Jewish Personal Identity and Roots

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I am Jewish by birth, the child of two reform Jewish parents who believed in the “tradition” as opposed to the strict beliefs of the religion.I feel a sense of deep pride in my heritage and for the way my ancestors lived and died for. I also believe that at the heart of Judaism and in fact, at the heart of any religion is tolerance of other beliefs and acceptance that their doctrines are as true as mine.

Perhaps my parents were unique or perhaps not. My mother was born in Manhattan, New York, but she was brought up in Providence, Rhode Island, the heart of religious tolerance as taught by Roger Williams. Public school in her day was not just the teaching of scholastics, but also religious teachings. Mom, she knew the Christian Prayers and songs as well as the Hebrew and Yiddish ones she learned at home. I believe it made her a much more tolerant and loving person. My father was born in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn the child of immigrants who entered this country as babies and considered themselves Jewish-Americans. His grandparents were devout Orthodox Jews and abided by the laws of the doctrine. Perhaps, becoming part of the great melting pot of America had a great deal to do with their attempt to fit into the culture of the society around them. Grandpa became a Police Officer in the NYPD. English was spoken at home with only moments of the Yiddish of their youth, And with the job and language came the customs of America and New York. I am not quite sure when the art of Kosher cooking was no longer a reality and it became “traditional” cooking of old-world goodies.

Importance of Carrying the Name

A good part of the Jewish faith is built on the importance of “carrying the name” and sons are cherished. It is vital for every young boy to attend Hebrew School which culminates in a Bar Mitzvah. And so it went in our family as well. Years ago the events where much richer in ritual and less endowed with the “hype and style” that they often are these days. Being called up to the Torah is a spiritual and honorable event for any thirteen years old. In years past, often the “party” celebrating a “boy becoming a man” was simple and held at home or in a restaurant. Now, many of these events are lavish affairs that compare to weddings.

A Bat or Bas Mitzvah for a young girl was almost unheard of some thirty years ago. However, in recent years it to has become a tradition for many thirteen-year-old girls to mark the movement from “girl to woman.” And these events are often just as lavish and ornate. While I attended Sunday School for several years, I never experienced the formal act of being called to the Torah. In retrospect, while I think at thirteen I would have been extremely scared to speak before so many people, (I have since overcome that fear!) I do believe that it would have been a significant stepping stone for me into my teenage years.

Intermarriage

Like many Jewish families, intermarriage has become a reality with several cousins marrying out of the Jewish faith and my brother doing likewise. Rather than it being a loss of “Jewish Identity,” it can be seen as merely the love of two people for one another. The belief in G-d remains true as does faith in a higher and greater being.

Understandably, there are many differences between Judaism and Christianity, yet there are so many more similarities. Both religions believe deeply in faith and understanding, hope and enrichment of the spirit. And there is something uniquely special about watching the faiths come together in the name of love and life. And so, during this month, we light the traditional Hanukkah candles each night and recite the ancient blessing and feel the warmth of family. We also share in the traditional holiday foods and it is the one time of the year when we can eat fried potato pancakes and donuts without feeling guilty. Small gifts are exchanged on each of the eight nights. And at the end of the month, we gather together at a lovely Holiday table and say prayers of thanks to G-d and share family by the beautiful tree to celebrate Christmas and exchange even more gifts.

Being Jewish is about being tolerant, fair and accepting.

The greatest lesson that I learned in life was from my late mother in the twilight of her life. Mom suffered from a number of ailments and yet she would enjoy the weekly prayers at her nursing home. She would sit in the Catholic Chapel and feel as if one with G-d. And as the prayers were said, Mom would recite them perfectly from a place in her soul and from a place in her youth. It was beautiful. It was in no way an affront to her Jewish roots and heart, rather an affirmation of what religion, true religion as G-d deemed it to be – should be. It was pure; it was simple and it was sincere. I can think of nothing more “Jewish” than that.

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