RSS Feed

My Life as a Jewish Woman

One of my blogging friends suggested that I write about my life as a Jewish woman, and it scared me, because writing about being Jewish always scares me, just like writing about anything else people might judge me for scares me. I worry about anti-Semitism; I worry about people feeling alienated from me for being different; I worry about being rejected, and looked down on most of all. The image of the Jew as vermin has always stuck with me. I was born long after the holocaust, but it has never felt that far away.

“What are you talking about, Mommy?”

I grew up in Jewish environments, getting a Jewish education (or a few different Jewish educations), so being Jewish always felt normal to me. It was only when I went to college that being Jewish became an issue. Most of the higher educational world, no matter how many students at a school are Jewish, is based on a Christian world view. It is assumed that when you mention the bible, and you will, you mean the King James Version, including the New Testament. In a discussion about history or biology, or, god forbid, art history, teachers would reference books of the bible I’d never heard of, and I felt like I needed Google and Wikipedia, before such things existed.

“Ask me, Mommy. I know everything!”

It wasn’t just factual references that I missed and had to look up, there were world view things I couldn’t relate to. So much talk of heaven and hell, and turning the other cheek, had never come up in my childhood. I felt like I’d need a PhD in Christianity before I could understand much of anything. So I did my honors thesis on comparative religions, and read the King James Bible, and the New Testament, and the Koran, and forty other books on various religions around the world. I can’t pinpoint what I did with all of that information, and I didn’t feel like an expert when I was done, but I did feel more grounded. I felt like I knew enough to get by.

Despite the adjustment period, there was something freeing about not being in a Jewish environment anymore. I stopped feeling like someone was looking over my shoulder all the time, giving me demerits for each non-orthodox behavior. No one cared if the sandwich I ate for lunch was kosher. No one cared that I wore pants. If I went to school on a Jewish holiday, no one even noticed. It didn’t matter to anyone how religious I was, or wasn’t. They noticed that I was a good, and maybe compulsive, student. They noticed that I talked back to teachers (sometimes too much, sometimes just the right amount).

Being outside of a Jewish point of view allowed me to see how many different world views there really were. I started to see that even the Jewish world was not as unitary as it had seemed. Not all Jews are orthodox and steeped in the Talmud, not all Jews were red diaper babies raised by union activists, all Jews are not from Eastern European shtetls, all Jews are not “New York liberals,” or Pro-Israel, or Pro-peace, or well educated, or small minded, or wealthy, or clever, etc., etc.

The only really Jewish thing about my life now is the fact that I go to synagogue on Friday nights. I don’t keep kosher (sorry, God), and I don’t take out a prayer book three times a day, and I don’t wear a Star of David necklace. I do have a mezuzah on my door, but I never remember to kiss it.

My life isn’t especially Jewish, but I am. It is a big part of my identity, probably as big as being female, or American, or a writer. Being Jewish is essential to how I view the world around me, how I watch the news, how I meet new people. I am probably more skittish about traveling to, say, Germany than the average American woman. I am probably more sensitive about how Israel is portrayed in the news (though some evangelical Christians have me beat on that one).

The fact is, though, that I felt like just as much of a Jewish woman during the fifteen years when I did not belong to a synagogue as I do now. The rituals, and the belonging, while comforting and satisfying, are not the source of the identity for me. I know people who were raised without much involvement in Jewish community life, and they too feel their Jewishness strongly. There’s a mix of pride in the heritage, and fear of being targeted, and shame at being different, that we all share.

My dogs remind me, though, that my Jewish identity isn’t all of who I am. They are deeply connected to the energy of the universe, and they could care less if I am Jewish or Muslim or Christian or agnostic. The dogs represent the connection I have to everyone, not just to one small group.

“Hi Mommy!”

“If you’re Jewish, are we Dogish?”

I went to the supermarket one day, and some kid with weird hair was standing outside. Normally, I wouldn’t ever think of stopping to talk to a strange teenage boy, but he had a bulldog puppy with him and that changed everything. I met the dog, I got kisses, I talked to the boy on the other end of the leash, and he was friendly and talkative, and grateful that I liked his dog, and we parted as friends, feeling better about the world and the other people in it. Dogs do this!

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

So yes, I am a Jewish woman, and an American, and a writer, but before all of that, I am a dog person. It’s not an identity, it’s just what’s there, under all of the layers of identity, and my dogs think it is the most obvious thing about me.

Me and baby Cricket

Me and baby Cricket

Advertisements

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

191 responses »

  1. Another lovely post. 👍

    Reply
  2. I can relate! incuding to how your dog comapnions are Soul companions that release you/us from denominations! They just love, ARE love, reminding us that is true of us, too. What a gift!

    Reply
  3. Rachel – What a brave step for you. Yes, being a Jew in this overly non-Jewish world can be scary. Though I never dated or married a Jew, I always maintained my born Jewish identity. For me it was not about being the same as someone, but about sharing core values, regardless of organized religion. I raised my daughter Jewish so that she would have something to rebel against and something to come back to. I too studied comparative religion, but as an Anthropologist, to understand the underlying cultural diversity. You are right, the pure spirit our animals show us is an incredible example of divinity. Animals never care how much money you make, what color your skin or hair is, or even if you speak their language. For me, they keep me humble to what is honest and pure and unconditional. You and your pups are very lucky to share such a wonderful bond. Next thing you know Cricket will want a Bark Mitzvah – Lorian of DogDaz Zoo

    Reply
    • I love that you raised your daughter Jewish with the inevitable rebellion in mind. It feels like an important part of the journey, breaking with what came before in order to really know who you are. Sometimes I think the rabbis threw in some of the crazier stuff just to facilitate the rebellion part of the journey.

      Reply
  4. Reblogged this on Marriage A Journey and A Dog and commented:
    A really interesting blog.

    Reply
  5. Writing about anything personal is scary, so good for you! And being a dog person is a great way to go through life.

    Reply
  6. “a PhD in Christianity”!! Perfect. What I’ve unwittingly craved all my assimilated Jewish life.

    Reply
  7. Great post!! I really think most people can learn a thing or two from dogs.
    People put too much importance on a persons religious beliefs, skin color, sexuality etc;
    To me, it’s the heart, the personality and trust…everything else should be of no significance.
    A good person is a good person….none of the afore mentioned things have any bearing on that…or at least they shouldn’t.
    Oh and Thanks for visiting my site, and for the like 🙂

    Reply
  8. Great post, I think the thing my dogs like best about me is that I speak fluent dog!, lol.

    Reply
  9. Being Jewish is your heritage – embrace it and remember that those of the Tribe of Judah as well as the other Tribes are His chosen people if they are followers of His Word. Don’t let that slip away (ie – PLEASE don’t eat unclean animals), but be wary of ‘jewish’ talmud laws and traditions so that they do not take you captive. An amazing story – you are brave to reveal your heart. Shalom!

    Reply
  10. “Normally, I wouldn’t ever think of stopping to talk to a strange teenage boy”

    Why is that?

    I am not a “strange teenage boy” but few things depress me as much as talking to strangers and having them freak out because EEKS a stranger says something to them.

    Why is that so… scary?

    Does it have to do with big city versus smaller towns? People in big cities seem less likely to freak out over strangers.

    You’re a nice person, btw. You make me smile. Thank you for that.

    Reply
    • Thank you for saying I’m nice. I think my difficulty with talking to strangers is mostly not knowing what to say, without a specific context. I don’t want to be rude, or inappropriate, and risk offending someone. Does that make sense?

      Reply
  11. I know this is going to sound strange coming from an atheist, but I am completely honest when I say: Thank you for being Jewish. I know it isn’t so much a choice, but being open and proud about it is very brave (there’s a lot of dirt bags out there) and I respect you immensely.

    Reply
  12. Pingback: 3 Day Quote Challenge: Day 2 | Riddle from the Middle

  13. What a strong post. Thank you for sharing your perspective! I linked to this with the 3 Day Quote Challenge, if you feel like it — no pressure! http://riddlefromthemiddle.com/2015/06/12/3-day-quote-challenge-day-2/

    Reply
  14. Love it! (and the dogs are just too cute!)

    Reply
  15. This is beautifully expressed, Rachel. What IS it about us dogs, eh? We transcend everything else! Pip

    Reply
  16. Reblogged this on Goals Go Global and commented:
    Beautiful text, in these times of divisions, anger & violence. From another Dogish person, the wonderful fiction writer & blogger Rachel Mankowitz.

    Reply
  17. I’m glad my little poem about the dog next door brought you to my BLOG. Enjoyed your post My hope is that you never experience any significant anti-semitism.

    Reply
  18. Rachel, I love your post. I’m also a Jewish female writer and nervous about mentioning this fact in public/online for the same reasons you mention here. Good for you for getting your thoughts about religion, pet relationships and compassion out there. I’m going to follow your blog. Cheers.

    Reply
  19. My dogs are also connected to the “energy of the universe” which makes us soul sisters. I’m good with it. I think I’m lucky to know you.
    P.S. I’ve always coveted the mezuzah.

    Reply
  20. Blown away by this post Rachel – tank you for sharing this. I am a protestant plunged into a ‘Catholic’/Muslim environment and like you, am learning to see the person beneath the veil (literally in a lot of cases) – LOVE the doggy analysis – I have a cat and similarly, they just think that they are superior t everyone……

    Reply
  21. I am behind in time after two weeks of traveling and planning and vacationing but I absolutely live this blog. I get it. I’m not Jewish but I am half Doukobour… A word that means a lot in western Canada. Strange, different, weird… All of these things am I because of my background and yet I still connect to the lovely belief system and communal sharing and peace-Nik ways. We may not be the poster children for our religious connections but we carry their beliefs within and I think that’s pretty cool.

    Reply
    • Now I have to look up Doukobour. Isn’t it amazing how interesting people are, and how much there is to learn about each other?

      Reply
      • We are an odd little Christian group who emigrated to Canada from Russia because they refused to bear arms. Very peaceful, communal people. My aunties cringe at the fact my brother is a career soldier. Ah, well…. our other half is British. Yes, SO much to learn and celebrate about each other and different belief systems!

  22. Thanks for sharing. It had never occurred to me how alien the Christian context of phraseology must be to a Jew. A wonderful insight.

    Reply
  23. Engaging post! I grew up in a relatively orthodox home (the rabbi’s grandson) but totally rejected religion after the obligatory bar mitzvah (mainly an ode to my grandmother). 55 years later I remain uninterested in religion but feel my Judaism, & anger myself daily over the re-emergence of violent anti-semitism masquerading as worry for the poor Islamic terrorists in Gaza, ISIS, Hezbollah, Judea/Samaria.

    The difference the last 2 years is Ivy, La Bestia, a Giant Schnauzer who would have been my penultimate nightmare of a huge, black dog with big teeth lunging for my face & crotch. I spent a lifetime in terror of dogs; then fell in love with our rescued Ivy whose lunges are to lick me to death. Have I learned Schnauzerish? Not yet but I am trying. It is easier than Mayan.

    Living in Mexico being Jewish is rare. The small Jewish communities are in DF (Mexico City) & Cancun. The usual response is sparse. My cardiologist said, “I knew a Jewish man once. He was a brilliant doctor & teacher.” End of discussion.

    Engaging enough post to have me writing a response. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  24. Rachel, one of my English learners is now following you on LinkedIn – we used this post as the basis for our last lesson, she is my Muslim friend who inspired my ‘ramadan’ post and she is a lawyer very much interested by women’s issues and particularly intercultural women’s issues. She is hoping to start a blog soon to discuss this – I shall introduce you to it when she does, she is very lovely, very intelligent and very interesting. We are almost like three cornerstones…much love Lindy

    Reply
  25. What a beautiful post. My story’s a bit different, but also similar in some ways–I was the only Jewish kid in my kindergarten class (really, all through school), and with the name Ezra I couldn’t help but stand out. Today I identify as a secular Jew, and try to embrace all that that means in America in 2015. And like you, I also feel like I have many other identities as well.

    Reply
  26. Thank you for sharing. You gave me a peek into a life or identity that I’m unfamiliar with. I had not thought that the Christian worldview would be like culture shock to someone who grew up in America. I found this interesting and drew parallels to say immigrants who though they assimilate the lifestyle of their adopted country, never truly lose the identity their native country confers on them.

    Reply
  27. I honestly wonder what world I grew up in. Jewish people were on a pedestal in my family. (And not because we belonged to the ‘support Israel or the end is coming’ evangelical crew.) Jewish history, culture, literature, humor. All sources of wonder and respect. No flesh and blood Jew/Israelite/Israeli/Hebrew could live up to my preconceived hero worship.

    If your dogs are ‘dogish’ mine must be a ‘dogyterian.’

    Reply
  28. Hi Rachel, thank you for sharing your thoughts and expressing them with such beautiful writing. I was very engaged while reading and appreciate your candidness! Thanks also for stopping by my blog and liking my recipe! I look forward to reading more from you!
    Shalom from The Bahamas! 💜 Bettina

    Reply
  29. Oh… I also love your dogs….such beauties!! I’m also a dog person too… we have that indescribable connection! 😉

    Reply
  30. It’s such an interesting perspective. I am a Christian woman, with a respect for Jewish customs. I too have a Mezuzah, more of a keepsake than a practice. I also worried about being judged in college, mostly for not being overly liberal like the majority of my peers. Like you, I studied world religions. My experience is similar in that it was evident that not everyone who called themselves a Christian thought or believed like me. My perspective was different in that I felt like people assumed they knew what I stood for based on preconceived notions; right or wrong we might never know. Thank you for sharing! I know it’s difficult being vulnerable and expressing topics so personal.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story too! I have a Christian friend who often says that it bothers her when people assume they know her just because they know she’s religious. They forget that she’s an individual, with problems and opinions of her own.

      Reply
  31. The “Therapy Dog Leaving” story enchanted me into a LIKE (although it should have been a LOVE) and multiple responses. THIS story swept me, with tears in my eyes, into a FOLLOW, and I do that rarely nowadays for fear of being overwhelmed. You won’t overwhelm me, though…you are too real and loving.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: