Living the Legacy

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Exploring My Identity

Unit 1 , Lesson 1

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

http://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy

Exploring My Identity

Document studies: 

My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate

Discussion Questions (Part 1) - Before Reading

  1. How does the image this title conjures up fit with your idea of a Passover seder? How is it similar or different?
  2. What might be some reasons to have kimchee on a seder plate?
  3. What assumptions might someone make about the author of this article just based on her name and the title of the article?

My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate

One year my mother put kimchee, a spicy, pickled cabbage condiment, on our seder plate. My Korean mother thought it was a reasonable substitution since both kimchee and horseradish elicit a similar sting in the mouth, the same clearing of the nostrils. She also liked kimchee on gefilte fish and matza. “Kimchee just like maror, but better,” she said. I resigned myself to the fact that we were never going to be a “normal” Jewish family.

I grew up part of the “mixed multitude” of our people: an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father, a Korean Buddhist mother. I was born in Seoul and moved to Tacoma, Washington, at the age of five. Growing up, I knew my family was atypical, yet we were made to feel quite at home in our synagogue and community. My Jewish education began in my synagogue preschool, extended through cantorial and rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College (HUC), and continues today. I was the first Asian American to graduate from the rabbinical program at HUC, but definitely not the last--a Chinese American rabbi graduated the very next year, and I am sure others will follow.

As a child, I believed that my sister and I were the “only ones” in the Jewish community--the only ones with Asian faces, the only ones whose family trees didn’t have roots in Eastern Europe, the only ones with kimchee on the seder plate. But as I grew older, I began to see myself reflected in the Jewish community. I was the only multiracial Jew at my Jewish summer camp in 1985; when I was a song-leader a decade later, there were a dozen. I have met hundreds of people in multiracial Jewish families in the Northeast through the Multiracial Jewish Network. Social scientist Gary Tobin numbers interracial Jewish families in the hundreds of thousands in North America.

As I learned more about Jewish history and culture, I found it very powerful to learn that being of mixed race in the Jewish community was not just a modern phenomenon. We were a mixed multitude when we left Egypt and entered Israel, and the Hebrews continued to acquire different cultures and races throughout our Diaspora history. Walking through the streets of modern-day Israel, one sees the multicolored faces of Ethiopian, Russian, Yemenite, Iraqi, Moroccan, Polish, and countless other races of Jews--many facial particularities, but all Jewish. Yet, if you were to ask the typical secular Israeli on the street what it meant to be Jewish, she might respond, “It's not religious so much, it's my culture, my ethnicity.” If Judaism is about culture, what then does it mean to be Jewish when Jews come from so many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds?

As the child of a non-Jewish mother, a mother who carried her own distinct ethnic and cultural traditions, I came to believe that I could never be “fully Jewish” since I could never be “purely” Jewish. I was reminded of this daily: when fielding the many comments like, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” or having to answer questions on my halakhic status as a Jew. My internal questions of authenticity loomed over my Jewish identity throughout my adolescence into early adulthood, as I sought to integrate my Jewish, Korean, and secular American identities.

It was only in a period of crisis, one college summer while living in Israel, that I fully understood what my Jewish identity meant to me. After a painful summer of feeling marginalized and invisible in Israel, I called my mother to declare that I no longer wanted to be a Jew. I did not look Jewish, I did not carry a Jewish name, and I no longer wanted the heavy burden of having to explain and prove myself every time I entered a new Jewish community. She simply responded by saying, “Is that possible?” It was only at that moment that I realized I could no sooner stop being a Jew than I could stop being Korean, or female, or me. I decided then to have a giyur (conversion ceremony), what I termed a reaffirmation ceremony in which I dipped in the mikvah and reaffirmed my Jewish legacy. I have come to understand that anyone who has seriously considered her Jewish identity struggles with the many competing identities that the name “Jew” signifies.

What does it mean to be a “normal” Jewish family today? As we learn each other’s stories we hear the challenges and joys of reconciling our sometimes competing identities of being Jewish while also feminist, Arab, gay, African-American, or Korean. We were a mixed multitude in ancient times, and we still are. May we continue to see the many faces of Israel as a gift that enriches our people.

Details
Angela Warnick Buchdahl, "My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate." Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (June 2003) as part of a larger conversation about the changing nature of Jewish families. Visit Sh'ma online for more information.

Discussion Questions (Part 2) - After Reading

  1. If Angela Warnick Buchdahl were to do the 5 part identity activity we did earlier, how might she have filled out her card?
  2. What made Angela uncomfortable with her identity?
  3. Has there ever been a situation in which your identity has made you uncomfortable or the actions of others have caused you to question some part of your identity?
  4. Do you agree or disagree with Angela's mother? Is it possible to change your identity? Why or why not?
  5. Angela Warnick Buchdahl describes a changing Jewish community. Do you think if she were a child today she would be more comfortable with her identity? What role do you think community plays in identity?
  6. Angela mentions the "many competing identities that the name 'Jew' signifies." What do you think some of these identities might be? Do you struggle with any of them?
  7. Revisit the assumptions made about Angela Warnick Buchdahl and her article before you read it. How many of the assumptions were correct? How many were inaccurate? To what degree do we judge someone else's identity by visual clues and/or names?

Ashkenazi Eyes

Discussion Questions (Part 1) - Before Reading

  1. What kind of image does this title conjure up? What do you think "Ashkenazi eyes" look like? Do you think this description is positive or negative?
  2. What assumptions might someone make about the author of this article based on her name and the title of the article?
  3. "Ashkenazi Eyes" is part of a book entitled The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage. What images and perspectives does this title conjure up for you? What impact does this have on your responses to the previous questions?

Ashkenazi Eyes

When I was a child, I had a hard time saying I was American. If pressed, I said I was Californian. Los Angeles, where I grew up among diverse cultures, felt more accessible and familiar than the great expanse of America, with my images of Dick-and-Jane families who were far away from my frames of reference. My world was multicultural—from the intimacy of my home, shared with my Iraqi-Indian Jewish father and Russian-American Jewish mother, to our circles of friends, to my schools.

My Jewishness factored significantly into my struggle with claiming American identity. My neighbor, for example, regularly reminded me that I was not welcome in her house on Christmas Day, though she was happy to be my best friend the other 364 days a year. My early idealism also factored into the equation: even at a young age, I was painfully aware that America had not lived up to its credos. I stopped saying “and justice for all” during the Pledge of Allegiance once I learned about the experience of African Americans.

Discussions with my immigrant father, who appreciated the freedoms he found in this country, forced me to question my distancing from American identity. As I learned about the history of activism in this country, I came to see that the very struggles to realize America’s promise of democracy, liberty, and equality are in fact a quintessential part of what it means to be American. This perspective afforded me a window through which I might comfortably claim being American.

When I traveled to other parts of the world, I realized that I had no choice but to identify as American—both because of personal experiences of feeling foreign and because through the eyes of people of other nationalities, there was little chance I would be mistaken for anything but American.

Still, “American” continues to fall short of representing my cultural identity or even nationality. Even “American Jew” does not fully describe me, because the term conjures up images that reflect only half of me—bagels and lox, Woody Allen, the Holocaust, yarmulkes, and ancestors from Eastern European shtetls. People do not seem to realize that “American Jew” also means chiturni for dinner, a hamsa around the neck to ward off the Evil Eye, a henna party before marriage, and ancestors from Poona, India and Basra, Iraq.

I have hazel-green eyes—“Ashkenazi eyes,” people tell me. These eyes and light skin conceal my Iraqi-Indian heritage, rendering half of me invisible. Before speaking with me about my experience or background, most people presume I am Jewish, and by that they mean Ashkenazi or white. Because I am especially close to my father’s side of the family, it is difficult to have my ethnicity defined by others in a way that does not recognize my Mizrahi identity. People who are dark-skinned or still hold traces of an accent may tire of the question, “Where are you from?” But I would welcome the rare opportunity to round out people’s perceptions of me.

Details

Julie Iny, "Ashkenazi Eyes," The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, ed. by Loolwa Khazzoom, (New York: Seal Press, 2003).


Discussion Questions (Part 2) - After Reading

  1. If Julie Iny were to do the 5 part identity activity we did earlier, how might she have filled out her card?
  2. With what part of her identity was Julie uncomfortable? Why?
  3. Has there ever been a situation in which your identity has made you uncomfortable or the actions of others have caused you to question some part of your identity?
  4. What experiences and knowledge help Julie Iny come to terms with part of her identity? Why did she need to come to terms with it? Is it possible to change one's identity?
  5. With what part of her identity does Julie still struggle? How do the actions of strangers reinforce this struggle?
  6. What kinds of assumptions might people make about your identity?
  7. Revisit the assumptions made about Julie Iny and her article before you read it. How many of the assumptions were correct? How many were inaccurate? To what degree do we judge someone else's identity by visual clues and/or names?

Claire

Claire

Claire, a photograph by Dawoud Bey
Full image
Dawoud Bey, Claire, 2004. Pigment Print, with interview by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister. Image courtesy of Dawoud Bey. Commissioned by the Jewish Museum for the exhibition The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography.

My name’s Claire Saxe, I’m 16 years old.

My father is mostly Russian, and my mom is I think about half Russian, my grandmother is part Native American. She’s Ojibwe and lives on an Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin.

I’m not very religious. I think 3/4 of my family either is or was Jewish at one point in their life, but I’m not really religious at all. Whenever people ask what religion I am, I mention that parts of my family are Jewish but I’m not religious, but I think culturally I identify more with being part Native American than I do with being part Jewish. Which is interesting, because I’m such a small percentage Native American, but I think just because I’ve been to the reservation every year since I was a baby, I’m so familiar with the culture and everything because of my grandma, it feels closer to me than Judaism does.

In 6th grade I did research on Ojibwe religion, ‘cause when all my friends were getting Bat Mitzvahed and I was like well, maybe I can find something of my own. And it wasn’t really what I had sort of romanticized it to be, but there’s still something that it has been in my head all these years that I like, and I’m not really sure what you’d call that. I mean, I really like the idea of being connected to nature and your surroundings, and acknowledging the life of everything around us, and it’s sort of spirit and existence. I find that really comforting, you know feeling at home, and feeling like I’m not alone when I’m in a forest surrounded by trees, because everything around me is alive…

When I was about 13 and all my friends were getting Bat Mitzvahed I was kind of upset, and I asked my mom why she hadn’t made me Jewish when she had the chance. And I guess part of me does still want that a lot, sort of wants to have that identity, to have that part of myself more concretely. But religion now isn’t a part of my identity so much, because I didn’t have any sort of religious experience growing up. So I don’t think I need it, I’m not dependent on it. But if I grow up and find something that feels right, I think I would like to have that as part of who I am, and to pass on to my children, so they do have that. And since such a large part of my family and a large part of my ancestors were Jewish, I’d probably investigate that first. But it’s not something that I'm yearning for and that I need, because it's not something that I've had my whole life.

Details

An excerpt from an interview with Claire Saxe, 2004, conducted by Dan Collusion and Elizabeth Meister, which accompanies the photograph Claire by Dawoud Bey.


Discussion Questions (Part 1) - Looking at the Photograph

  1. Describe what you see in this picture. How is this girl posed? What is she wearing? Where is she sitting? How would you describe her expression?
  2. What do you think this girl is communicating to you as the viewer?
  3. Does she seem approachable? Reserved? Other?
  4. Based upon what you see in the picture, what assumptions might someone make about the identity of this girl? What is the basis for those assumptions?

Discussion Questions (Part 2) - After Reading Transcript

  1. If Claire Saxe was to do the 5 part identity activity we did earlier, how might she have filled out her card?
  2. What parts of her identity have caused Claire to do research about her people and religion? Do you think the research has helped her become more comfortable with who she is? Why or why not?
  3. Describe a situation in which what others were doing has caused you to question some part of your identity.
  4. Only a fraction of Claire's heritage is Ojibwe but this is the strongest part of her identity. What has reinforced this part of her identity? How do you think experiences in our lives help shape our identity?
  5. What is an experience that has helped shape your identity?
  6. Revisit the assumptions made about Claire Saxe before you read her transcript. How many of the assumptions were correct? How many were inaccurate? To what degree do we judge someone else's identity by visual clues and/or names?

Jacob

Jacob

Jacob
Full image
Dawoud Bey, Jacob, 2005. Pigment Print, with interview by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister. Image courtesy of Dawoud Bey. Commissioned by the Jewish Museum for the exhibition The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography.

My name is Jacob Goldstein and I’m 15.

My father was Belizean, my mom is American, and I’m Jewish. So I’m one of a kind, you could say. I didn’t know my dad because he died when I was little. But I grew up with my mom, and she’s raised me all by herself, and she’s done a great job.

A lot of people thought I was adopted. but, when people think I’m adopted, I really don’t think anything of it, I just have to tell them that, no she’s my mom and my dad was Black.

I identify myself as being Black, but I also identify myself as being Jewish too. I think of myself more as an individual than like any other person, because I’m both, like I’m Jewish and I’m black, so I’m different than most other people. I like being different than other people, I like being a leader, I don’t like to follow other people and, what they do.

People base too much on the way people look, like the way people dress, like they look at me, and might think, like, I’m in a gang or something. That’s just because of the way I dress. You can’t really put an identity on someone that you don’t really know. When people don’t know that much about you and you’re just like, oh, I forgot to tell you, I’m Jewish, they’re like, what? That’s something they’d never expect.

Details

An excerpt from an interview with Jacob Goldstein, 2005, conducted by Dan Collusion and Elizabeth Meister, which accompanies the photograph Jacob by Dawoud Bey.


Discussion Questions (Part 1) - Looking at the Photograph

  1. Describe what you see in this picture. How is this boy posed? What is he wearing? Where is he sitting? How would you describe his expression?
  2. What do you think this boy is communicating to you as the viewer?
  3. Does he seem approachable? Reserved? Other?
  4. Based upon what you see in the picture, what assumptions might someone make about the identity of this boy? What is the basis for those assumptions?

Discussion Questions (Part 2) - After Reading Transcript

  1. If Jacob Goldstein was to do the 5 part identity activity we did earlier, how might he have filled out his card?
  2. Jacob says that people often make assumptions about him based on his skin color or the way he dresses (e.g. that he is adopted or that he is a member of a gang). He also says that people are surprised to learn that he's Jewish. How do you think these experiences shape the ways that Jacob thinks about and expresses his identity?
  3. How might people judge you based on what they can see? How does that influence the ways you think about and express your identity?
  4. Why does Jacob think of himself as an individual/different? Do you agree with Jacob? Is he different?
  5. Jacob says he likes to be different. In what ways do you like to be different? In what ways, do you want to blend in with others?
  6. Revisit the assumptions made about Jacob Goldstein before you read his transcript. How many of the assumptions were correct? How many were inaccurate? To what degree do we judge someone else's identity by visual clues and/or names?

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Exploring My Identity." (Viewed on April 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/exploring-my-identity>.