By Jason Brisson
My mother was born Roman-Catholic. At the age of 32, she left the Church and made a formal conversion to Judaism in San Francisco. Before the time of my birth, she regularly attended synagogue and observed Jewish norms.
But when the doctor asked her if I should be circumcised, she refused. Circumcision within the Jewish tradition is the baby’s first covenant with God. However, my mother reasoned that
it was unethical to make an elective surgical decision without my consent. She felt that forcing religion on me would be counterintuitive —I would have to find my own way to faith.
And so I grew up celebrating both Christian and Jewish holidays, but taking part spiritually in neither. I admired my friends’ decisions to have Confirmations and Bar-Mitzvahs, but I could never so concretely determine my own religious convictions. There was a kernel of belief missing for me, something that always precluded my membership as a Jew in my own eyes. I began to consider how something is often defined by its use. Likewise, the politics of identity are a function of one’s behavior. Our actions ossify a sense of self.
Recently, a friend and I were discussing the blurred line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. My own relationship to Judaism came to mind. Who or what defines my identity as a Jew? It is not the Israeli State. It is not the skin on my penis. And it is not my mother’s blood that runs through my veins, despite her Jewish identity. This line of thought is fresh in my mind as I struggle with notions of authenticity regarding my own Jewishness.
To engage genuinely, knowledge and respect are necessary. One cannot make fair use of others’ cultural capital without a rich understanding of their ancestry; one must possess a willingness to engage with it as though it were his or her own heritage. Internalizing culture cements belonging.
And today, now, more than ever, I am drawn to Judaism like a moth to a flame. In my free time, I endeavor to learn Hebrew in order to study the Torah. I dream of Israel—a homeland to which I’ve never been, a community I fear I will never truly be a part of. And in many ways, my Jewish identity may be rooted in my uncertainty. For as of yet, that is all I have.
If doubt is the shadow of faith, then surely if I move deeper into it, I may find myself closer to the light of the flame I seek.
However, I am scared of the possibility that I will never find that light. I fear that forever my convictions will be ingenuine, and my yarmulke never more than a mask. But maybe through the process of exploration, I will find the answers I am looking for. Identity is fluid and ever-changing— our membership within a group is not defined by a single doctrine or practice, but by thoughtful understanding of and participation within the community.