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Gefilte Fish Out of the Water

Opinion | November 20, 2011

Elizabeth Gall

I  am part of the Jewish tribe, a member of the Jewish race; I’m one of God’s Chosen people, blessed with the duty of being part of one of the oldest communities in the world. We’ve been persecuted, celebrated, reviled, admired, ghettoized, idolized, demonized—glorified as the defenders of freedom, vilified as the barrier to peace. I was born into an exclusive society and strengthened by its marginalization. We are a race, a culture, a religion, and a nation.

Yet, I have no Jewish friends. Tufts University has a student population that is 31.5% Jewish, but I attend High Holiday services alone at Hillel. Our school ranks  #9 on the top 20 schools with the highest percentage of Jews, but I have never been to bagel brunch.  My Rosh Hashanah tradition is an explanation of “apples and honey” to my gentile housemates. I am surrounded by Jews, but I feel no instinctive kinship with the community. The infamous Jew-network seems to have forgotten me.

I am Jewish. I feel Jewish, and I am proud to be Jewish. I agree with the teachings of my religion and find a beauty even in the rules that I do not follow. My mother brought me to Hebrew School every Wednesday and Sunday, and my voice warbled its way through my Torah portion when I was 13. I have traveled to Israel twice and prayed at the Western Wall. Haroset may be my favorite food. Yet, I could not care less if my future spouse is a manly Macabee or bows to Jesus. He could wear a sparkling silver cross around his neck, sleep with a miniature Buddha on his bedside table, or subscribe to The Agnostic.  As long as his religion does not dictate mine, we’ll be fine.

For most, Judaism is a culture, rich with foods, music, and traditions that travel beyond any religious significance. It is a network of like-minded individuals who debate and discuss everything from Palestinian refugees to the perfect matzo ball. It is exclusive and selective, engaging and forgiving.  Jews are resilient, sarcastic, loving, short, curly-haired, a little obnoxious, warm, and Chosen.  But to me, Judaism is a religion.

While talking with cultural Jews, I try to reconcile their devotion to Jewish tradition with my supposed lack of cultural observance. I believe in God and Judaism; they believe in gefilte fish and Seinfeld.  I attend High Holiday services and fast on Yom Kippur because I appreciate its religious significance. Yet many cultural Jews skip the religious practices once they get to college, celebrating the customs while neglecting the backbone.

Much of my isolation from Jewish culture stems from my background. I grew up with an Irish-Catholic father and a German-Austrian Jewish mother in one of the most Irish and Italian Catholic towns in Massachusetts.  My homeroom sounded like a scene from The Departed (Depahted) and there were at least three Kellys and Seans in every class. My culture was suburban or Bostonian, but never Jewish. I am a purely religious Jew.

Why does this matter? The isolation I feel is not particular to my religion; I have an Indian friend who finds no resonance within the Indian community and an African-American friend who shies away from Africana events.  We are the outliers of our ethnic communities, the token Jew, Indian, or African-American in our crowd of “others”.

While not denying our roots, we choose to live outside of the communities assigned to us. As Tufts addresses diversity, it must also address integration; it has to look at the hybrids.  Diversity lies not only in our racial, religious, and cultural acceptance, but also in our challenges to that acceptance, in our ability to move beyond existence and into integration.  We need to cross-pollinate our cultures in order to create new ones.  We must live in the idiosyncrasies because those are what define us. So yes, I am part of a tribe, but that tribe is made of individuals, and they are the ones that matter.