By: Zoe Cohen, Summer Liberal Arts Intern Being Jewish was never something I cared to analyze critically and consciously. I pursued every other facet of my identity relentlessly, turning over each rock, trying to find how each part impacted me. How did having an older brother impact my self respect, confidence, the way I interact with men? Does the art I make come from within, or was it predetermined based on the art my parents hung on the walls before I was born?
I never considered the influence that being Jewish had on me. It was just there, a matter of fact, like my blood type or wisdom teeth. I knew I related to the kids at Hebrew School who didn’t want to be there more than to the kids who already knew the answers. There was a lot of pouting whenever my mom dragged me to temple. I learned a lot about Judaism, things like the Hebrew alphabet, stories in the Torah, and Israeli dances, but those things did not stimulate any religious awakenings. As far as I knew, to be into Judaism meant you had to talk about it all day.
My first year at Oberlin College I notably lacked Jewish friends. At a school with a reportedly large population of Jewish students, I wasn’t spending time with anyone even partially Jewish. It was a non-issue. I didn’t feel different from my friends because it wasn’t like they were the opposite of me, they just had nothing where I had something- Judaism. I went to Shabbat dinner once that first year, after my non-Jewish friends heard that the food at Chabad was good and it was free. The Chabad Rabbi added me on Facebook several times and my immediate reaction was to reject his request. I also took my non-Jewish friend to a Passover seder at Chabad. We showed up late, sopping wet from the rain, after all the haggadas had been handed out, and sat at the last available table alone. My friend sat stiff in her chair the whole time, afraid she would do something wrong. Meanwhile, I stomped around the Chabad like I owned the place, even though she and I had spent the same amount of time there: none.
Being around people different from me did nothing to help me register my identity. When I went on my Birthright trip to Israel, I was surrounded by Jews. Before, the scenario had never occurred to me. During the trip I was in the company of only Jews for days and not one of them had tried to “talk Bible” with me. I had an epiphany when I walked into a grocery store in Be’er Sheva. I looked at the row of young, angsty cashiers and knew they were like me in some meaningful, abstract way (and beyond the angst). These people were so physically far away from me. Libya is closer to the United States, as is Portugal and Morocco. I couldn’t understand the billboards here but it didn’t matter because I understood the people. As epiphanies usually go, the euphoria faded, and I lack the words for it, but the electrical impulse of belonging with these people in this place remained. Back on campus, I recognized the vacancy where my culture was supposed to fit. When confronted with the highly publicized anti-semitic sentiment on Oberlin’s campus, I yearned for that feeling of connection and solidarity. Once I felt it, I couldn’t live without it. It was then and only then that I was ready to accept the Rabbi’s facebook friend request.