Most everyone who has met me in the last three years thinks I am Jewish.
I pontificate about Israel. I use a Hebrew accent when speaking Hebrew words and I pick up a knish on the street when I see them. I make jokes about “bageling” myself–when you say something that indicates you are Jewish amongst a group of people. I have an album of Golda Meir‘s speeches in my room.
But I was raised strictly Roman Catholic, within a swath of Northeastern Ohio that was strictly Catholic. I was baptized and confirmed and went to Jesus camp and Bible study. My cousins are training to become priests and missionaries.
So when I watched the Rachel Dolezal story unfold, I couldn’t help but feel empathetic: The lies aside, I understand where Rachel Dolezal is coming from, and so do many who work or live inside a culture that’s not naturally theirs.
After attending college in Ohio, I was hired to work at a historic Jewish women’s organization that has helped build the healthcare system in Israel, among so many other things. As a secular person, raised in the Catholic church, and as an opinionated person, I was skeptical and scared about whether or not I would like it, or if they would like me. I had no knowledge of Judaism, of Zionism, or of the deeply complex and oftentimes contradicting relationship between sex, religion, and politics that Hadassah embodies and gallantly balances.
Could I possibly work for a Jewish and Zionist organization without appropriating that culture and those beliefs myself? If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be very good at my job.
I took the job. My plan was to stay for a few months, and leave when I found something more suitable.
But I found myself growing to love the community I was at first skeptical of. When wars broke out in Israel, when bombs were dropped and rockets launched, for the first time in my life the people in my community didn’t roll their eyes and shrug it off as just another violent incident in the Middle East. Suddenly, the people over there were brothers, sisters, parents, children of my colleagues, and friends. Suddenly, the Middle East was close to home.
Because of this environment in which I was welcomed and grew to care about ardently, I appropriated the culture: I began to think deeply about the principles of tikkun olam. I began to reflect on and dislike the Catholic guilt and sinister philosophy of Hell, and I liked what Judaism offered in that school of thought. I began to confront casual anti-Semitism amongst strangers and friends. When rockets were launched at Israel, I worried about my friends and colleagues’ brothers, sisters, and children. When Israel held elections, I held my breath with hope for a peaceful democratic transition.
It’s possible–probably likely–that some might think these examples of why I feel so Jewish are shallow. I did not, and would not, lie blatantly about my identity to the extent that Rachel Dolezal apparently has, but dually I admit to not correcting those who have assumed I was Jewish. Imagine being at a conference or a parade, speaking fervently about the civil rights and the social issues you believe in. You’re finally finding a home, a purpose, and it would seem both a burden and a confusing tangent to have to explain how you came to the shared conclusion without the shared history. Thus far, it’s taken me close to 1,000 words to explain.
But. There have been times that my Jewish friends and colleagues who knew I was not Jewish were visibly displeased about it, like when I used the greeting “Shalom,” or when I correctly pronounced Chag Sameach. My language was interpreted as mocking–there is a thin line between laughing with and laughing at when it comes to cultural differences.
Just like Rachel Dolezal, acting like another culture was never meant to be a joke, however silly it is. It was just the opposite: I felt so in tune with it that I felt I was a part of it. And just like Rachel Dolezal, the ability to empathize with a culture which is not my own enabled me to be someone bigger than who I was, on my own. It enabled me to be an advocate for something bigger than what I was advocating for on my own. And isn’t it the ultimate goal of a movement and the confirmation of a just ideal, when someone who has no shared history or agenda can find truth and righteousness in it? Or is it enough to be an ally, but too much to be a partner?