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I Know I'm Jewish

By Stephanie Kaplan

I know I'm Jewish.

It's February of any given year as I step into the air-conditioned lobby of my grandma's building in Miami, Florida. She is in the lobby waiting for us because she's been watching the closed-circuit television channel that shows the action at the building's front desk. We step into the elevator and it ascends to her unit on the 16th floor, where my brother and I race down the hallway to get to her room. Once inside, my grandma insists that my family stay seated at the dining room table as she brings out plate after plate of food. Eggs and onions, matzoh ball soup, tomato salad, kugel, couscous – it is all there, every year, in quantities that far exceed what my family could ever hope to eat in a week.

I know I'm Jewish.

"Oh my God, Mommy, that's Rachel over there!," I whisper.

"Hi Rachel!," I exclaim with a smile as she approaches.

"Hi Stephanie! What are you doing here?"

The four of us – Rachel, her mom, my mom, and I – stand around one of the gleaming counters in the Tiffany's store.

"Oh, just doing some returns and exchanges from my Bat Mitzvah gifts," I reply, realizing the conversation has already taken a turn for the worse.

"Isn't that the necklace I got you?" she asks.

"Yeah, I… um… got two of them actually," I lie, my gaze shifty.

The sales associate who knows the truth stands smiling silently at the counter, witnessing a scene she has seen all too many times before.

I know I'm Jewish.

It's Yom Kippur as my family sits in our car on the way home from Temple. There is the usual Jewish Holiday Tension between my parents, as my mom scolds my dad for not caring more about the holiday. My dad has made the usual great-cure-for-insomnia jokes that even my mom can't help but laugh at, and my brother and I have spent the previous hours hanging out with our friends in the Temple's lobby. My mom laments the fact that our family never got more involved in our synagogue. We go home, change into comfortable clothes, and eat whatever remains of the previous week's Rosh Hashanah leftovers.

I know I'm Jewish.

It's senior year of high school as I sit in class thinking about my non-Jewish boyfriend. What if we got married?, I think. I realize that my name would then be Stephanie Sullivan and I'm horrified. I think about meeting people and introducing myself to them, and them assuming I must be non-Jewish, and Irish. My mind flashes to if we ever had kids. I see another Jewish mom learning that her child has a play date with my child, and looking us up in the class directory to see whether it's a Jewish family, and instead seeing the name "Sullivan". The thought eats away at me.

I know I'm Jewish.

It's cold and snowy outside and I come home after school to music blasting from the family room. My mom has decided it is time to break out the Hanukkah cassette for the year, and children's Hanukkah songs bounce off the walls and swirl through the rooms of my house. I smell the oil from the homemade latkes my mom is cooking, and I know to walk to the dining room to see the table brimming with decorations and full of presents. Invariably at least one of our two cats is sitting amidst the gifts, rifling through the tissue paper. My brother is lining up the Hanukkah candles he plans to use throughout the week, using the generic ones for the beginning days and saving the fancy candles that fade from dark blue to light blue for the last days.

I know I'm Jewish.

I stare at the television as my grandma stares back at me from the screen in a home video. Her raspy, thickly-accented voice resonates from the speakers as I see her arthritic hands trembling. She tells the story of her courageous escape from Vienna during the Holocaust. She details her passage, from crouching in the trunk of a car to posing as a German soldier's wife, in order to reach America with her parents. I bring the video into my fifth grade Social Studies class during our unit on the Holocaust so my class can watch it.

I know I'm Jewish.

I've thought critically about my religious beliefs and whether I have any. Is there a God? I wonder. I don't know. I'm not sure whether there is a God. There might be, there might not be. We just don't know, and have no way to say for certain one way or the other is what I think. I've heard from some people that this belief makes me an Agnostic, and I say ok.

I know I'm Jewish.

It's February again and we're visiting my other grandma in Boca. She plays golf and eats lunch at the Club and donates to all of the major Jewish organizations. She and her girlfriends brag about where their older grandchildren got into college and compare photos of their younger grandchildren. On her coffee table sits a holiday card from President Clinton, with his photo-copied signature sprawled across the card's inside. We enjoy bagels with lox and whitefish salad and admire the Judaica art that adorns her walls.

I know I'm Jewish.

I decide to write my Junior Thesis on Jewish liberalism in America in the 20th century. I research the topic exhaustively, reading about how Jewish identity in the 20th century has shifted from a focus on religion to a focus on charity and communitarian values that the Democratic Party seems to embody. One noted writer, Arthur Hertzberg, goes so far as to denounce Jews who are not loyal to the Democratic Party as not being Jewish. I read time and time again that today's Judaism means having a social conscience and being politically liberal. I read all this knowing that I, on the other hand, am much more of a political conservative.

I know I'm Jewish.

I sometimes observe Passover, I sometimes don't. Sometimes I see it as a challenge – something to tackle and overcome – and that motivates me to try it. Sometimes I view it as a sort of diet, seeing it as a way to observe my religion while maybe getting the added benefit of losing a few pounds. Whether to observe it is a decision I make year-to-year. If I feel like observing it, I observe it; if not, I don't.

I know I'm Jewish.

It's the summer before my junior year of high school as I sit in my uniform warm-up suit in a huge stadium. I'm playing tennis for team Boston-Haifa in the Maccabi Games, a youth version of the Maccabiah games, which is a sort of Jewish Olympics. It's the Opening Ceremony of the Games and the stadium is packed, every seat full. People from all around the United States and all around the world occupy the seats – people from Brazil, Australia, England. As I look around and marvel at the size of the crowd, I suddenly realize something – not only are these people from all around the world, these are Jews from all around the world. Surveying the crowd again, I am suddenly struck by the fact that every single person sitting in that stadium is Jewish, and something about it feels amazing.

I know I'm Jewish.

I don't observe Shabbat and I don't fast on Yom Kippur. But none of this has ever led me to question whether I am Jewish. I might be a conservative in an age when liberalism is often equated with Judaism, and I might have non-Jewish boyfriends. But I could never live my life as Stephanie Sullivan; I could never go a December without the festive Hanukkah music and food. Whether my Jewishness is religious or cultural, or sometimes neither, for whatever reason Judaism has become an undeniable component of my personal identity that I cannot imagine life without.

I know I'm Jewish.

~~~~~~~

from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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