The World’s Oldest…Question

by Irina Tsukerman (Brooklyn, NY)

…is “Who am I?” In my case, it means who am I as a Jew. Am I even a Jew? My ethnic identity and my religious identity should be one and the same, because all Jews, as a people, are supposed to follow certain religious prescriptions (many of which indeed sound like a bitter pill to swallow). But I don’t believe in much of it. For instance, I don’t think kashrut is justified. I’m an agnostic. Praying doesn’t do the trick for me. I don’t want to waste my Saturday afternoons in synagogue, which to me, is a good place for community interaction, but otherwise isn’t particularly useful. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t believe in abortions, welfare, affirmative action, community service, and pro bono work. What can I say? I’m a bad Jew…

Or at least I would be according to one view. The other view, secular nationalist one, seems to justify me completely. I espouse my history and background. I completely support Israel. I encourage the unity among the Jews, including one language, which should be Hebrew, not Yiddish or Ladino or anything else. Hebrew. I’m an ardent advocate of Israel’s right to exist… I long to rejoin the Jewish community, and hopefully one day will actively participate in a number of important Jewish networks and organizations. And I support the core tenets of “traditional” Jewish values, such as justice, defense of the helpless, and love of learning. (Though the phrase “People of the Book” has a slightly different connotation in my view). I hope to become the best that I can and make my people proud of me. Which makes me a good Jew…

But wait a second. Some of the more religious communities wouldn’t call me Jewish at all. I don’t even follow the basic of Jewish things. I eat pork, well, sometimes. I don’t really like pork. But I love rabbit and seafood and black caviar and chicken covered with cheese with dry plums. I am far from modest in my attire. I don’t mark the Holidays with the exception of Yom Kippur, which I mark only by fasting not prayers or restraint from work. I don’t have a Jewish name and I don’t want one. And though I want my children to have a Jewish education, I’m more concerned about their secular one and that they enjoy life, and are vivacious, aggressive, fun-loving, a bit crazy and to an extent, even disobedient and skeptical.

I want them to be everything I am and more. I want them to have an opportunity to go to the prom in school if they so wish. I didn’t, but only because I didn’t want to, not because I couldn’t. I don’t want them to wear long skirts all the time, but a variety of clothes that they like, as long as they don’t look like prostitutes. At the same time, I would love them to be as much interested in Jewish history, culture, and current life as I am, and I want them to be just as supportive of Israel. So who am I? Am I Jewish or not? Am I a bad Jew or a good Jew? Is an agnostic who supports Israel any better than an ultra-Orthodox who doesn’t? Is it so wrong to want to live to the fullest, and eat what I like, and do what I want with my life and free time, in the modern world?

Life is so short – why waste it on useless restrictions? Don’t get me wrong, if I were forced to follow the rules (such as if I married into an observant family), I’d be able to. I’m a good, disciplined girl. But is it worth it? Is any man and any family, no matter how much I love him, worth the sacrifice of my core belief, my very identity of living life to the fullest? Can I really change – not just my habits, but my very nature- for the sake of somebody else? Do I want to? I’ve read John Fowles’ masterpiece, Daniel Martin. There, a character, an energetic, spunky though very stubborn young woman, marries a guy who becomes a deeply observant Catholic. She adapts to his way of life, but in return, fades, and loses her sparkle. Is that what would happen to me if I were to embrace my traditions? Do I want that? I’m seriously questioning myself and my motivations. I have no right to make promises that I can but do not want to keep… including promises to myself.

And I have to make peace with myself and know who I really am. Otherwise, I don’t feel like I really belong anywhere. If anyone of my readers has ever experienced such a conflict, please help me understand what is happening to me. How do I deal with not knowing what I am in relation to my own nation? What do I owe to my ethnicity and my religion? One thing I know for sure: if I want to come to any satisfactory conclusion, I’ve got to be honest with myself, which I haven’t been previously. And if any observant Jew ever reads this, please do not judge me too harshly. I came from a world where Jewish tradition was suppressed, and for me it doesn’t make any sense half the time, rationalized or not. For me the costs of giving up the way of life that I enjoy seem greater than the dubious benefits of an observant lifestyle. Before condemning me as the heretic that I probably am, read Daniel Martin and try to see how similar I now feel to Jane. And read Hesse’s Steppenwolf – it’s kind of the opposite. There, a cultured but very withdrawn and dry individual, reaches out to embrace life with all its complexities and heterodoxies. Please do respond to this, whether you’re Jewish or not. What, to you, is your identity?

Maybe Jewish and maybe not,


Irina Tsukerman was born in Kharkov, Ukraine in 1985, and came to the United States in September 1995. She received an A.B. in International/Intercultural Studies from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2006, and graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 2009. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

You can read more of her work at her blog, The IgNoble Experiment where this piece first appeared in 2004. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Ukrainian Jewry

One response to “The World’s Oldest…Question

  1. Irina — What a free spirit you must have to so easily share your process of spiritual self-inquiry. You make it seem a normal part of life.

    Though not Jewish, I have adopted the Jewish faith slowly over many years through my support of numerous pro-Israel organizations. The jump from Catholicism to Judaism is not a graceful one in a family full of Italian Catholics.

    I found this out over the Thanksgiving holidays when I couldn’t help but enlighten them on how Jesus can not possibly be God. Shock and horror – they were not amused, but rather called me a blasphemer and I think family-wide divorce proceedings have commenced!

    Oh well — if we can’t be ourselves, nobody is going to do it for us!

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