The Jewish Chameleon

jewishchameleon

It was not until the year after I graduated college that the majority of my friends were Jews.

by Chanel Dubofsky
When we are eight years old, D and I swim in the pool at her grandfather’s retirement community in suburban Massachusetts. I paddle in the shallow end, trying to get over my ever-enduring fear of water. She says, “Of course you’re my best friend.” I am delighted by this statement, although I’m not entirely sure what I’ve done to deserve it.

D was my first Jewish friend. We met through our parents, who knew each other from work, and from Hebrew school, where I went for a very short time. We went to high school together and have recently been reunited via the formidable force known as Facebook. I remember her house—the carpeted stairs, the television, large and full of channels, how everything felt clean and lush and safe. It was a sort of safety I associated with wealth, something I saw in all the houses of my high school friends, who lived in the well-appointed suburb where I went to high school.

I was sent to high school in this town because it was better academically, but also, so I would meet Jews. I suspect the moment my mother began to feel particularly urgent about this came when a girl in our neighborhood (racially and economically diverse) informed me that I wouldn’t go to heaven because I didn’t believe in Jesus. When I told my mother, she explained to me that this was not the case, but still, I lacked a Jewish peer group to protect and validate me.

Even with this move, throughout high school, I really had only two Jewish friends, D included. While D’s family went to synagogue and celebrated holidays, J, the other, only marginally identified as Jewish. I went to a few Jewish youth group events before I realized that the cliques had already been formed and that it was unlikely that I would make friends there. When I graduated, the majority of my friends were still not Jewish, although it had been years since anyone told me I was going to hell.

In the car on the way to move-in day at college, I worried. The university I was about to begin was huge. How would I ever find anyone like me, obsessed with folk music and poetry and feminist politics? (Yes, I did think this all made me very unique.) I didn’t care if these people were Jews, as long as they existed. They did, of course, and for the most part, they weren’t Jews. I went to Hillel, but I saw it as more of a place to work out an identity than somewhere to find friends. Even after the Jewish community became a spiritual center upon the death of my mother during my sophomore year, I still remained, in retrospect, on the social periphery. It was too hard to get out of bed, let alone forge new relationships when I was clinging madly to the existing ones, depending on them to carry me through.

It was not until the year after I graduated college that the majority of my friends were Jews. The prospect of being without a Jewish community at the end of my undergraduate life was terrifying, and so I literally found a fellowship, in Boston, made up of progressive Jews learning about political and community organizing and building pluralistic Jewish community. I tell people that the decision I made to immerse in this particular science experiment is the reason I am who I am now, and it’s not an exaggeration. Observances have come and gone since then, over and over, and the result of my working in Jewish organizations has meant becoming a Jewish chameleon of sorts, testing out various religious identities, deciding what to keep and what to reject. I couldn’t be told I needed Jewish friends; it had to be something I arrived at on my own, in the right time, and the time came as I began to evolve into my political identity. In Boston, I was surrounded and constantly challenged by Jewish feminist, anti-racist activists, people committed to justice and struggle, and on this sense of shared values, I began to build community.

These days, almost all my friends are Jewish. I’m torn about this; what does it mean to work against racism and have a social group that consists exclusively of white Jews? As my Jewish self moves steadily away from observance (my connection remains professionally and through the lens of social justice), I continue to believe in the power and endurance of my relationships to evolve with me, sustain me, and help me become a better version of all my selves than I can even imagine.

About the Author

Chanel DubofskyChanel Dubofsky
Chanel Dubofsky writes for the Sisterhood, Jewschool, The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and the Pursue blog. You can read about her adventures in feminism and other audacious notions at Diverge (www.idiverge.wordpress.com). She lives in New York City.

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