Song in Self
I am deeply fond of the Yiddish Passover songs that are all about repetition. My grandparents refused to speak Yiddish, so I didn’t learn these songs until college; for me they are associated with raucous celebration and friendship rather than some relative droning when you just want to be done already. I love the endless cycling of Chad Gad Ya, the table smacking that accompanies Echad Mi Yodea, and the way both songs increase in tempo and volume until they end in a shout. Perhaps this is why I find it easy to express myself in this format.
I am a young Jew with a deep commitment to my faith and social justice.
I am a young Jew from a non-Jewish mother with a deep commitment to my faith and social justice.
I am a young Jew of color, from a non-Jewish mother, with a deep commitment to my faith and social justice.
I am a young Jew of color who is read as white, from a non-Jewish mother, with a deep commitment to my faith and social justice.
I am a young queer Jew of color, who is read as white, from a non-Jewish mother, with a deep commitment to my faith and social justice.
If you are having trouble following, let me provide you with this . . . transliteration.
I am one of the cadre of 20-somethings who are observant. I am more religious than my parents: wearing my kippah all the time, attending services weekly, keeping a restful Shabbat, (mostly) separating meat and milk, saying the Shema nightly, and serving on the board of my Synagogue. Judaism serves as my touchstone in my busy life and my inspiration for my social justice day job. You have probably seen this narrative in the New York Times or The Forward. Familiar, right?
Now let’s add a layer. I was raised Jewish by my Ashkenazi father and my lapsed Catholic mother. Though I know they had to promise to raise their children Jewish to be married by a reform Rabbi, my parents took their duties seriously. I attended weekly, and then bi-weekly religious school, became a Bat Mitzvah, sang in the Temple choir, and assisted in the religious school. My mother, though she has no Jewish education, lit Shabbos candles in the candle holders I made myself, ate matzo with us on Passover, and presented me with my first Tallis. Though most Jews in the world would not consider either of us Jewish, her devotion to our ritual taught me as much about how to be a Jew as a quarter century of services with my father did. It was my mother who taught me not to be afraid of struggling to find out what Judaism means, and how it is part of me.
But my family is mixed in more than just its faith traditions. I am a Jew of color. My father’s family is from “The Old Country” (i.e. Eastern Europe), arriving in North America in the early 1900s. My mother’s family is Chamorro – native to Guam – with records dating as far back as there was written language on the island (about 450 years). Unlike many Jews of color who were born Jewish, my family of color does not have any Jewish traditions. As far as I know, my brother and I are the only Jewish Chamorros! What does this mean? I struggle with my desire to learn Hebrew and my desire to learn Chamorro. I wonder if I should move to Guam and learn the weaving, food, and the dances of my people. Yet I wonder how I can do this when most of the island food is treyf and Catholicism is central to the community. I am still trying to figure out how to get my two cultures to build on each other instead of competing with one another.
Now take both these cultures and conflicts and put them in a surprising package. I am not who most people think of when someone says “person of color.” My skin color is in the range acceptable to whites, I do not have astonishingly oval eyes, or kinky hair. I am very much my father’s daughter: light-skinned, broad shouldered and squat, with brown hair and hazel eyes. I have my mother’s tiny stature and the Dueñas family behind, but that’s as far as the resemblance goes. Especially now that I buzz my hair and wear mens’ clothes, I’m not the standard representation of Island Girl. My appearance means that most of the world has no idea I’m not white. People assume I’m from a stereotypical Jewish household: the clucking Jewish mother, the academic Jewish father, and doting Yid-ly grandparents. Unless I explicitly say otherwise, the complexity that makes me who I am is invisible. Among other people of color, including Jews of color, there is another kind of invisibility: sometimes my own people don’t recognize me as one of them. I cannot change how I am read, but my appearance frames how I understand my race.
What does all this mean, for me and for Judaism? I cannot say for sure, but I know that it is just part of my journey, and our journey as a people. I hope that in my lifetime I will see Judaism grow to embrace the complexity of all the members of our tribe: Jews of color; queer Jews; Jews with non-Jewish parents; and even young queer Jews of color who are read as white with a non-Jewish mother.