Jewish Integrity For A Change: Tribalism, Shame, Self Hatred, Pride And Embarrassment
29 October 2010
By Gilad Atzmon
The following is an email that was sent to me by
an American Jew a few days ago. This is a very
interesting text that exposes the depth of the Jewish
Diaspora's identity complex: Tribalism, shame, self
hatred, pride and embarrassment...
You're free to share my story if it interests you, but
please spare my name.
My father is a Cleveland-born Labor Zionist who
immigrated to Israel with the aspiration of redeeming
his secular Jewish soul by pioneering and cultivating
the land of his forefathers. My mother is a
Mumbai-born B'nei Israel Jew who grew up rather poor
in the southern development town of Dimona but worked
hard and eventually became a well-paid corporate
executive, all while maintaining her traditional
I was born in the Holy Land but left when I was four.
I lost my Hebrew within a few months of my exile and
always considered it a personal tragedy. It was a
burned bridge to that curious home away from home that
I would visit every few years--the big JCC my
synagogue honored, the always-running summer camp my
youth group worshiped, the headquarters to which I
owed my ethnic loyalty. To have such an Israeli name
without the ability to speak Hebrew...chaval (pitty).
I grew up with all the common trappings of the nominal
Jewish upbringing. I went to Hebrew school with kids I
could barely tolerate. I murmured prayers I didn't
understand. I read from a big scroll on my bar
mitzvah--something about how the high priest is
supposed to apply the blood from an animal sacrifice
to various parts of his body.
It was always apparent to me that I was a bit
different from my Jewish peers. It wasn't just that I
was Israeli. No, I was even more exotic than that. I
was a rare breed of Jew. I was half Indian. I was 50%
Of course, I had been told about protests and hunger
strikes in Israel in the 1950s for recognition of the
B'nei Israel as full Jews, but it never made much of
an impression on me. My mother occasionally complained
of being regarded as "not a real Jew" by her Ashkenazi
acquaintances, but for some reason this did not merit
my consideration. I was Jewish. My penis showed it.
Simple as that.
And besides, my friends never questioned my Jewishness.
I was smart, funny, and neurotic. I was Woody Allen
with a tan. A full helping of Yid with a bit of spice
to make things interesting.
I arrived at your conclusion (though with less of a
vengeance) about Jewishness at the age of 23. I
recognized that my essentially secular Judaic identity
was frivolous at best and dishonest at worst. However,
rather than abandon Jewishness altogether (not
feasible at the time), I decided to consider the
alternative. I went to yeshiva--an ultra-orthodox
yeshiva in Jerusalem.
I tried desperately to bring consistency to my Jewish
identity. I read ancient Babylonian ruminations on
property rights. I tied leather straps and black boxes
to my tired body every morning while thanking my
creator for not making me a gentile, a woman, or a
slave. I even kept the Sabbath.
But my skepticism got the best of me. I left yeshiva
and returned to Jewish limbo--an unhappy Jew with an
insecure Jewish identity.
To be fair, it wasn't just the skepticism that drove
me away; it was also the troubling discovery that many
Haredi officials of Jewish law question my legal
status as a Jew. What I had once carried as an ethnic
badge of honor was now a mark of shame. I hated being
around people who looked down on me. At first they
would think I was Moroccan or Syrian ("Isn't that
cute? An oriental Jew."), but upon discovering that
half of my blood comes from the subcontinent, there
would be a very apparent change of expression
("pagan"). I truly hated it. I would never question
members of my tribe, why would they question me?
The vast majority of people who identify as Jewish
accept me as Jewish, but the knowledge that hundreds
of thousands of the most pious of my tribe do not
consider me a member is slowly devouring my
identification as one of the chosen.
Mr. Atzmon, your diagnosis of my identity is correct,
and my very difficult "de-Judaization" is underway. As
for your politics, I can take issue. I think there is
more nuance to the situation than what you're letting
on, and I think the realization of it involves the
application of your critique to non-Jewish tribal
identities, as well.
That aside, I write to you as someone who hates it
when Jews marry non-Jews, but also as someone who
hates that hatred. I write to you as someone who feels
personal embarrassment about Israel being so pitifully
small, but also as someone who is embarrassed by that
embarrassment. I write to you as someone who is
suspicious of converts to conservative, reform and
reconstructionist Judaism, but also as someone who is
suspicious of that suspicion. I also write to you as
someone who wonders at how much more difficult it must
be to come to this realization without a mother of
questionable halachic Jewish status.