In Israel almost everyone is Jewish, except of course for the Arabs with whom Jews rarely interact. As a Jew, if you decide to marry outside your religion or even do something as minor as celebrate a non-Jewish holiday in your own home, you experience a sense of betrayal. Betrayal of your land, your family and your supposed identity. But is religion really who we are? Or is it only a part of who we become after we taste and experience the world with openness and love.
I came to New York City as a young woman determined to make it as a star. I lived this city to the fullest and loved everything about it especially the culture, the people and the intensity. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate my own Israeli culture, of course I do, it is who I am. But, like many, I also feel intensely connected to everything New York has to offer.
In 2007, I married an Israeli man and we decided to stay and live our lives in New York. He is much more connected than me to his culture whereas I am slightly confused about my identity. My split identity is increasingly becoming an issue now that my son, at 2.5, understands more. He goes to a local daycare and although they acknowledge the Jewish holidays, he still comes home singing “Jingle Bells” around Hanukkah. Because I love the festive atmosphere of Christmas, I insisted on getting a small Christmas tree this past holiday season with lights and crafted homemade ornaments with my son. The problem is that I felt guilty. It is that pure built-in guilt that I have as a Jew, feeling that I should not step outside of my religion. My father was surprised and disappointed that I had a Christmas tree and my husband didn’t mind but felt no connection to it. My son was thrilled and kept saying how beautiful the lights were. We didn’t neglect Hanukkah and lit the menorah, which my son loved just as much.
So what is the answer? Am I confusing my son? Is the fact that I have lived in New York for half of my life and feel connected to certain things that represent this city and the people wrong? Is the reality of being Jewish supposed to prevent me from exploring other cultures and traditions and from teaching my son that it is ok to do so?
Judaism is my religion and tradition and I love and respect it. I grew up in a home where kiddush (sanctification before the Sabbath) was a weekly event. My father sang the prayers and we all anticipated the arrival of the special day. I truly loved it, so why don’t I continue this tradition with my own family? People talk about identity and a sense of belonging to a group or religion as a big part of being confident in who they are. While I recognize this is important to some people, I can’t help but notice that others who belong to several groups do just fine.
I do not know all the answers. What I do know is that leaving your culture and joining a new one is not easy. But it makes life colorful and beautiful and that’s what I want for my son and my new baby daughter who should be arriving any day. I want them to experience all kinds of ideas, customs, traditions and people and become citizens of the world who care about the people they meet along their paths. I want them to appreciate the neighborhood they live in and respect the earth on which they walk. I hope I find a way to pass on my beliefs to my children with confidence and that they will impart these to their children, even with confusion or dilemmas along the way.