myself at a loss to rationalize it. Why do I insist on being a Jew and what does it mean to be one? But I cannot avoid the truth of my existence: I am a Jew. And my children must be as well.
So, there really is only 1 unsettled question, a question I ask myself all the time: To raise a child with a Jewish identity, an identity that is important enough to that child to instill it in his own children, does it require 2 Jewish parents?
And I ask because, since I don’t believe the Jewish mythology, it feels archaic, narrow-minded, and wrong to insist on selecting only a Jew. When thinking generally, it doesn’t seem so bad. You want a Jewish child, it makes sense to have a Jewish husband. But when you think about the individual, someone who was born into this world with no choice in the matter, just like you were, too, but you happened to be born a Jew, does it not feel immoral to deem him unworthy of spending your life with you?
This is my struggle.