Someone called me “very Jewish” as the sun set on Rosh Hashanah, minutes after the righteous RBG took her final breaths, the same day that a Jewish magazine published an article on my activism aptly called “New Year Revolution.” And I’m hereby owning that identity!
When he first said “very Jewish" flippantly to my face, the phrase triggered me, as I don’t easily let myself be defined by anyone else and am sadly accustomed to anti-Semitic bile, slurs and disparagement from all sides. But like much at this time of year, around the High Holidays, I am letting such a connotation go. And proudly reaffirming my place among a storied history and enduring tradition with powerful Jewish women, like my grandmother, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like the heroines known and unknown who’ve made it possible for me to architect, embody and freely live out my own interpretations of Judaism in America today.
Very Jewish? No, not I, I thought. I’m Jew-ish, at best. I’m not religious, don’t keep kosher, and am not a member of any synagogue. I don’t know the long version of a single prayer, never went to Jewish school or sleep away camp, and growing up, I didn’t even call myself Jewish; if asked, I replied with “both,” as my mom was Jewish and dad was not. I barely knew any Jews, lacked all knowledge of Jewish organizations, and had no connection whatsoever to the Jewish state for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence. As a kid, people who I thought of as “very Jewish” seemed strange, strict and foreign.
After major personal transformations and profound awakenings around my Jewish identity over the past few years, the phrase “very Jewish” used by a non-Jew I’ve known only a short time to categorize me still immediately elicited a visceral, negative response. Because I suppose I've never considered myself as such… yet perhaps I am.
I'm a proud Jew, Jewish woman, Jewish American. I speak openly about that, dive increasingly deeply into our traditions, and work actively with Jewish movements and causes both personally and professionally. I feel infinitely blessed to be part of a beautiful peoplehood and rich existence that goes against all odds, centered upon the values of justice, learning, lovingkindness and repair of the world.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. Learn. Go forth. Take action. Repair the world. As I say in the article, I did not know that phrase, tikkun olam, was not English… and it has become my life’s work as an activist (shout out to Turning Green, Ocean Heroes HQ, Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale in the piece and “Zioness” on the cover!). RBG captured these sentiments so articulately when speaking publicly over the decades, as she always did: — “Growing up Jewish, the concept of tikkun olam, repairing tears in the community and making things better for people less fortunate, was part of my heritage." — "The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of the Jewish history and the Jewish tradition.” — "The Jews are the people of the book and learning is prized above all else. I am lucky to have that heritage.” — "I am proud to live in a country where Jews are not afraid to say who we are."
I'm now off to do more of the year-end intentional reflection, practices and reckoning of which I speak (having mastered the art of finding bodies of water in the desert for tashlich!) and find candlesticks for a proper Shabbat Shuvah tomorrow during the Days of Awe (all ears for recommendations that are open in Phoenix!), before hosting a High Holiday Zoom gathering this evening with my tribe at 7:18pm sharp (because chai, because life!). So yes, I am apparently and evermore, now by my own definition, “very Jewish."
Yehi zichra mahapecha. V'g'mar chatimah tovah.