By: Aaron Stevens
My name is Aaron Stevens, and I am Jewish. My last name doesn’t end in ‘stein’, ‘witz’, or ‘berg’. I also have a plethora of Anglo-Saxon features.
“Oh, really? Well you don’t look Jewish!” This is the exact response I always wait to hear, with bated breath and clenched fists. Do I need a hooked nose, beady eyes, and large curls coming down from my side burns? Or maybe everyone still expects to see a yellow star on my lapel so they REALLY know what I am. Those are the misconceptions of physical identity I have fought with.
People are constantly trying to define everything in their world, even themselves. So am I.
Despite being known as a country of diversity, mainstream America can’t seem to include Judaism within it’s larger identity. How can I? For example, the only Jewish holiday America recognizes is Hanukah, the one falls near Christmas. Mind you, this is one of the lesser holidays. I would finally find my answer in a room full of seven year-old children on Sunday mornings.
A Jew with an identity crisis teaching Hebrew School – talk about misconceptions. Take me, a college age male teaching little children on Sunday morning. I’d have to be either a religious nut or eying the curvy graduate student who teaches the middle-sdchool-aged students (though that was a bonus to my employment at the time). To be honest, it was an accessible job 90 seconds from my house that paid above minimum wage. The thought of personal enrichment never occurred to me.
I gradually began to associate with my students. I recalled being their age. I remembered getting up early, sitting in a class full of other kids who did not want to be there, and who were all too willing to let the rest of the class know. I could commiserate with some of their sentiments.
I wanted them to have fun. I began to look for interesting stories from the Bible, and enjoyable ways to celebrate holidays. Soon the question resurfaced: How to define yourself as a Jew in America? I realized this question was never answered for me while in Hebrew School. I set out to provide an answer for my students. I started reading articles online, learning about famous Jewish scholars, and ways to incorporate Judaism into one’s life. Some of the traditions and practices I brought up didn’t go over so well, especially not using electricity on Saturdays during the Sabbath. A difficult leap of faith in our digital age.
I looked up the meaning of Judaism, which wasn’t a simple task. As I scoured resource after resource, I found none of them could agree on any particulars. Some concepts were of a practical application, others were more strict. It was all very vague. So I decided on an unorthodox tactic. I’d let the students decide what Judaism was for them. I wasn’t sure how well this would work, but why not give it a shot?
As we discussed this in class they all came up with different responses. Family, One G-d, The Sabbath, and charity were just some of the ideas raised. Suddenly light bulbs went up above each of their heads, and they all started agreeing with each others’ answers. Once the discussion wound down they all decided Judaism was all the concepts discussed. However, some concepts meant more to some than others. But they found what it meant to each of them to be Jewish. Not once had appearance, geography or apparel came up, attributes most of the world perceives as Jewish.
When I came home from teaching Hebrew School I realized eight 1st graders had answered a question I hadn’t been able to figure out for 10 years. It struck me: Judaism can’t be summed up by a singular concept. And certainly not by misconceptions that were so diligently thrust upon me.
Within an epiphany, I found my Jewish identity. We mustn’t let society dictate through it’s eyes who each of us are or should be. We need to decide for ourselves who each of us are in order to make this world what we want it to be. This is now one of the many core values of my Jewish identity. Making the world a better place, one person at a time. Just what my students did for me.