Who am I as a Jew?

Remember when I started a blog? Probably not. But it’s a new calendar year, and while I don’t necessarily believe in resolutions, I do believe in intention. And one of my biggest intentions for how I want to spend my time is writing. I wrote this post as part of a midyear reflection for a Jewish community organizing fellowship I’m part of. Enjoy – and please comment and watch this space for more!

Who am I, as a Jew? Asking myself this question feels almost like asking myself who I am as a person. Can the two even be extricated? Should they be?

As a Jew I care deeply and genuinely about justice and liberation. As a human being, I care deeply and genuinely about justice and liberation.

But growing up outside of the Jewish community means that I have not always had a sense of when and how my values line up with those of Judaism. Who I am Jewishly is a question that I am answering, increasingly, with the values that inform the way I live my life, instead of simply my ethnicity, culture, or even practices. Who I was Jewishly used to be someone who lit candles at Chanukah, had Seders at Passover, and ate my grandmother’s honey cake on Rosh Hashanah… and not much else. Now, who I am Jewishly is someone who lights candles and says prayers on Shabbat, explores text study, and is learning Hebrew – but my Jewish identity is about more than what I do: it’s about how I view the world and my place in it.

Who am I, Jewishly? I am on a journey into myself, and the journey really is more important than the destination. I am curious. I am fascinated by and in wonder of all there is to learn about Jewish culture, faith, and history. My path towards Judaism has also, not insignificantly, lined up more or less chronologically with my gender transition.

Often I hear converts to Judaism describe themselves as “New Jews” or “Jews by choice.” Although my experience is somewhat different, these terms resonate with me. I am new to Jewish community, having only had such connections for two years or so. I am new to Shabbat, Torah, many of the holidays, and exploring my own belief in the transcendent.

I also connect to the idea of choice in my own life. There are those who don’t consider me Jewish, because my mother isn’t Jewish. When I was younger I felt both indignant and ashamed by that. I could have internalized the message that I didn’t have any claim to lay to Judaism. Or I could have easily gone on living my life as a self-identified “half Jew” – but there came a time when being “half” anything ceased to make sense to me. Choosing to engage more deeply with Judaism was something that made me feel whole. So, yes, I chose to “be” Jewish as well as to “do” Jewish. I make the choice to incorporate Jewish practice and community into my life. And I can’t speak to whether I chose my sexual orientation or gender identity – nor do I think it matters – but I do choose to inject testosterone every week.

As a Jew raised without formal Jewish education or community, as a queer and trans Jew, I will always be somewhat of an outsider. I definitely feel the insider/outsider tension that has long been a part of Jewish history, and I embrace it. Because I came to Judaism as an adult, I have the chance to learn on my own terms, to question, and to figure out what my own beliefs are, both religiously and politically. I commit to remaining critical of what the mainstream Jewish community holds up as what we “should” do or support as Jews – and of myself.

This spirit of questioning and complexity, indeed, is part of a long tradition both of the Jewish people and of my own family. There are a whole lot of arguers and skeptics in my own ancestry and in our history as a people.

And I am part of that history. Along with locating myself in a current American Jewish context (and my own queer and leftist Jewish communities), I see myself as part of a long, rich, and resilient Jewish history that I am just beginning to discover.

I belong to a legacy of so many righteous Jewish thinkers, activists, and justice workers, from Rabbi Hillel to Abraham Joshua Hecshel to Emma Goldman, Anne Frank to Les Feinberg to Allen Ginsberg, Howard Zinn to Harvey Milk to Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz.

I belong to my family legacy as well. I am the great-grandchild of my grandma Frieda (who I was blessed to know in my lifetime), who came to this country from Russia-now-Ukraine as a child and worked as a hat maker in New York as an adult, staying quick-witted well into her nineties. I am the grandchild of her daughter Roz, who grew up in Brooklyn, went on to college and graduate school, and became a watercolor artist who loves poetry and still sometimes plays tennis at age 90. I am the grandchild of her husband Larry, my late grandfather, another Jewish child of Brooklyn who became a successful lawyer, could beat anyone at cards even after he lost his eyesight, and was a generous, logical, theatrical soul who touched many in his community.

I am the child of my father, an atheist who believes in science, common sense, left-wing politics, and protein at every meal. And I am the child of my mother, who, yes, was raised Catholic – and left the church as an adult because she was never given satisfactory answers to her questions.

Who am I, Jewishly? I am a son, a friend, a community member, an organizer, a queer person, a lifelong learner. I am both an insider and an outsider, defiantly myself. I am discovering my Jewish values and working to act on and live by them. I am building a life centered on justice, generosity, community, learning, questioning, ritual, kindness, love, and world repair. One of my favorite Jewish values is the concept of kavannah: intention. My only new year’s resolution for 2012 was to live my life in a more intentional way. As I move towards that, as I continue to explore and engage with Judaism, I come home to myself and what my best self could look like.

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About Ira Sass

Ira Sass is a mid-twenties, queer, white, transmasculine, secular-raised jew from new england. He feels pretentious calling himself a writer and activist (as well as writing in third person) but is going to do it anyway. He enjoys eating burritos, single-parenting his crazy cat, and dancing to early ’90s jams.
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4 Responses to Who am I as a Jew?

  1. eng4820 says:

    This is a lovely post, hon. We miss you.

  2. T. Lieberman says:

    Beautiful! A lot of this resonates with me: being who you are whether it’s choice or inevitability that got you to this point, the importance of being fully present and not half anything. Glad you are renewing your commitment to write. Please post again!

  3. tinaye838 says:

    finally caught up on your blog (now write more!). i applaud your vow to live life intentionally, to make choices wholeheartedly and with awareness. so many of us go through life accepting the choices we were given at birth. sometimes there are good reasons to, but other times its inertia.

    cheers to an inertia-free life! may we all celebrate the basic human right to seek, reflect, and choose.

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