I could not be more proud that my son can watch Aladdin and immediately realize that the underlying stereotype when only the villain speaks with a Middle Eastern accent. Or questioning the underlying bias of the positioning of modern African folk art as items of tribal ritual in an art museum. After all, we’ve been talking about stereotypes and taking cultural expeditions since he was little.
But what about when he questions his own identity? This has to do with Lucca’s pending Bar Mitzvah, due in just over one year. I am the Jewish part of an interfaith marriage, and we had agreed long ago to raise Lucca Jewish. He’s been studying Hebrew, Jewish ethics, traditions, etc. since kindergarten.
But his favorite question over the past six months has been “when should I tell Grandma I’m not getting Bar Mitzvah’d? I say “never.” But as we get closer, the dialogue has continued to deepen. The tricky part is, much of his reasoning stems from the values I’ve worked to teach him.
His biggest argument is simply that he’s not Jewish. And, despite all that we’ve done and explored together, my main argument is “Yes you are.” “Because I said so.”
Here’s a stab at looking a little deeper.
- You need to know what you are rebelling against.
One of the hardest lessons I found into delving into cultural identity was realizing how readily I tried to hide my own. “It’s Eastern European,” I would respond to requests about the origin of my last name or my cultural heritage, rather than “Jewish.” Understanding your own lens through which you view the world is critical to recognizing your own unconscious biases. So, study Judaism, understand your heritage, and when you are 18 you can have well-reasoned arguments behind your rebellion.
- You are Jewish because of your heritage
So this one is more “illogical.” The Old Testament says you are Jewish if your mom is Jewish. But the New Testament says you are Catholic if your dad is. And if you are saying you don’t believe in religion, then do either rules matter? My dad, born in the 1930’s, believes Jews are defined by the “one drop rule.” His favorite…”if you were alive during Hitler you wouldn’t have a choice to be Jewish.” So is Jewish a culture or a religion, or both. Does he really have the freedom to choose?
- Judaism provides a framework for Social Justice
While these values are really universal, and many would claim them, Judaism teaches “Tikkun Olam,” or “Heal the World,” the idea that we are obligated to leave the world a better place than we found it. There is also the idea of “helping the stranger, for we were once a stranger in a strange land,” which informs our obligation to reach out and help others. I’m hoping, as I did, that he will learn this sense of participating in making the world a better place through his learning of Judaism.
Culture? Religion? Heritage? Identity? Where do they intersect, or are they one and the same? What is culture other than the passing of traditions from generation to generation? And Judaism, as a religion and a set of customs, including Bar Mitzvah, has been passing traditions along for almost 6,000 years.
So, for now…maybe I stick with “because I said so” for a little longer. Although I’m open to advice…anyone? Hello?