Jewish Identity and Individuality
Thank you Rabbi Peter for thinking I had something to say on the matter of individuality. After all who am I? A humanistic Jew like almost everyone in this room. Sharing 99.9% of my DNA with the rest of the human race and 96% of it with the chimpanzee as well. Yet clearly we are not all interchangeable. The small differences seem to make all the difference.
I can be described in general terms – 58 year old female Jewish New Yorker. We can get more specific – Lesbian in a 25 year relationship with two children. We can get more specific still – Upper Westside artisan who loves travel and pet rodents. But it would take many layers of specificity to distinguish me from everyone else on the planet, and still I have more in common with my fellow humans than not.
And in this I am no different when it comes to making presumptions.
When I was first a mother I would take my son to the playground in Riverside Park. This could be a rather boring endeavor — the same park day in and day out. Parents and caregivers would chat on the benches or sit in the sand pit depending upon the age of the child. One day I met another new mom in the playground. Each of us made assumptions about the other without even realizing it. As did most people when seeing me, a white woman with an Asian-looking child, she assumed my son had been adopted. I was guilty of the same types of assumption since she was an Asian woman with an Asian child I assumed without question that her child was not adopted. As it turned out we were both incorrect.
These things make for amusing stories, but are they important? Well yes they are, and mostly because we only notice them when the invisible becomes apparent.
Back when my kids were young I would often be asked by complete strangers (most often on line at a supermarket) where my children were from. How does one answer that? They are from New York… they are from my body… they are not from another country they have not been adopted. And how much am I supposed to reveal while buying a gallon of milk and a dozen apples and balancing a toddler on my hip? So most often I would reply that they were my biological children – already this seeming to be quite personal, private, and almost scientific, turn to the conversation. Then in their second aha moment the stranger would say “Oh – so your husband is Chinese”. And I would have to choose again whether to reveal that no, in fact I don’t’ have a husband, that my partner is a woman, which means that yes, I am a lesbian, and that if I, a white woman, have an Asian child without a husband, then there must have been some Asian sperm involved. And where the heck did that come from…. Etc.
Sometimes I would just nod and smile. But as the kids got older and could understand the question, I would mumble something about them having two moms. In different parts of the country or the world, in a variety of settings, this same conversation would play out. I usually felt that I was being forced to reveal too much or that the question did not have a proper answer. Like when someone with a clipboard accosts you in the street to ask if “you have a moment to save all the starving children.” These mini conversations would leave me unsettled although less-so than if I was a more private person. I have no problem identifying myself as a lesbian and as a mother. I neither hide nor highlight the information. But when assumptions from strangers pop up… well things can get a little strange.
We are each silently judged and quantified daily, hourly and minute-by-minute. Less often we are asked to define ourselves to others.
This happens most often when filling out forms. The forms themselves betray the prejudgment of their authors. Single or married (up until my marriage 2 years ago I would have to say neither applied). Name your husband. Give the names of your child’s mother and father. Far less often now than in the past I have had to create a new box to check on such forms.
But even when there are adequate boxes, even when there are blank spaces to fill, one must define oneself or at least choose how to present oneself. How many forms have we each filled out asking for our occupation? I find that one very difficult. For a while I would write bookkeeper because after all that’s how I made money. Later I wrote bookkeeper/artist because my artwork is much more important to me than my ability to add and subtract numbers. Later still I would write artist/bookkeeper putting artist first but still indicating that I made a living by keeping track of other people’s income and expenses. But neither of these descriptors is adequate to explain how I occupy myself most of the time, much less define me in any meaningful way.
So yes – the questions are asked, but often not the right questions. And when we take a look at ourselves, try to figure out who we are, we can feel like there are too many ways to answer the questions, or no way at all.
And what about being Jewish? Where does that fit into the identity equation? Can it be seen? Is it an invisible quality? I have never had to deal with “you don’t look Jewish”. But my kids have, and it irks to be questioned, confronted, challenged to give evidence of something central to your being.
I grew up in New York City, in the 1960’s and 70’s, one of four kids to two liberal Jewish psychiatrists. And as all kids do (and sadly some adults do as well) I had a rather skewed vision of the world. I knew of only two religions, Jewish and not Jewish. You could tell the difference because some kids had Chanukah and some had Christmas, although a few odd ones celebrated both which was confusing. My parents did not believe in God and were skeptical of organized religion altogether. In college I would tell people that I grew up in the department of psychiatry.
But we were Jewish without question. It was and is a core part of my identity and not something I have ever felt the need to explain, defend, or prove. We did not go regularly to temple and did not light candles on Friday nights or keep kosher, but Passover was a two night affair and all four of us kids had a bar or bat mitzvah.
When my partner Nancy and I first started talking about having children we set the groundwork rather quickly. I wanted to be pregnant; she did not. Although she grew up Catholic, she had no great attachment to the practice and I felt quite clear that anyone born out of my Jewish body would be Jewish as well. Nancy agreed, and stipulated only that I be the one to pass on the Jewish culture.
It has worked out remarkably well. We celebrate Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival, we have been to China although not yet to Israel. We observe the Jewish holidays, and never had a Christmas tree to confuse things. Being Jewish is central to who I am, and I could write another essay on that subject alone, but I don’t want to keep you here until Yom Kippur and it is the whole of us as individuals that I want to address.
So let’s step back. Do these differences in gender, sexual preferences, occupation, religion, and culture make us who we are? Do they make us individuals? Differentiate us from one another? Maybe not.
This summer our family took a trip to Cuba where I was able to see just how similar people are even in the most dissimilar settings. There are so many differences between the U.S. and Cuba, from the climate to the economy, but what we found was that as people we had so much more in common than not. Our basic values were the same. Our parenting was based on the same rules. We set limits, chose our battles, loved our kids, and struggled with their struggles like everyone else.
Yes, compared to our life here in New York there were startling contrasts. The pace was slower, the weather hotter, the people friendlier. We stayed at an apartment with no hot water, water pressure, potable water, or air conditioning. The Cubans have almost no access to Internet, very limited material possessions, small salaries, and rigid travel restrictions; but everyone has food, shelter, excellent education, and great health care. No one has a lot, but we did not see anyone starving, begging, homeless, or uneducated. We saw no evidence of drugs or crime. The people we met were warm, intelligent, thoughtful, and quite reasonably proud of their country and their culture.
We may have gone to Cuba to see how different it was from the U.S. and were not disappointed in what we found there – old cars, older buildings, salsa music, dance and art. But it was the similarities and the connections from person to person that really impressed us and will stick with us. People are people.
So what makes us individuals if it is not the politics, climate, culture, or location?
Well, I’m a strong believer in nature over nurture. Now don’t get me wrong I nurture the heck out of my kids but I firmly believe that they were exactly who they would be when they were born. And luckily they are both brilliant and loving and gorgeous and they get along with each other. But boy oh boy are they different, And they have been from day one.
What I am most passionate about in the world is being a good parent. And the chief job of a parent is to see their child or children for who they really are – without judging – without assuming – without trying to make them into something they are not. The greatest gift we can give anyone is to really SEE them as they are and accept them and support them in their very individual journey. This is hard since we do make assumptions based on what we already know of ourselves. And although we are closer to our kids than to anyone, spend time observing them from day one; it is amazing how easy it is to “get things wrong” from time to time. I asked my kids permission to talk a little bit about them for this presentation and they did say it was OK. So here are my two examples
Joseph, now 21, is a quick thinker, and a passionate actor in the world. When he was an infant he would smile all the time. When he was 2 he asked people on the subway for gifts. When he was 3 he invited strangers to his birthday party. He spreads joy just by being who he is. But he is also quirky. He is dyslexic and has ADHD. Starting in second grade he began to struggle. He went to a very progressive and forward-thinking school, and there were affinity groups for the parents and diversity groups for the kids. But despite the best efforts of the school to help kids to feel accepted and acceptable, to be seen for themselves, their range was not broad enough and their vision too shallow.
For instance, there was a group for parents of kids of color. As parents of a half Asian child Nancy and I were eligible for that group. There was a group for gay and lesbian parents, and again we could join those meetings and activities. And there was a group for adoptive parents with plans to make a group for single parents. But what about the kids and parents who were feeling disenfranchised not because of race, or sexuality, or marital status, or family structure? What about kids who were smart and creative and joyful but couldn’t learn to read? What about parents who cried at night because their joyful child was becoming sad?
I started another affinity group and ran it for years, even after Joseph left this school. And it was successful and many people helped each other. But I never was fully satisfied. A real diversity program wouldn’t pick and choose between issues. You would not have to fit a particular pattern, or define your identity according to the rules to get into a sympathetic club.
Around the same time that I was running these meetings I went to a diversity conference at Columbia University and saw how things could have been handled at the school if only the administrators had the courage and foresight. In the workshop I attended, each of us stood up to say one thing about ourselves that no one else could possibly know. Something we felt alone in. And then everyone else who had that in common would stand up. It was a powerful exercise. One man stood up to say he was gay and ten more of us stood to join him. You could see the relief on his face. Someone stood up to say they had a mentally ill relative. More people joined her. We saw that we are all individuals and yet we are not alone.
Seeing your child REALLY seeing him is a way to give him a mirror to himself. Every time we try to pigeon hole someone into a category in which they only partly fit, or disregard a part of their identity so we can address another part, we are doing them and the world a great disservice.
Identity is a tricky thing.
When Joseph was 4, Rebecca was born. She didn’t smile all the time like he did. She was serious, intent, and taking everything in. Even as an infant, when she looked at something you could tell she was working hard to make sense of it, integrate it. The brain synapses were practically popping in front of our eyes. She was also very brave and secure. At 10 months old she crawled into the Atlantic Ocean. At 3 years old she walked away from me in the park and never looked back as I trailed after her. At 4 years old she rode on an amusement park ride and rolled her eyes as I waved to her. How self-assured she was. She was confident that she was safe in the world. She knew herself and did not have to prove it to anyone. Now as a 17 year old, Rebecca is an astounding artist, a brilliant writer, and has an excellent memory. But she can also be a loner. She relishes time to herself without social contact. She can find making small talk exhausting. And until I read a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking, by Susan Cain, I really didn’t “get” her the way perhaps I should have.
Susan Cain explains in her book that Western history changed from a culture of character to a culture of personality. Extroversion became the ideal and introversion was viewed as inferior or pathological. Despite my own introversion as a child, I was guilty of the same judgments when it came to my daughter. Instead of recognizing her strengths and accepting her as normal, I tried to “help” her to change. I worried about her when she had one or two friends instead of many and when she kept to herself instead of showing off her skills. I encouraged her to speak up, put on a smile, and make the effort. After reading this book, I realize that being an introvert is not a crime or a disability. I was looking at one thing and seeing another.
So again – who are we as individuals? How can we begin to understand ourselves, much less define and present ourselves to others? Recently I read the book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. For those of you who have not heard of this book, or seen the amazing TED talk by its author, it is written by a neurosurgeon who describes in detail the experience of having had a massive left brain stroke, and living not only to tell the tale but to recover completely. The take-away is that we have two functioning brains in our head, the left brain which thinks logically, linearly, makes judgments, observes differences, takes in details, notices change, plans ahead, makes goals. This brain is verbal; mine is speaking to you now and is usually in command. However the right brain is just as important. It sees the big picture, has no sense of past and future, causality and blame. The right brain contains awareness of the flow of life, how we connect to everything, the feeling of being right here, right now, in our own body, in this moment.
If I were to describe myself to you, define myself, identify myself. I would most likely do it in a left brain fashion. But the deepest part of myself is not my race, my heritage, my differences. The right brain sees that I am simply a combination of cells, made of molecules, and therefore a part of everything on the planet and beyond.
So back to the question of identity. Who am I? How do I define myself?
I think I have made a lot of points about who or what I am not. I am not just my gender, my race, my occupation. I don’t define myself as an individual because of my culture, my country, my politics, my religion.
Identity is so much more complex than that and maybe the problem lies in trying to simplify and categorize and label. I don’t feel the need to justify who or what I am to anyone. I am an individual because I am different from everyone else on the planet. And yet we are all the same. The important thing is to practice compassion. To know yourself and yet see others for who they are.