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Jewish Journal

Inside and Outside

by Susan Esther Barnes

3 weeks ago

Photo by Alina and Jeff Bliumis

When I was at Limmud Bay Area this summer, there was a project there called, “From Selfie to Groupie.” Participants in this project were asked to write three things about their Jewish identity on white boards mounted on a background, and then take a “selfie,” or, in this case, have the project creators take their picture. Some of the photos will be assembled in a book, to be published next year.

The creators, Alina and Jeff Bliumis, are interested in using my photo in the book, and asked me to explain in one to three sentences why I chose to write those particular identities. This is my attempt to answer the question long form, with the hope that it will help me to boil the essence down into a few sentences.

Looking at the photo, I am reminded of a quote which has stuck with me from Norton Juster’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” one of my childhood favorites. In it, he says, “Inside or outside depends on which side you’re inside or out of.” My Jewish identity reflects the constant feeling I have of being both an insider and an outsider at the same time.

The statement, “You don’t look Jewish” is one I have heard explicitly only a couple of times. However, I “hear” it in numerous ways, particularly when people assume I converted to Judaism and that neither of my parents were Jewish. For instance, I once told a rabbi how fortunate I felt that my father’s family left Hungary not long before the Nazis came in, because my father was too young to work and likely would have been killed. The rabbi replied, “You know, he may have been okay, since they mostly were only killing Jewish people.” I had to clarify that my father and his whole family were, indeed, Jewish.

There are also a lot of things the Jews around me grew up with which I did not: Jewish songs, Jewish guilt, kugel and latkes. I don’t have the warm, nostalgic feelings other Jews around me have for things I wasn’t introduced to until I was an adult. When people speak enthusiastically about some of these things, I just don’t get it.

Despite these feelings of being on the outside of Judaism, I am, at the same time, a true insider. I am strongly, deeply, undeniably, wholly Jewish. I am the president of the board of my synagogue. I write a Jewish blog for a Jewish publication. I am a founding member of our synagogue’s chevra kadisha and I am an active member of Kavod V’Nichum. I volunteer for the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, I taught a session at Limmud Bay Area on Jewish practices regarding death and dying. I am participating in this cycle of Daf Yomi, and I consider the people of Israel to be my people. I read Jewish publications all the time.

So, in a sentence or three, why did I write those particular identities? I wrote them because I am often conscious of my Jewish identity being one of both an insider and an outsider at the same time. People may think one thing about my perceived Jewishness when they see me, but the more they get to know me, the more they may learn that looks can be deceiving.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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