A reclamation of my Jewish identity

Rachel Krumholz, Executive Editor

When I was four years old, I asked my Dad to buy me a Kippah. He did. No one told me that Kippahs were not made for four-year-old girls, rather were traditionally worn by Jewish men. But even if I had been informed of this, I likely wouldn’t have cared. From then on I would show up to synagogue, Kippah and all, take my seat on the carpet, drink apple juice and sing songs about Moses.

This particular synagogue was my family and my place of worship for years. However, we were turned away when I was about six because my family couldn’t afford to pay a several thousand dollar fee. We were not offered alternative financial aid options or a more viable payment plan. We later attended Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, but eventually stopped after my parents’ divorce and my sister’s declaration that she no longer wanted a Bat Mitzvah.

Five years and two congregations later, I no longer traditionally celebrate Judaism. Divorce and money, or lack thereof, interfered with my immediate family’s practice. Distance and age slowly hindered the ability of my extended family to celebrate major Jewish holidays. The practices, the readings, the matzah ball soup and the uninformed sporting of a Kippah all fell out of reach.

Since then, I have mindlessly toyed around with identities of atheism and agnosticism. Neither ever felt truthful to me — they seemed to instead act as an explanation of someone who wore a hamsa around her neck but couldn’t remember the last time she had stepped foot in a synagogue.

My Jewishness became a mere part of my past. While it stayed salient to my family’s history and even the unification of my living extended family, for a long time I no longer felt or believed in it.

However, this year has been formative in entirely deconstructing and rebuilding my notions of my Jewishness. Hearing about alt-right acts of antisemitism and increased discourse regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict has forced me to rethink my positionality as a Jew.

In October, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the U.S. occurred. Robert Bowers, the alt-right terrorist who opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue, killed 11 people. Just earlier this month, the Poway synagogue endured a similar tragedy on the last day of Passover from a different man espousing the same rhetoric.

These alt-right acts of antisemitism bred an undoubtable sense in me of not just remorse but guilt. I had fallen out of touch with a part of my identity that people were losing their lives and loved ones for. And even so, I couldn’t help but question the validity of my own Judaism.

The last piece I wrote for The Evanstonian required an address of my positionality, as I was co-writing a feature on the existence of Islamophobia at ETHS, a form of bigotry I have no personal experience with. I briefly explained a bit of how I identified and how that contributed to my understandings of and reactions to the Christchurch Mosque shootings. I wrote, “I [Rachel] identify as a white, Jewish woman.” Claiming Judaism in print felt unnatural, for I momentarily believed the definition of Judaism relied more on the present practice rather than the significant weight it held on both my upbringing and family. This moment challenged me to reckon with what exactly a reclamation would look like.

Upon being admitted into college, I almost immediately joined the GW Jewish Facebook group. The group was welcome to any Jewish identifying class of 2023 students and was not affiliated with any one political organization. In the midst of introductions and conversations, I briefly mentioned my stance on the Israeli government.

One person instantly replied to my comment saying “I wish I could dislike this.” Another person went out of their way to find my Snapchat, add me and bombard me with accusations, falsities and invalidations of my Jewishness. They said that they had never met a pro-Palestine Jew, that I “needed to do my research” and that all Palestinians hated Jews (a racist, yet uncomfortably prevalent sentiment).

Conflating antisemitism and anti-Zionism perpetuates the narrative that Israel embodies Judaism and the Jewish people. A government cannot represent any specific religion and still serve all citizens equally. This is as true for Islamic theocracies, the illegitimate nation of Israel and the state of Alabama. If you, as many of us are, are mad at Alabama for dissolving the boundary between church and state, you should also then be upset that Israel functions without a separation of synagogue and state.

But, I found reassurance in my sister, who reminded me it that I don’t need to be able to spew information from the Torah to prove my Judaism; she reminded me that it was my story to tell. I found validation in my friend who invited me to events at his congregation in light of the pushback I received on the aforementioned Facebook post.

What my future peer did and what Jewish leaders in Israel often do is place limitations on Jewishness, claiming that one must support Israel in order to be a real Jew. When someone names another person’s identity, they are invalidating what should be self defining. My Jewishness is not defined by my political beliefs, or the frequency I attend temple, or the amount I’ve paid in dues, rather because it is vital to my family and upbringing.