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Who are You, Who am I?

Today's blogpost was written by Mo Kaziah Branchfeld a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod.

"Are you Jewish?"

It's a question I am asked early in most conversations in Israel. I'm asked by the teachers at the school where I work, by children I work with, by university students, by taxi drivers. Sometimes it's asked even before we've exchanged names. Random children ask me as I walk past on the street, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

It's a question I am rarely asked back at home in the United States. People either simply assume I am or don't care either way. It would likely be seen as a rude interrogation to ask someone their religion. Here it's commonplace.

"Yes, I am Jewish," I tell them.

If the person I am speaking to is a religious, the line of questioning isn't over.

"But are you dati (religious) or chiloni (non-religious)?"

This question isn't so easy for me to answer. I'm certainly not religious, but chiloni feels wrong too. When I was little I kept Shabbat - maybe not the way the orthodox do, but I didn't spend money or use computers. I grew up in a kosher household, separate dishes for meat and milk. I grew up with a strong sense of Jewish traditions, celebrated the holidays, went to synagogue most Saturdays and to friends for Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Now I don’t know where I fit in. I feel as out of place at a reform synagogue as I do at an orthodox one. I feel trapped by the lack of "options" for Judaism here. I've argued with many Israelis who say that there's more fluidity here, that it's better since you're not trapped in so many different boxes - reform, conservative, reconstructionist, renewal. But while I often fell through the cracks of the many options of Judaism in the states I feel alienated by the lack of options here.

Multiculturalism in Haifa.

In Israel, everyone has opinions on other’s identities that they are readily willing to share, unprompted. "You wear pants, so you're chilloni," "You're not Jewish, you're Englisi (English),” or, about my friend, "Well, then she's not Jewish since her mother isn't Jewish." Sometimes I wonder, why bother answering? Why bother asking the question if they’re not going to listen to my answer?

Religion isn't the only part of identity that confronts me daily. I spent a lot of time thinking about identity, especially in my first month of working with an English speaking group as part of Citizens Build Community. It's fascinating to Arab women about identity because of the myriad of ways they think about and phrase how they identify. Some say they are Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. Others start by saying they most identify simply as human. I wonder if some of the people I speak to have important parts of their identity that they edit out when they speak to me. I certainly edit mine.

I find the ways I state my identity change based on where I am. In Israel, when people ask about how I identify, my Judaism is somewhere near the beginning of the list I share. Back in the states it sometimes didn't even make it into the top ten.

In the places I spend time at home, the focus of a question about identity tends to be questioning not the religious identity of the person but rather their gender and sexuality. While I have become accustomed to the question of, “are you Jewish,” I miss hearing “what are your pronouns,” the standard second question after exchanging names at Mount Holyoke, my small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and at other such institutions. Asking for pronouns is a respectful way to ascertain someone's gender identity, and the way they would like to be viewed and addressed. Like with the Judaism question, it cuts directly to “who are you?” “Who do you affiliate yourself with?” Even failing to understand the question gives the questioner insight into your identity. Here, most people wouldn’t even understand the question.

The work I do within the communities of Lod often gives me access to many amazing opportunities, such as the English speaking group with Arab women where we candidly discuss intersectional issues for women within the Arab community and Israel as a whole. However, that doesn’t completely erase my yearning to be back at home in my liberal bubble. The number of times I have had a taxi driver start to sing the praises of the current American political regime after hearing I am American makes me want to get back on a plane and run back to my little campus, where Love is Love and No Human is Illegal. I wonder whether the parents of the children I teach would ask for my resignation if they saw the photos of me and my friends waving rainbow flags above our heads at the Gay Pride parade in DC last June. “Don’t tell people here you’re a liberal,” a few former volunteers cautioned, “they won’t take it well.”

My relationship to Israel has never felt easy. Some of my close family lives here, so I have always had an attachment to the place, whether I wanted to or not. I rarely, if ever, spoke about my connection to Israel while at college, Israel being synonymous in much of the liberal sphere with the words “Occupation,” “Human rights violations,” “Oppressors.” I, too, feel discomfort with much of the way Israel is run, possibly more so now after having spent four months living in Lod. During Yahel orientation, one of the students in Lod told us there had been an argument earlier this year in the student village when a few residents had hung up pride flags. It struck me as ironic that back at college it would have been acceptable to wear a pride flag as a cape, but there would have been harsh judgement for displaying the Israeli flag. Since coming to Israel, only in Tel Aviv have I seen the pride flag with a Jewish star - something that has been fought against by religious Jews and liberal organisers of Pride parades alike.

I try my best to fit in here. I speak Hebrew as best I can, my accent sometimes tricking people into thinking I am Israeli until my lack of grammatical knowledge or a word I don’t know gives me away. I wore skirts to my job at the religious school for the first few months, until one day I couldn’t do it anymore and wore pants. I showed up in pants, expecting a rebuke, or at least a few weird looks, but the teachers didn’t even seem to notice. Only the children commented, not in a judgemental way, simply stating that I was wearing pants. One girl even whispered into my ear, “Good for you, I wish I could do that.”

I try not to stick out, but I dyed my hair again, strands of pink and purple standing out from the brown. All of the girls at school said how pretty it looked, touching my hair. “When I’m big…” a few commented wistfully. Maybe it’s all in my head, that people are judging me, that people have such a huge stake in my identity.

My pink hair that students love to play with. Photo credit to Jacob Shapiro.

Some days I feel as though my identity is built of too many contradictions, or perhaps too much ambiguity. I note how it changes depending on where I am and who I am interacting with. I edit. I learn. Leiat leiat, slowly slowly, I figure out how to belong. But I am not sure if I will ever have an answer that feels truly satisfying to the question of, “chiloni or dati?”

Not really both. Not really neither.

Next question?

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