I take a strange pride in belonging nowhere, fitting no stereotype, finding no clan that feels like “my people.” When I hear about souls who have found happy little niches, I sometimes feel a small surge of satisfaction in the thought that my niche doesn’t seem to exist. “I’m a citizen of the world,” I say to myself. “No culture really speaks to me. I’m a diehard individual who makes no concession to group dynamics.”
But one group often seems to attract me, to reach out and draw me in. I can make no effort whatsoever to find them, but somehow, they appear and beckon. When it happens, I laugh and sometimes marvel, but I don’t run away. Part of me hates to admit this, but it feels right when they come around. I kind of do belong with them, in one way or another.
For as far back as I’m aware, everyone in my family has been among them. And there’s a certain feeling they inspire in me, a certain camaraderie: a sense that we may be radically different as people, but we do share that one factor, and that factor is… something. It’s hard to isolate precisely what that something is—though it’s surely an amalgamation of culture, genetics, history, and identity. Part of me wishes I didn’t perceive it at all, because this sort of thing goes against my deep-seated reluctance to affiliate with any entity larger than my own small body. But I do see a kind of odd connection here, regardless of any other factors.
Aside from anything else, we’re talking about a group that often produces lush mounds of wiry curly hair, sometimes dubbed Jewfros. I don’t have one of these, but my brother sure does. As a child, I used to chase him around until I caught him, and then I’d touch that glorious mass of frizz, which felt like a cross between a Brillo pad and a pile of fluffy cotton balls.
Of course, many ethnic groups tend towards this sort of thing: I’ve seen fabulous curls among many Middle Eastern, African, and Mediterranean people, for instance. But when my brother came home from Hebrew school and announced that he thought his hair fit in with many of the people there, I felt a kind of peace and even joy. This lovely trait that made me feel so at home was a Jewish thing. At least that’s why my brother had it. Perhaps we had ancient Middle Eastern ancestors who sported those curls, and somehow the gene survived and came out in him. The thought was invigorating—like a relic from my forebears was drawing me closer to my own brother in modern-day suburban New Jersey.
If he’s reading, he’s probably ready to clobber me by now, so I should switch gears and get a bit more serious. I don’t love admitting this, but sometimes I have an easier time getting by at Jewish-themed professional events than at similar functions with no particular ethnic affiliation. I’ve written about my miserable experiences at writing-oriented networking events: the awkwardness, the feeling that I’m wasting my time and meeting no one who will bring me anything beyond a sickening reminder that I haven’t yet accomplished my dreams.
One fairly big exception happened in 2014, at an event for Jewish writers in Manhattan, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. I won’t say any lightning bolts struck and galvanized my life. But I had some pleasant interactions with literary people who could wind up helping down the line. My classmates were friendly, open souls, and a few of them continue to pass on useful information long after the session ended. I even found myself in a little online community of Jewish women writers. When I share my articles beyond my own Facebook page, they’re usually the first community I hit. It’s just an intuitive hunch that maybe people there would resonate with my ideas.
I’ve had terrible experiences with Jewish writers too: don’t get me wrong. But there was a certain bond here. Pretty much everyone was interested in the book I’d already published about the teen girls among the Lubavitcher Hasidim. I mean… they chose to go to a conference for Jewish writers, so my odds for that skyrocketed over the usual event. Much as I don’t keep kosher, observe Shabbat, or even belong to a synagogue, the jokes and ways of connecting felt like home to me.
There was still that cold, hard feeling of wanting things that were desperately hard to achieve, and looking straight at the regular old fallible humans who could make or break my dreams. I was nervous; I laughed awkwardly; while speaking to an editor, I dropped my open knapsack and had to spend the end of my appointment gathering my things from the floor. But the participants all had a natural bond, and even I felt it.
When in a new city or neighborhood, I feel a click go off in my head when I spot a synagogue or Jewish community center, especially if it’s in a place where I wouldn’t have expected one. It’s a particular kind of click: different from the one I feel if I spy an interesting restaurant or a store I want to check out. And if I see obviously Orthodox Jews in an area they don’t tend to frequent, I jump to attention and stare. It’s bizarre. I feel a kinship despite our radically different lifestyles. I want to say hello.
After graduating from college, I spent a summer in London, and I remember feeling at one point that I missed Jews. The impression hit me all at once, and I laughed at myself. I’d never felt that way before. But I just wasn’t meeting any Jews in this city. Everyplace else I’d been for any length of time, they just came around naturally; I didn’t have to hang out in synagogues or kosher cafés. Here, my little rounds just didn’t call any up, and I noticed the lack.
One afternoon during that summer, I followed a Hasidic man around, with no idea where he was heading, just because I was curious to get a sense for his life. Nothing much came of it: he walked quickly and I followed, and then he got on the subway and I wasn’t quite adventuresome enough to join him. But I remember the feeling and the motivation. He represented the Jews I wanted to know during my travels.
It was strange. I didn’t much care about meeting other Americans, or other people from suburban backgrounds, or others with no sense of direction. What dawned on me was that Jews were missing from my life, and that thought brought a sense of wistfulness. It may have been the first time I realized that they meant something to me, that I did indeed feel a kind of bond with them.
Can I be honest? Sometimes the whole Jewish thing makes me want to laugh. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I find it funny, and I know I’m not alone. A friend from college still calls me “Levine”; this came up originally because it’s such an obviously Jewish name, and, for some reason, we both found that hilarious (he’s Jewish too).
By now, I’m well aware that Jewish events and issues often have a particular draw for me. Somehow, I just feel a kinship with them—more so than with, I don’t know, Celtic issues or events focusing on Portuguese culture. I’m a citizen of the universe, a wide open mind, but somehow, I’m a Jew as well.
And look at me now, writing for Hevria, a Jewish endeavor if ever one existed. When Elad approached me, it felt immediately right and made me laugh. Typical. But really… who better to join with a bunch of religious Jewish rebels who were looking for a less religious but Jewish peer? More than many other Jews I know, I get associated with Jewish themes and ideas. Even before I started writing about these issues, people assumed that I enjoyed Woody Allen, that I was interested in Yiddish, that kind of thing.
Indeed, being Jewish suits me phenomenally well. I fit practically every stereotype I know of. I think part of my problem may just be that I’m much more this way than even most Jews—making me unusual in Jewish circles just like everywhere else. I live in my head, not my body—so much so that even dancing the hora at a Jewish party is unbearably awkward for me. Wondrous as it is to go to a Jewish event and find several women who are as short as I am, I am always shorter than average, even at all-Jewish gatherings. The quintessential Jew may be nervous and obsessive, but very few walk around with the fear of death hanging like a noose one step away from their heads.
I am Jew intensified, pushed to the outlying limit of the concept. So Jewish that often I don’t want to be Jewish, because part of the ethos is questioning everything, including identity.
Let me be clear: I am soul first, human second. “Jew” fits somewhere down the totem pole from there. Many if not most of my favorite people do not hail from this tribe, and Jewishness is not my most crucial trait. But it’s there. And from that starting place, so much is possible.