Although I grew up as a minority Jew in a small Connecticut town, our local synagogue did not feel like home to me. Yes, I attended Hebrew school on Thursdays, spent many Saturdays there for Shabbat, and was bat mitzvahed on the bima as a rainbow of Sunkist gummies showered me from all directions. And yet, the temple experience — baritone-heavy Hebrew chanting, the staid nature of services, and a distinct sense of restraint — felt more like a motion I was supposed to go through rather than a source of identity.
There were some exceptions. With each Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I connected with a growing spirituality brewing within me. I appreciated this time of reflection to consider how I could behave better in my life and to feel into a heaviness in my heart that reminded me of the dark side of Jewish history.
But two moments as an adult were what solidified my identity as a Jewish American. The first was my choice to marry a Jewish mate (to my parents' relief). Upon committing to him, I found myself swimming in a sea of Berkeley, California Jews. It was both exciting and overwhelming. "Welcome to the mishpucha," older members of the community kept whispering in my ears while hugging me. I'd never in my life experienced such a fervent welcome.
It's as though someone else's trauma has invaded my body — or surfaced — demanding that I come to terms with it.
The second pivotal moment occurred when I discovered a West Coast brand of Judaism — one that featured guitars, services in redwood groves and kids frolicking in gardens. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. During a Kol Nidre service in Oakland, California, I crowded into a rented space-turned-synagogue with nearly 1,000 other attendees. Three female rabbis swayed, drummed and sang. When I closed my eyes, it was hard to know if I was at a High Holy Day service or an Ani DiFranco concert.
This style took some getting used to. At first, I teased my partner about how “far out” these services felt. Ten years later, they have really grown on me. Only two weeks ago, I sat with him at Shabbat services in an outdoor amphitheater at a Jewish family camp. Our two daughters, ages six and eight, were perched on a nearby boulder with other kids, listening, singing and making hand gestures to go with the songs. Rain drizzled, and my heart felt plucked with each chord of the guitar. I felt a rich sense of belonging. My Jewish identity had finally clicked.
And then that identity was assaulted at its core. The worst imaginable horrors occurred as Hamas massacred civilians in the morning hours of an exuberant Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah. The emotional aftershocks resounded across the world, and they are being experienced right now in the hearts of Jews everywhere.
Nobody deserves pain inflicted upon them so brutally: not Israelis nor Palestinians. All humans are deserving of empathy.
Over the last few days, intermittent crying episodes have crept up on me. Of course, I understand why I’m experiencing these tears. But there’s something more than immediate empathy happening. It's as though someone else's trauma has invaded my body — or surfaced — demanding that I come to terms with it. There’s also a nagging fear that grips my stomach, especially while reading the latest developments in the news. If I’m feeling this deeply from the other side of the world, I can't even begin to imagine what those in the region are feeling, are experiencing, are living through on this knife edge of uncertainty.
For those of you who have experienced trauma handed down from previous generations, you know what I speak of. We feel a cross-generational transmission of trauma as descendants of persecuted peoples, as slaves, as targets of hate crimes, and as survivors of genocide. It lives inside of us, in our cells.
This cultural trauma hurts. But what hurts even more is the politicization of these recent events. At times, there has been a turning away, a finger-pointing, that does not recognize the tragedy and deep suffering of a bloody massacre, nor does it permit time for grief or healing. I’m witnessing a desire to quickly make a lesson of this attack. "Well, Israel had it coming," I've heard, a shared sentiment amongst antisemites and some liberal Americans alike. Nobody deserves pain inflicted upon them so brutally: not Israelis nor Palestinians. All suffering humans deserve empathy.
Adding to the complexity of my pain is the question of how best to parent in this moment. What do I tell my kids? Is our synagogue secure enough to send them to Hebrew school? What about the cognitive dissonance of their attending a public school that continues to operate as if these events don't matter and don’t affect them?
Amidst current events, what's really solidified my identity as a Jew is a sense of otherness and separateness from the rest of the community — a feeling that I’ve experienced for most of my life.
As I grapple with these issues, I'm discovering these darker facets of my Jewish identity, and doing so is wrenchingly painful. While reading descriptions of civilian hostage seizures, I think of the pogroms that sent my grandparents packing from Poland and Romania to New York City. I think about my mom's cousins, who survived Auschwitz by digging up and eating raw potatoes at night. I think about those family members slaughtered in a Romanian village in 1943 and about the grandchildren who never met them.
Little by little, like it or not, my own memories are flooding back to me from different points of my life. The 8th-grade trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., after it had just opened. How I felt somber in a way I couldn't explain to my non-Jewish peers. My visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in my 20s. How easily I related to Anne’s journal entries and imagined myself in her position. A trip to Israel at age 16 to visit my relatives on a kibbutz. How I felt afraid to ride the bus alone because I knew suicide bombers could be lurking.
But that wasn't all. I remembered the Spanish guy I dated in my 20s while living in Madrid. He dumped me as soon as he found out I was Jewish, saying, "My father would never let me date a Jew." He acted as though this was a rational, rather than racist, explanation. I thought about a trip to Idaho with my Jewish boyfriend to visit my aunt and uncle. His first taste of the place was a farmer walking up to him, giving him the eye, and exclaiming, "Wait a second, you're one of them, aren't you?"
To this day, I take a few seconds longer than I should to fill out the demographic information on most surveys. Should I write "Jewish" in the "other" section? Sometimes I do. In those moments, I feel unseen, confused, alone.
Amidst current events, what's really solidified my identity as a Jew is a sense of otherness and separateness from the rest of the community — a feeling that I’ve experienced for most of my life. It’s been reinforced by the fact that only a few non-Jewish friends have bothered to check in on me and my family during this time when Jews everywhere are under threat.
Right now, I am finding solace in my local Jewish community. Thank goodness I have a much more robust one now than I did when I was younger. I've gotten phone calls and texts from numerous members of my congregation. I’ve invited other Jewish friends over for dinner. Grieving together is something, and I'm grateful for it.
This week, my parents will fly in from the East Coast to visit me in California. As I prepare to spend time with them, I remember when they attended Rosh Hashanah services with us in a local redwood grove, one year ago. “What are they thinking?” I wondered, while eying them curiously during the service. I watched as both of my 70-something-year-old parents leaned back in their sling chairs, taking it all in. Jewish lyrics to Leonard Cohen and Santana songs were resounding across the field, and tie-dye shirts abounded. The scene was a far cry from the one at our old conservative shul in Danbury, CT.
"So?" I asked them, as we made our way up the hill after the event, shlepping picnic leftovers, blankets and chairs. "It was wonderful," my dad said, smiling wistfully. "Something completely different."
My mom's eyes sparkled. Her smile was enormous, and she was still drinking in the scene. "Well," she said, "I've never experienced a service quite like that before . . . but it was lovely."
This moment was a profound reminder of a deeper sense of connection we experience as Jews. The feeling is powerful, regardless of how it manifests on the exterior. And it's what will get me through yet another tragic chapter in the history of the Jewish people.
personal stories about Jewish American identity