“All Too Well”: How I Went From Embarrassed to Proud of My Jewish Identity
In my mind, I’ve always split my relationship with Judaism into three parts. If there was a short film of my life with captions describing each stage of the relationship, like Taylor Swift’s film for her ten-minute version of “All Too Well,” the first segment of my film would be titled: “Is This Embarrassment Eternal?”
Since preschool, I’ve attended the same private school. Although technically secular, my school paid close attention to Christianity. Each morning, either a teacher or student would lead the elementary school in a morning prayer after the pledge of allegiance. The prayer used to end with “in Jesus’ name, Amen” before I joined the school. Each December before our winter break, the preschool and elementary school participated in a holiday sing-along, which featured about ten Christmas songs, some involving more biblical references than others, and maybe two Hanukkah songs. It would likely already be hard for my peers to figure out why I was Chinese but had white parents, and many of them probably didn’t even know what Judaism was (plus, to really grasp my identity, they would have to know about the existence of Asian Jews); so, my friends’ statements assuming that I was Christian—and then the torrent of questions about my beliefs, family, and holiday practices after I confessed my Jewish faith—didn’t make me angry at them. Instead, these microaggressions, which stemmed from the culture created by my school’s parents and faculty, made me ashamed of my Jewish identity. Once, I even outright lied about being Jewish: it was during the week of Passover, and I remember crying with embarrassment because I had to pack a matzo pizza in my Lunchables instead of the normal pizza that came with it. I was tired of being Jewish and didn’t want to explain to my friends why I had a large “cracker” pizza in my lunch. I felt different—not only because of my Chinese identity, but also because of my Jewish identity—and it was overwhelming.
When I reflect on these experiences, resentment fills my mind. As one of the only Jewish kids in school, I initially thought that my school’s secular status would protect me. In hindsight, though, I realize that being one of the only Jewish students that wasn’t “identifiably” Jewish to other kids (partially due to my Chinese identity) made me resentful of my faith. In a way, going to a secular school that was still predominantly Christian and white perhaps made me feel like more of an outcast than if I had gone to a Christian school; at a Christian school, at least I would’ve explicitly known my place as a non-Christian student. However, since my school wasn’t supposed to be based on one religion, I held the false expectation that my identity would be understood and embraced with open arms by my peers and teachers. In reality, I was marginalized by the practices of the school and my classmates who didn’t know any better.
These feelings of resentment started to morph at age ten, when I went to Jewish sleepaway camp for four weeks the summer before fifth grade—and marked the start of my “Growing Into Each Other” chapter. I didn’t know anybody, but that didn’t really matter, because it was the first time I’d met other Jewish kids. I cherished the nightly services where we sang the prayers while spinning or swaying side to side together. I felt peace in singing the Birkat Hamazon in unison with 600 other campers after each meal. Our Jewish identities felt huge, exciting, and undeniable, and they helped us find common ground; but at the same time, Judaism wasn’t the only feature that defined us as individuals. Unlike school, being Jewish didn’t set me aside but rather included me in the bigger picture. Going to camp for four summers, and then preparing for my bat mitzvah and visiting Israel, made me more accepting—although not yet quite proud—of my Jewish identity. These affirming Jewish spaces were, however, a starting ground for my growth into my Jewish identity. They helped instill the sense of pride I have now. Although I knew I would have to go back to school and feel the resentment I’d always felt, I was able to carry the new feelings I associated with Judaism into school.
The most recent stage of my relationship with Judaism is marked by pride and resistance. I would caption this segment: “Together as One.” There wasn’t a definitive start date to this stage, but as a teenager, I’ve worked to find a safe space in Judaism. The fall semesters of high school have always been difficult for me with the rigorous golf season, adjusting to new courses, and coming back to school after a long break. Missing two days of school to observe the high holidays adds even more stress to the fall semester, as my school consistently schedules homework and tests around the high holidays. This year, one of my classes had a test scheduled for two days after Rosh Hashanah, and the teacher unknowingly suggested the optional study session be on Rosh Hashanah itself. I spoke up, but my teacher refused to change it. Bringing in the new year is supposed to be a joyous and exciting time, but this year I was stressed and embarrassed leading up to it. But growing closer to my Jewish identity in high school helped me address the marginalization I was facing. It was challenging in the moment but looking back, it makes me feel proud; I see me standing up for myself as a smaller part of a cyclical experience. The pride I’d gained from past Jewish experiences translated into the strength to stand up for my Jewish identity and, in turn, recycled back into pride for standing up for myself. I took this resilience into the Jewish new year.
My relationship with Judaism is still evolving, but I’m proud to be in the position with it I am today. Through writing blog posts like these, I’ve been able to grapple with my previous discomfort toward Judaism, as well as all my lingering questions and emotions. I've been able to grow from my discomfort and have realized that confronting the marginalization I have experienced makes me more passionate about being Jewish. Although I don’t know where I’ll be yet, I hope to bring my passion to college. Whether the student body has a large or small Jewish population, I plan on engaging and expanding it. Remembering my experiences with my Jewish identity all too well makes me feel prepared to keep growing with Judaism even if I face new challenges.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Malnik, Amanda Xinhui. "“All Too Well”: How I Went From Embarrassed to Proud of My Jewish Identity." 11 April 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/all-too-well-how-i-went-embarrassed-proud-my-jewish-identity>.