“How can you feel Jewish when your family did not go through the Holocaust?” the woman asked me. She was a Jewish woman of Hungarian background, and addressed me in an accent that betrayed a childhood far away. She told me she had lost many of her relatives in the war, and had come to Norway as a refugee with her remaining and traumatized family. It was midsummer night and I was celebrating with my parents on an island in the Oslo fjord. I had recently converted and this was news that intrigued some people.
I recall feeling completely overwhelmed by her question. I can still feel the warm flashes on my face and neck as if I were standing in front of her right now, and remember vaguely running some sort of millisecond speed-recovery mission on the spot from the mental archives of all my accumulated Jewish learning. What would be a good answer? I don’t quite remember what I said, but I think I mentioned that there are meny ways of “feeling Jewish,” and that for me, it was through the doing of everything Jewish that my Jewish identity formed.
I had studied with a rabbi for over two years and I had gotten a Bachelor Degree in Jewish studies. I had accumulated a wealth of knowledge and understanding about what it meant to be Jewish, and I practiced a traditional Judaism that made my secular Jewish and Israeli friends roll their eyes. Kosher, Shabbat, laws of family purity, matzah, holidays… “Why all the bother?” they’d ask.
But I knew why.
Many years later, after a lot more experience in living a Jewish life, I have come to see that much of my Jewish identity and “feeling Jewish” comes from osmosis. And I don’t mean just on a level of an “assimilation of ideas,” but rather through a conscious act of becoming part of the Jewish collective memory. All of it.
From the exodus from Egypt, to Rebecca, Rachel, Leah; from King Salomon and the First Tempel to the battle of Masada; from the dispersions in diaspora in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, to the Eastern European shtetels and the Sephardic experience in the Iberian peninsula; from convivencia to Inquisition; from the North African mellahs and harahs, to the ghetto in Venice; from pogroms to revolutions, to Zionism and Ellis Island and the Lower East Side, and France and Canada and Venezuela, and finally back to Israel, in all its complex existence through joy, wars, progress and hope.
TIKVAH – hope.
And lodged deep within this humongous tome of collective memory, the vast, dark and disturbing chapter of the Holocaust stands out, etched into the fibers of my feeling being, a memory that is so profound that I can never blot it out, even if I wanted to.
How can I feel Jewish?
Anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin underlines that “for Jews, memory has also worked to plaster the ruptures in collective existence caused by repeated catastrophe and dispersal. It has been essential to the everyday continuity of a people who cannot rely on a linkage of blood and soil”(Storm from Paradise 35).
The Jewish people – my people – can rely on me to continue to “plaster the ruptures” as I do my part, essential to our continuity.
I believe that my soul, or my neshama, always had its Jewish spark, and that my eventual conversion was a way for my body and soul to be united in one identity. It was like coming home in myself as a Jew. And this, I do know how it feels.