From the beginning, Jews have struggled to define ourselves within the societies we inhabit. Since the time of the Babylonian exile, we have carved out spaces in other peoples’ countries, walking the fine line between self-definition and belonging.
We have sacrificed much to belong. In becoming part of patriarchal societies, we lost knowledge of the sacred feminine goddess whose statues still stood in the Temple hundreds of years into its use. We lost countless songs and stories and figures of whose existence I will never know. We also lost members of our tribe, ancestors no one is descended from, in crusades, pogroms and massacres across Europe and elsewhere.
But still, we fought to belong. We, know that, above all else, community sustains us, so we infused our culture into traditions that keep us together and nourish us, like foods and songs. When we were exiled from one country, we found shelter in another. We did the jobs they allowed us to do, we lent money and became merchants and bankers. I was taught early that, in each generation, there are those who will oppose us, who will seek our demise. But, after each setback, we found a new place, we salvaged what we could and reinvented ourselves. This is what it is to be diasporic. We were silent about painful things as necessary, and we did what it takes to continue.
And now it is the year 2017. We live among Europeans and Americans, and everywhere in the world. The last genocide is still within living memory, my grandmother having witnessed Kristallnacht, her sister lost in the Holocaust. Now, my grandmother is hugely successful, she has the Order of Canada and never speaks German anymore. We are so adaptable.
They were persecuting us before the word genocide was even coined. Now, we almost sit at the table of whiteness. I have never walked on the street and been profiled for the way I look – any prejudice surfaces after I reveal my own identity. This is my privilege. We are meant to laugh at jokes about Jewishness, because they are not as potentially harmful as jokes about other races. They do not mask death tolls like jokes about our black or indigenous friends; Jews aren’t being murdered or incarcerated at the rates of other people. The jokes about Jews are about how supposedly wealthy we are, a thing we are expected to be proud of.
But still, we are afraid to be openly Jewish in many spaces, because we know we will be asked about Israel, held responsible for the actions of Israel, or at least asked if we have ever been to Israel. The word Jewish or a Magen David on a sign at a Pride march or other progressive gathering could well put us in danger, perceived by some as condoning colonialism or being Zionist, though displaying pride in our Jewishness in these instances has nothing to do with Israel. A minority, we are still tokenized, even by our progressive colleagues. Still proving we deserve to belong, we are used to comments like “you don’t even look Jewish.” What will we sacrifice in the search for belonging in a system that may never really accept us?
Our sages teach that our responsibility is to be a light in the world, that the world we were born into is fragmented and incomplete, and ours is the work of repairing it. I struggle with what this looks like. How can we seek to repair the world even while we ourselves are so broken? I feel very broken these days, astonished by the rise of public fascism in a world that needs healing in so many ways that call on me to help.
I remember, as a preteen, reading about neo-Nazi groups that existed in secret in Europe and being shaken to my core. Now they walk in our streets and our neighbours tell us it is rude to “fight hate with hate,” or they joke about “punching” the agitators, as if the heavy, daily history I carry in my body was as simple as a meme.
We are taught that, since all corners of our universe are fragmented, that means God is also that way. Perhaps then it is alright to be broken, to be incomplete but still trying. Our very name is our task – Yisrael, those who wrestle with God. Those who do even the hardest and most impossible work. Work that it is impossible to ever finish – no one can win against God. But we keep showing up, even as we struggle and break and repair ourselves.
Part of the task of my generation is healing the inheritance we received from elders who escaped the Holocaust or watched family perish, and parents who were raised by people with broken relationships to wealth, food and affection, among other things. We carry these legacies in our bodies and they manifest differently in each of us. For me, I see in my family the deep need to prove we deserved to be the ones to survive. I see the need for material success and productivity and external praise. I hold the grief in my body in moments when I don’t know where the small judgmental voice in my head is coming from, and I recognize the pain of my ancestors rising to the surface in me, now that it is safer to process it than it’s ever been before. My vow is that this healing will happen in my lifetime. It may not be completed, as we are taught that intergenerational trauma lives for generations, but I am not free to abandon the work. I will never tell my – or anyone else’s – daughter “you’ll do well with dating because you’re pretty for a Jewish girl,” as I was told.
Jews are supposed to question everything, our holy books are full of questions, discussions and interpretations. Let us use this training to continue to challenge the status quo. Perhaps being a broken vessel will help – perhaps if we were whole, we would not have such a capacity to hold fragments of others’ pain. Having lost so much and started over so many times in the last 2,000 years, can we not see that anything is possible? Can we not be the ones who discard systems that do not unify a fragmented world? We need to believe that anything is possible – there is nothing to lose in pursuing a world full of our own light, which reveals the light of others along the way.
Ariel Martz-Oberlander is a director, writer, teacher and community organizer seeking to find the personal in the global. As a Jewish settler on Coast Salish territories, her practice is rooted in a commitment to place-based accountability through decolonizing work.