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Foundations of Jewish Identity

In her essay titled “There Is No Such Thing as Half,” written for the website KillingtheBuddah.com, Joanna Brooks describes her experience at her daughter’s Jewish preschool orientation breakfast. In attendance are her “green-eyed Jewish-Mormon daughter Ella” and her friend’s “brown-eyed Jewish-Hindu son Ari.” Their presence spurs Brooks’ reflection on a rabbi’s comments about identity after a mother in the group asks for advice:

“My husband says he’s just not interested,” she tells the group. “But my son asked, ‘Why doesn’t Daddy come to temple with us?’ What do I say?”
“You know what your son is really asking?” asks the rabbi… “Your son is really asking, ‘What am I?’” According to the rabbi, sociologists say children form their religious identities before age five. He tells us that we must avoid confusion at all costs. “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity,” the rabbi says.

Tara raises her hand: “My son has a rich Hindu heritage which goes back thousands of years. Are you asking me to create a sense of division between my husband and our son?”
The rabbi wears a blank but resolute expression, then repeats himself as if we did not hear the first time: “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity.”

The rabbi believes he is fighting for the very survival of his people. Identity is the name of the trench he will not surrender. But all around him on the plains of history, new tribes are gathering. We vow not to be jackasses. We vow to love what our husbands and wives love. We embrace the mysterious unities forged in the bodies of our clear-eyed children. We give them long and composite names remembering all of their ancestors. Either we are living a new version of religious identity, or we are outliving identity altogether.

What Brooks is describing is the process that many intermarried/interpartnered couples face: The experience of exploring and asserting a multifaceted family identity in the context of a community that often can only imagine single-identity upbringings. While the rabbi argues for the virtue of clarity, Brooks advocates for the virtue of allowing complexity to remain complex. This is an argument many who engage with the Jewish community have heard before and even taken part in, as it captures a central concern of intercultural childrearing. What conception of the intercultural self is most ethical? Which is most compassionate for the future or respectful of the past? Which is most “effective” for raising kind children and fostering stable families?

Although they reach opposite conclusions, both Brooks’ and the rabbi’s arguments are rooted, in part, in respect for ancestors and a concern for the emotional life of children. Both imagine a child with self-respect and gratitude for their parents, but for opposite reasons: For allowing identity to be singular or allowing it to be plural.

Proponents of single-identity childrearing argue that a child with multiple identities will grow up feeling split between their parents, but Brooks reverses the prognosis: “You are a whole soul living in a divided world.” It is the community that will be confused, but not the child.

What both arguments fail to prioritize is that particularity, in this case the parents’ relationship and their family culture, significantly skews the outcome of either approach. Feeling “split” is not tied to being raised with dual identities. In a family where the parents pressure their child for validation, a child might feel that they need to “choose” between their parents regardless of religious affiliation. Equally, a “sense of division” is not tied to a single-identity upbringing. In a family where children feel that there is inequality between their parents or that there is a heritage of repression, a child might feel that they have been denied a part of themselves, regardless of religious identity.

In the last paragraph, Brooks directs a blessing to her children:

“Sanctify yourself with righteous words and deeds, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

That may be the beginning of unpacking identity, but as Brooks’ essay shows, the conversation in the Jewish community is just beginning. A foundation of self-respect, respect for children, and respect for others needs to be at the core of these arguments about child-rearing, but there are still many complexities to discuss before our community reaches an “answer.”



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