It was June 2010, I was thirteen. I sat on the stage waiting for the Rabbi to call me up to sing the Torah trope.
“Madison, it is almost time for you to go up,” the assistant Rabbi whispered to me.
Next thing I knew, I was standing at the bimah as the congregation stared at me, waiting. I looked at my stunning tallit wrapped around me. It was a gift from my dad. He bought it a year ago when he was in Israel and finally gave it to me today. Today, the beautiful pink and white tallit was wrapped elegantly around my shoulders as I became a woman.
Words began flowing out of my mouth in a beautifully biblical rhythm in the voice of a lovely songbird. My friends and family in the front row were smiling at me, encouraging me to not let my stage freight get the best of me. I looked down at the Torah, using the yad to guide me through the trope, praying I did not lose my place in the words. I finished the last sound and was told to sit back down. It was time to prepare for my speech on the Haftarah I just sang to the congregation.
My palms began to sweat at the thought of having to go back up there. At having to read the speech I wrote to a hundred people. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told myself that I would be fine.
“Don’t be nervous honey, we practiced your speech a dozen times. You have nothing to worry about,” the assistant Rabbi whispered to me in an attempt to calm my nerves.
In the blink of an eye, it was time again. I stood up, walked to the bima, and looked around at the crowd. My speech was in front of me, so all I had to do was read it and I would be fine…right? I took a deep breath and smiled at the congregation.
“Thank you Rabbi Frank! I would like to thank my family and friends for their support in this process and the congregation for participating in today’s ceremony!” I heard myself say. I continued, “For my Bat Mitzvah speech, I decided to focus on the aspect of reconstruction and rebirth that my section of the Torah covered. We make decisions every day that shape who we are and who we are going to become.”
I babbled on about the Torah and the teachings for what seemed like forever. I realized that I was approaching the part, my dreaded part. Not dreaded because I didn’t want to say it, but instead, because I was not ready to open myself up to a room full of people.
“My parents got divorced recently. I was heartbroken and angry when it happened, but because of this process, I have been able to look at this experience in a different light. I understand that this was a lesson, a learning experience. A way to redefine who I was and learn more about life.”
I felt myself tear up, but I held them back.
“I have my brother to thank for making it through the divorce. He was my support system and we made it through having to move into two brand new homes without both parents. He made me realize that we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it and those reactions are what define our character” I was able to say with minimal tears.
This essay about the Haftarah and the teachings in the Torah was the first essay I had truly invested myself into. I spend weeks brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising. I had learned what it felt like to have to devote my time and my energy into the process, and did not have much help when writing it. This process occurs for many Jews in America, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity because I was a Reform Jew, and that meant women could have a Bat Mitzvah. The Bat Mitzvah is known as a coming of age and the transition into adulthood. For me, it meant that I would have to spend months preparing to open myself up to a room full of people. I did not know it at the time, but my Bat Mitzvah became the true connection between my Judaism and literacy.
I had seen the two work together subtly throughout my early days of learning to read and write, but I had never truly had the chance to combine them in my own way. I grew up in San Diego and went to a private Jewish day school my entire K-12 academic career. I had learned the Hebrew alphabet in Kindergarten and read books about Noah’s Ark and Hanukkah, but I never created something that was completely my own. I grew up surrounded by other Jews and all my friends from school were Reform Jews. We experienced literacy through Judaism together, but my Bat Mitzvah was the first time I experienced it alone.
I was very sheltered from the prejudices that people have against Jewish people because my parents chose to send me to a private Jewish school. Much to my surprise, I found out that Jewish people made up only 3% of America’s population. There are 1,047,600 Jewish people in California (out of 7,160,000) and San Diego is known as the 17th largest metropolitan area for Jews which makes up 2.8% of the San Diego population. We are very small, but I never felt small because I grew up seeing myself represented in the literacy around me.
When I went to college, I knew that there was a significant Jewish population on the campus. I knew some people that were already students there and four girls from my graduating class (including me) chose Chapman University. It came as a surprise when I became the one Jewish student in most of my classes. I would bring up ideas from Judaism or from my culture in my classes to relate to the readings we had done, and people seemed surprised that I was even there.
I realized how little people knew about Jews or the Jewish culture when I went through sorority recruitment. I was talking to a girl from a sorority (I have chosen to leave it out because I do not want to embarrass her) who asked me about the high school I attended. I had told her I attended a small private Jewish day school, and she seemed surprised. She then hit me with a question I will NEVER forget.
“Do you speak Jewish?” She asked me so innocently.
I stared at her for a second in disbelief. I was shocked honestly. Unable to formulate any words.
“It’s called Hebrew” I whispered.
That was the first time I felt small.
I want to be clear that she had no idea that was she was asking me was extremely ignorant. She did not know that she was being culturally inappropriate, she just genuinely had no idea. It was in that moment that I realized that I truly was a minority. That the true Jewish part of my identity was widely unknown to the people that surrounded me in college. That the people around me actually had no idea about my religion or even the language that my people spoke. My peers, my equals, my friends. Or were we equals?
I wasn’t angry, I didn’t turn red with anger. I was surprised, appalled even. I grew up learning about my own culture, but also knew the culture of the dominant American culture. I knew the story of Jesus Christ and the reasoning behind Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday. I knew so much about them, but somehow, they didn’t know anything about me.
I felt small.
I was able to develop my Jewish identity because I had been surrounded by the Jewish culture my entire life. I saw myself in the books I was reading and felt comfortable expressing that part of my identity. In Kwame Alexander’s New York Times article on Children’s Books and the Color of Characters, he focuses on the effects that segregating literature has on racism. The point that directly relates to me and my own experiences with a part of my identity that is seen as a minority is that “seeing yourself in books is necessary and crucial to the development of identity.” The girl during recruitment that asked me if I spoke Jewish had not been exposed to outside cultures and, as a result, she could not picture cultures other than her own: “If we don’t give children books that are literary mirrors as well as windows to the whole world of possibility, if these books don’t give them the opportunity to see outside themselves, then how can we expect them to grow into adults who connect in meaningful ways to a global community, to people who might look or live differently than they. You cannot.” Alexander continues to express the importance of representation of all cultures in literature so children with all sorts of identities can learn about the identities of others.
People are made up of multiple identities. For me, being Jewish is only one of my many identities. If I were to be classified as Jewish and only Jewish, it would not be doing me justice because that classification would only be a partial representation of who I am. In Linda Alcoff’s Cultural Critique about the Problem of Speaking for Others, she exemplifies this issues that arise when talking about group identity: “the criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary.” This is an extremely important thing to keep in mind. It is unfair for us to be categorized by our identities. Rather, we should be recognized for the many aspect of what makes us who we are.
We are made up of multiple identities, but our identities themselves do not make up who we are. We may identify with parts of a culture or parts of the classification we are being sorted into. For example, I am culturally Jewish, but I do not believe in God in the way that the stereotypical Jew does. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the Dangers of a Single Story, she brings up many great points about the dangers of being culturally unaware. One of my many favorite of hers being, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Many individuals make judgments about an entire culture based on the information they are given about a small portion of it. I am Jewish but I am unlike any other Jew in the world. I am my own person, I am an individual. I don’t want to be categorized, I don’t want to feel small, I just want to be me.