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why be jewish

Being Jewish Is How I Remember Who I Am

chuppah

This article is part of our essay series, “Why Be Jewish?,” based off of “Why Be Jewish?”—a new book by the late Edgar M. Bronfman.

I am Rachel, named in memory of my great-grandmother Rose. I look like my grandmother Harriet. My father’s last name was once spelled differently and might have been French. I am the fourth generation in my family to be born in New York. I am Jewish. My ancestry has seeped into every crevice of my life, into the thousands of little moments that made me.

*

Morah (Teacher) Devorah explained the Passover story to me and 15 other kindergarteners. She told us it happened a long time ago, and encouraged us to think back to the farthest point in history we could imagine. I went home and asked my mother if she had been a slave in Egypt when she was a little girl.

*

I shredded the Hanukkah wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a Star of David. It was yellow gold, and the laser cuts made it sparkle. It was beautiful. My mother gave me a chain. It would take me three years to scrape together the courage to wear it to school.

*

I forgot my book. I raised my hand and asked permission to go to my locker. My fingers had barely touched the dial when I saw it: a swastika, carefully drawn with black Sharpie. I went back to class and told my boyfriend that I didn’t know what to do.

“You need to report this,” he told me. I hesitated, and he saw it. He squeezed my hand. “Come on. I’ll go with you.”

*

“I’m going home for Rosh Hashanah,” I told my new friend M, who I met on the first day of college. “That’s the Jewish New Year—”

She rolled her eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she was amused and annoyed. “I know what Rosh Hashanah is,” she informed me. “It’s not like you’re my first Jewish friend.”

I blinked at her. It was the first time, possibly ever, that I didn’t have to explain.

*

I signed in to the rehab center and was given a special visitor badge. I made my way down the hall. P called to me, peering out from her room. I hugged her. I sat on a chair and tried to pretend it was a typical visit and my friend wasn’t dying.

“How are you related?” asked a nurse, busily taking P’s vitals.

“We’re friends from work,” I said. We were more than that. P was my mentor, too. She taught me everything I knew about counseling teenagers.

The nurse glanced at each of us again, puzzled. “You look alike.”

I realized what the nurse saw when she looked at us: a pair of women who barely hit 5 feet tall and had matching hazel eyes. My curly hair was similar to what my friend’s had been before chemo stole it away.

“It’s a Jewish thing,” said P, with a grin.

*

The contraction was blinding.

“A few more pushes, and she’ll be here!” chirped the nurse. “Hope you’ve got a name picked out!”

My husband and I had been deciding between two of them, but he knew my preference. He mentioned the name I wanted to give our daughter.

The student midwife looked up at him, then at me. “You’re Jewish!” She grinned at us as we nodded. “Me too.” The smile remained, and she gentled her hold on my leg as I pushed my baby out.

*

My daughters were watching our wedding video, and the ceremony had their undivided attention. They both liked my gown and the processional music. They thought Daddy looked handsome in his tuxedo. “Pretty flowers!” said my oldest, pointing.

“That’s called a ‘chuppah,’” I told her. “Jewish people are married under a canopy.”

She smiled at the archway of calla lilies and roses. “Will I get married under a chuppah someday?”

I ran my hand over her soft brown hair. “I hope you do.”

*

Being Jewish wasn’t something I actively sought out, or ever really fought for. It simply was. It was just another trait I inherited from my parents, and their parents, and theirs. It was passed down to me, along with my slightly crooked middle fingers and the freckles on my nose. And, like my freckles, being Jewish was something that I learned to embrace over time. I hold onto the beauty in our traditions, our contradictions, and our history. I have two daughters, and I will pass it on to them.

My daughters are the most recent additions to a long line of women. Being Jewish is how I remember the people that came before us. Because I am Jewish, I am Rachel, named for my great-grandmother, Rose. Being Jewish is how I remember who I am.


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