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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

WHat kind of Jew are you? Part Three of Three

The Psychoanalytic Society in New York City

What kind of Jew are you? Part Three

This is a continuation of two earlier blogs entitled “What kind of Jew are you?” They are reflections of a 6-year period of my life, spent in extra-ordinary company and circumstances. To truly understand Part Three, I ask that you read Parts One and Two first.

Please scroll down as needed. Thank you.

I would like to start, by trying to understand, what does our “Identity” do to us?

So much time is spent in our lives, attaching names to who we are; deciding and selecting from some list that our teachers, our parents, our neighborhood presents us with, as though it contains our only options; as though we are stamped at birth with a checklist of life options for which we are most suited. When we reach middle age, how does one reconcile what might have been or, as assured by our life advisors, what should have been; with what is?

Perhaps our grown-up “Identities” are some kind of created claim we make, to fulfill our needs. Do we seek to create ourselves based on the models we know; by eliminating what we know; or do we choose to become what we are in spite of what we know? I am as confounded by this, as the next person.

Perhaps we have a need to conform to a set of values that are attached to a particular identity. Perhaps we are always in a process of assimilating because we desire to belong, to wherever life takes us. Or is it our survival instinct that makes us sculpt a particular reflection of ourselves?

Group of Marxists

When asked, as we are throughout our lives, and most particularly as a child in a classroom – please tell us who you are in three words? What words did you use? Did the order of the words matter, were you told that they did, and have those three little words remained the same? Mine certainly have not. Mother has come first since 1995.

Many years ago, a friend who was born and raised in South Korea, told me a story about she and her mother. She first asked, if I knew how to tell if a native-born Korean had been born before 1964. I had absolutely no idea.

In Korea, she told me, in a celebration after a child was born; the mother was given a very special garment to wear, often passed on from one generation to the next. I would describe it as a two-sided apron with a bib top –-but it had a long ornately decorated flap in front and in the back.

Until your child could walk, the idea was for the mother to use the back flap of this garment like a papoose and tie the baby up in it, with the baby’s legs wrapped around the mother’s hips; and securing it by knotting the ends of the back flap over her breasts. Unfortunately, this tradition actually created many bowl-legged Koreans, until it was officially banned by the government in 1964.

Fast-forward 25 years and my friend is pregnant with her first child and living in New York City. What do you think her mother sent her from Korea?

She was apoplectic. Making light of it, I asked her if she was sure her mother wasn’t Jewish. She laughed and told me that one of the best selling books in South Korea for the past two years, was The Torah. I shook my head in disbelief. “Why?” I asked.

She told me that Jews fascinated South Koreans; they were intrigued that such a tiny group of people had and continue to have, such an amazing impact on the world stage. They believed The Torah must possess great wisdom.

So back in this space, in this brief moment in 1996 in a penthouse surrounded by this brightest galaxy of Jewish over-achievers, I had to consider my own identity. How was I truly a part of this most distinguished crowd? What was I doing here? How did being a Jew really matter or not?

Since that time in my life, I have read and reread Torah and have taken it upon myself to learn enough to try to answer with learned thought, with graceful words, and without hesitation, Frederic’s question, “What kind of Jew are you?”

But in the final analysis, as we all bid our farewells to the first decade of this glorious new millennium, I keep coming back to considering what kind of person I am. That is, for me, the critical question.

Whether we chose to follow one religion or another, I’m just not sure it makes a difference, if you’ve been asking yourself the right questions all along. If you have truly been examining your life. And if there is a God up there, somewhere in heaven, don’t you think he would not be so shallow as to offer, just one road to his carnival?

All photographs (C) Frederic Brenner

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