For most of my life, I have considered myself a Jew. But the degree to which I have been proud of this has changed depending on where I was living at the time. I will start at the beginning. Arguably the least controversial place to be Jewish is Israel, which is where I was born and had the privilege to spend the first nine years of my life, in Jerusalem to be exact. Ironically, Jerusalem is the place where I have always felt the least Jewish. In comparison to the herds of black-wearing men I saw daily on the way to school or to my friends' houses or to the park, I didn't even want to be Jewish. I contrasted myself with the 'dossim'. It was just my perception as a child. They were the people that wanted to close down my school because they were against the education of autistic and non-autistic children together. They were the people that put down boards with nails through them on the road on Saturdays, which caused me to be late to my best friend's birthday party. To my understanding at the time, they were the Jews. I was no Jew. So much, in fact, that after moving to the Netherlands at age nine, I remember telling another girl with the same migration history as me that I wasn't Jewish, just Israeli.
In the Netherlands, where I moved to with my family because of my Dutch father, my sense of identity changed radically. All of a sudden I was a foreigner, and I never fitted in because of different customs and ideas. I was always the one that was asked about 'other cultures'. As a teenager, the last thing you want is to be the person known for their 'difference', especially in the context of the classroom where you are trying to make new friends. After a period of trying to fight against any possible reputation that differed from the standard, I started realising that the difference was actually a part of my identity. I was part Israeli, part Dutch. Nationality-wise, I was settled, although due to the major anti-Israel movement in Europe I wasn't always comfortable telling people both parts. At least I knew what I was.
There were no hareidim around in this little city in the upper corner of the country, so there was no need to disassociate myself from them, and in my teens I started identifying as a non-practicing Jew, a Chiloni. But that is a difficult concept to explain to the non Jews in the Netherlands. There was no Jewish community around, but if there was I am sure I wouldn't have been ready to immerse myself in it. I merely felt Jewish by heritage.
At the same time as my sense of cultural Jewish identity started gaining more ground in my sense of self, I started noticing a growing anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. 'Jew' was used derogatorily in scolding. During classes and in the media, teachers used Israel as an example of a terrible country with terrible people. Can you imagine what comments like these can do to a young, insecure girl? I remembered Israel as the place where I always had a lot of friends, where I always had fun wherever I went, and where I didn't feel attacked all the time for being foreign or having different ideas and traditions. I started believing that those people were right, and I must have had the wrong idea of Israel all along. At that crucial period when we are all trying to figure out who we are, the main characteristics of my identity were constantly under attack. As a true teenager, however, I started to rebel. I began to accentuate my Israeli identity, and later also my Jewish identity.
After high school, I decided I didn't want to stay in that country. It was too small for me, and I had plans to explore the world. Right after my 19th birthday, after having lived in Israel for 9 and in the Netherlands for 10 years, I moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, to get my undergraduate degree in Linguistics and Comparative Literature. I still wasn't comfortable telling people I was half Israeli, so I was a Dutchie. To people who I felt comfortable with, I told the rest. At the so-called fresher's '"fayre'', where all the societies present themselves to the new students, I found out there was a J-soc, a Jewish society. Because I was new and wanted to meet other people, I decided to join. At the first meeting, however, about five people showed up, and none of them was actually Scottish. Apparently, there are hardly any Jews in Scotland, or at least in that part of the country. Though the group didn't meet very often, I enjoyed celebrating Hanukah and Purim with fellow students. My Jewish identity went from non-practicing to culturally practicing. I still couldn't do without bacon, though.
Half way through the year I got into an exchange program, and I was to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my second year. At first I was mostly excited because it is close to Chicago, the city of Home Alone, The Untouchables, and, of course, Chicago. When I arrived, however, I found out about Chambana's humongous Jewish community. Through movies and TV shows I learnt about Jewish Americans. In almost any rom-com, there is a Jewish character, and they are mostly portrayed as perfectly normal people. That was very new to me, because to my knowledge, Jews outside of Israel were always portrayed as ultra-orthodox, odd, annoying. But the Jews in these American movies were normal people with normal jobs with normal families, who just happened to celebrate Hanukah instead of Christmas, just like me.
Fairly quick into my first semester abroad I got introduced to Hillel. I hadn't heard of them before, but it is a worldwide Jewish campus organization, that actually started at the exact university I am studying at. This particular chapter is called Illini Hillel. There, I went to a Friday-night dinner, and my whole world was changed. More than a hundred people showed up to this dinner, and to every dinner, every week. It was a full buffet style dinner, and it was completely free. I didn't know that was even possible. And the very first moment there I realised that the people there were my kind of people.
Besides the Shabbat dinners, I slowly learnt there were more opportunities to eat. There is a weekly Lunch & Learn, where we discuss topics of Judaism while noshing on amazing kosher pizza. There are Israel discussion groups, with pizza again. On Saturdays there is both Lunch and Seuda Shlishit, on Sundays there is a bagel brunch. Basically, it's a fantastic place for the student who is short on money and doesn't have a lot of time to cook but still wants to get some nutrition. I have to say, the food was initially what drew me to Hillel, but it's not what eventually made me stay. What made me stay was the atmosphere, the friendliness, the teachers.
I realized that people can be both Orthodox and progressive, which made me a lot more willing to explore Judaism in a religious way. I learnt more about what it means to be Jewish in one semester in the US, than I did living in Israel for nine years. To me, to be Jewish is to learn, and to want to learn further. What else is the Talmud for? The root of the word even means 'learning'. We should never be satisfied by what we know, but should always want to supplement it with more. Curiosity is the key.
Since I was at Hillel every Saturday anyway, I decided I might as well keep Shabbat, which I have now proudly done for a few weeks, and I love it. On Friday afternoon, I know that for the next 24 hours, I won't have to study, because Saturday is my day of rest and I can go to Hillel and spend a relaxing day with friends while observing my religion; and food, of course. I hope that the friends I have made at Hillel will stay my friends for a very long time, because they are wonderful people and they were there during this defining time in my life when I figured out I really am Jewish; culturally, by heritage, and religiously.
American Judaism is a thing unto itself. The idea of a so-called "Jewish American Princess" fascinates me. Stereotypes are often negative, but in this case I'm happy there even is a stereotype for a Jewish girl. There are no Jewish stereotypes in Scotland or in the Netherlands. People have only been exposed to the same stereotypes that were regarded as reasons for killing six million people less than a hundred years ago. What I mean to say, is that in the US Jews have managed to establish a different identity than the old one. They have moved on, and people know about their existence. Most people have "that one Jewish friend", or "that nice Jewish family around the corner". Kipas can be worn to classes without fear. In Europe, those identities are masked. Sure, some people are Jewish. But only in the comfort of their own home. Outside of it they try to blend in with the crowd, not to cause too much attention. It's like we're back in the 1940s, isn't it?
What I am trying to say is that although I am not fully there yet, I am very close to establishing my own identity, but it has been a tough road so far. I have learnt that there is nothing about being a Jew to be ashamed and I have Illini Hillel to thank for that.
So wherever you live, cherish your heritage; especially if you are living in one of many countries who are showing increasing signs of everyday anti-Semitism. Don’t escape it by denying your identity because you come from a long line of thinkers, learners and criticizers, and you have a damn good reason to be proud of it!
Alma Keren was born in Jerusalem in 1994 to one Israeli and one Dutch parent. At age 9, she moved to the Netherlands. She is now studying Linguistics and Comparative Literature at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and doing a year abroad at the University of Illinois.
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