Jewish Journal

‘Hidden Jews’: Closer than I thought

Linda Katz / NY, NY

April 29, 2012 | 2:12 pm

I am a typical naive American.  Certainly K.K. communicated this through rolling eyes while showing me around Jewish Krakow.  Traveling through Eastern Europe with the mission of talking with Jewish communities, I was often amazed and awed by what I heard - even by what I knew.  Yes, I am naive, and, optimistic.

Aware, yet surprised.  I was awed by stories of ‘hidden’ and ‘discovered’ Jews reclaiming Judaism.  It certainly made sense to hide a Jewish identity that brought death and alienation during the Holocaust, Communism, and pretty much all the years before and after.  To me, an American with the freedom to choose to ‘be Jewish’, making the choice to proudly say yes takes courage, conviction and a lot of faith.

Faith I never had to test.  Not really.

From 1880 - 1920, Eastern European Jews flocked to America, the land of religious freedom and economic opportunity.  Sure, America like the rest of the world has anti-Semitism, I grew up with it, but Jews are accepted and acknowledged in much of the U.S.

However, human nature is filled with more similarities than differences across time and geography.  Our nature as humans is filled with both kindness and strength as well as fear, greed, and insecurity.  Naively, I write and talk about this fact, yet, find it easy to forget in the comfort of my kitchen.

Sharing a Passover meal with a close out-of-town friend, P.,  found us talking about Jewish rituals.  She was curious, afterall, she is Jewish! 

Our friendship has spanned over fifteen years, thousands of miles, and the sharing of Jewish rituals including Tashlich.  She says: she told me she was Jewish.  Did she?  How did I not hear?  Why not?  Or did I hear her ambiguity about being Jewish?  The same ambiguity I was hearing over the Seder plate?

Her parents moved to non-Jewish Palm Beach in 1947, finding it convenient and easy to leave their Judaism in Ohio.  P. found it equally easy to continue this new family tradition of being NOT Jewish.  P. easily lived her life without curiosity or interest of her known Jewish identity.  When P.‘s daughter expressed interest in Taglit, P. discouraged her from going to Israel, and, from connecting with her Jewish roots.Why?

P. expressed no interest in talking further about this.  Yet, how can I NOT be curious about her lack of curiosity and interest.  Disinterest she has passed to her daughters.  In Eastern Europe Jews have shaken off ghosts of the Holocaust and Communism, while here, in the safety of a democracy - and choice -  P. has made a decision, a choice, to lock the door and throw away the key to this vital aspect of her identity.  In this, she is not alone.

P. reminded me there are many NON-Jewish Jews here in America.  Earlier in the day she proudly shared the spirituality of Easter as if hiding from the Passover story.  Naively I wonder why…

I have asked these questions many times, and now I ask you:  (Please share your thoughts!)

  What does it mean to be Jewish? 
  How do you define or tell others about your Jewish identity?
  What draws you to Judaism?  To this religion that you may or may not practice in a religious way?
  How - does Judaism help you to be a better person?  Why does it help you be better? Have you become a different person if you are now learning about your Jewish identity?

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