Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Challenge

On Friday, my professor paused in his highly-spirited discussion comparing the histories of French and German Jewry (let's get the inevitable stereotyping joke out of the way now):

... and gave a moment's hesitation. He told us:

"All of you are going into a career in Judaic Studies, so you are going to face a very distinct challenge throughout your careers, maybe your lives. Anyone who has worked in the Jewish community is faced with the challenge of having to explain to others, usually their target audience, why they should care about being Jewish."

He went on to tell us about a contest held once upon a time in Russia, where contestants were invited to send in essays convincing the reader why they should care about being Jewish. Not religious, per se, but just Jewish. Why should they bother having any pride? Why be part of a community? Why live with the stigma? Why not just throw it all to the wind, cut your hair, eat some bacon, and go do whatever it is you want to do with those care-free non-Jews who seem to have it all figured out?

Because, let's face it, even today, even here, even now in our cushy, SO EASY in this time and country, being a Jew isn't easy. (What comes to my mind whenever I think of this is the old adage that nothing worth having ever comes easy, but that just might be my own pride talking here.)

And even now as I'm procrastinating writing yet another paper, as I'm working through what may be the hardest semester in my schooling career so far, there's such a sobering sense of pause I get from the knowledge that... this is what I signed up for. A lifetime of THIS question.

Not that I wasn't already facing it at regular intervals before I picked it as a career path.

Freaking verbatim...

I don't know for sure when this started, but for I'd say well over two years now I seem to possess the reputation for being the person to argue religion with. I truly don't understand why or how this happened. But for a period of a few months it seemed to me like everyone was bringing their contrarian friend to meet me. Because they wanted to argue, apparently? I never quite got it. I don't like arguing. When it comes to religion my usual stance is the same as with taste in food:

Either way, somehow these discussions led me early last year to decide that maybe this was the path I was meant to follow. Not to be a missionary or anything, honestly, I'm not that interested in Kiruv, but just to educate people about my awesome, wonderful, rich culture. To educate those who share the culture with me and either don't realize how great it is, or don't care.

Which brings us back to that ever-present question. Why should I care?

To which I have the following answer, the one I always think of but never say (I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's not a "smart" answer? Just a heartfelt one? I've found people who are arguing with you about religion rarely want you to answer from the heart. They want to hear from your head. (And again, this is about identity, not religious belief. But here we go:)

I know that's not an intelligent answer. It's not my usual, this-is-a-serious-discussion answer. But it's what comes into my head now. I feel like as the days go by I see more and more people choose the easy way out about things.

They drop out of school because it's too hard. They quit a job or a team or a relationship because it would challenge them. They run the other way at the first sign of something difficult or unexpected. Right now, I feel like that's an option I haven't got.

Right now, I'm overwhelmed with work, and dealing with so many blows to my plans, self-certainty, and ego, one right after the other, I feel like this entire semester has been me stepping into the role of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes.

But I digress.

You can't run the other way when it comes to who you are, especially the parts of you that you'd probably prefer to escape. Luckily for me, I have no desire to escape Judaism. I'm proud of who I am. And when I consider how I feel about the parts of myself I'm not so proud of, it makes me feel just awful for those who are ashamed of their background.

I'm so lucky the parts of me I'm not proud of are little things like past mistakes and girly self-esteem issues. I'm so lucky I'm proud of where I come from. I'm so lucky I know who I am.

I know enough to be secure enough to take on this lifelong challenge. I'm sure enough to be able to face the barrage of why should I care, even if I can't answer it to everyone's (or anyone's) satisfaction. And I can't expect to. People a lot smarter than me have tried and failed. (No one won that Russian essay contest, by the way, because no one came up with an answer that appeased all the judges.)

Why should you care? Maybe you don't. No one can tell you why you should care. They can only tell you why they care, and hope maybe you'll relate.

But maybe you find some pride in it. Maybe you find some meaning, or something, if you're lucky, you  enjoy it. Heck, maybe the people you love find meaning in it, and maybe that's enough for you.

But even if it isn't, even if you don't want any part of it, remember. It's the identity of those who made you. It's a part of you even if you hate it. Maybe the key is, like our fears and uncertainties, to embrace it. I have no real answer. This entire post is a ramble. But man, does it feel good to ramble when it's about something I'm passionate about.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps this is also one of those central questions that all people (including non- Judaic Studies students) must answer. It's a question of who you are and why. So much can be changed, but that is cosmetic (and thus do not require deep thought as to why those are elements of our life), but the parts of ourselves than cannot be changed seem to raise the questions.

    If somebody ever asks you why you are Jewish you can answer that you either won or lost a bet (depending on your mood).