Feeling Jewish Enough Has Been a Struggle for Me
Lauren Mizock's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 18, 2016
Lauren Mizock is a member of the Doctoral Faculty in the Clinical Psychology PhD Program at Fielding Graduate University, and also has a private practice as a clinical psychologist. Her areas of specialization include multicultural competence in research and clinical work, transgender mental health care, size acceptance, and culturally relevant pedagogy. She lives with her husband in San Francisco.
A central theme of my experience of Judaism has been feeling like I was never Jewish enough. My mother is Methodist. I didn't go to Hebrew school as a child. I married an agnostic man raised Catholic. At least a Jewish friend reassured me about this. He said, “Your husband is a doctor? You really are Jewish!” But I didn’t want my future children to feel the same inadequacy I felt without the matrilineal bloodline. So I decided to affirm my Judaism with our adult b’nei mitzvah group before starting a family.
In learning the stories of the members of our adult bar and bat mitvzah group and others, I have been blown away by how oppression and internalized anti-Semitism distance Jews from Judaism. I learned of one family of Holocaust survivors who tried to protect their children from prejudice by dissociating from the religion. I learned of how Christianity overpowered Jewish roots in other families. I heard from women who were discouraged from studying the Torah. I knew parents with assimilation anxiety who forced their children into years of Hebrew school, and the children came to detest the religion. Since oppression is something that I research as a clinical psychologist, I wanted to learn more about how internalized anti-Semitism alienates Jews from the religion and each other.
What I learned is that internalized anti-Semitism has been a key issue for some time, and so has had many names: Jew Flu, Jewish inferiority complex, Jewish self-hatred, auto-anti-Semitism, the Jewish anti-Jewish complex, Jewish self-contempt. Even terms related to internalized anti-Semitism have been controversial, critiqued for reinforcing stereotypes of Jews as neurotic, or an angry label assigned to Jews who empathize with Palestinians’ points of view. One Jewish activist famously spoke to this issue, saying, "It is easier to take a Jew out of exile than to take exile out of the Jew."
Jews have accused each other of internalized anti-Semitism throughout their long history of persecution. For example, Orthodox and Reform Jews questioned one another’s approach to Judaism since the mid-19th century, and accused each other of Jewish self-hatred. But the notion of internalized anti-Semitism didn’t come more into awareness until the 1940s during WWII and with the increase in psychological consciousness in public life.
A number of psychological theories were developed to explain the causes of internalized anti-Semitism. One was Stockholm syndrome -- identifying with one’s oppressor as a way to cope with oppression. Another was that Jewish anti-Semitism was a defense against self-hatred, pre-empting the oppression of others by directing hatred inward first. Parallels were also drawn between Jews and abused children who gain a sense of control over their trauma through self-blame, coming to see themselves as bad.
I told one of my Jewish friends that feeling Jewish enough has always been a struggle for me. He answered, “That’s what being Jewish is all about –- never feeling Jewish enough!” I identified with the poet Adrienne Rich’s writing in this area, who is also half-Christian, half-Jewish. She named this experience as “split at the root” –- bearing multiple identities, ever divided. What she wrote was that it was not uncommon for Jews to feel “too Jewish” for the dominant culture, but “not Jewish enough” for other Jews. This not being Jewish enough feeling might result from internalized anti-Semitism.
A similar consequence of anti-Semitism may be a Jewish tendency to monitor who is Jewish –- what has been called, “Jewhoo-ing.” People look for members of the clan who might protect them in the event of persecution. Jewhoo-ing may be a way of seeking safety, of figuring out who has your back. Books of the early 20th century, like the American Jewish Yearbook and the Jewish Encyclopedia, actually tracked and out-ed Jewish celebrities and scientists.
A more contemporary example of Jewhoo-ing is comedian Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song. He famously lists a number of celebrity Jews, with lyrics like, “Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too. Put them together, what a fine lookin' Jew.” An unfortunate tendency that can come with Jewhoo-ing is the scrutiny of the authenticity of other Jews and questions as to the seriousness of their religious practice. So Jewhoo-ing may be another product of internalized anti-Semitism.
If internalized anti-Semitism causes ingroup elitism, this may explain some of the bias against converts. While many religions embrace converts as a way of boosting membership, there is sometimes a suspicion of converts in Judaism. This may be grounded in history. In ancient Rome, converting to Judaism became so popular that Jews were exiled from the city. Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and conversion to Judaism became illegal within a few hundred years. Jews became afraid that new converts could be alleged Roman spies attempting to uncover Jewish plans for rebellion.
This history continued into the Middle Ages, when Jews were forbidden from proselytizing, and tens of thousands of people -- including Christian clergymen -- still converted under grave danger. This practice was deemed “apostasy,” a form of heresy rising to the level of a capital crime. All the Jews from one city in Germany were expelled when a Christian priest’s conversion to Judaism was discovered. Some converts were even put to the stake. Rabbis began to forbid conversion to prevent violence and outrage. Based on this history, I would argue that anti-conversion sentiment may have resulted from anti-Semitism, and reflect another process of internalized oppression.
Today, many fear converting to Judaism because of questions of their authenticity. There has been a tradition where rabbis reject a convert three times before accepting them. Rabbis publish blogs about how converts can deal with antagonism from those who were born Jewish, and encourage their recognition as part of the tribe. One rabbi suggested that this cold shoulder might reflect compensation for one's own feelings of inadequacy as a Jew, or confusion as to why others would want to take on a Jewish identity and experience anti-Semitism. An Orthodox friend told me he even feels enmity between Jews is a central concern of the religion today.
However, acceptance of all Jews has been Jewish Talmudic law for several millennia. The Midrash teaches that, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands.” In fact, a defining aspect of Judaism is the notion of “the chosen people.” While this concept risks arrogance, Rabbi Bridget has taught us that a meaningful interpretation of this idea is that Jews are chosen for a mission of social justice. This mission might be the antidote to internalized anti-Semitism and inter-Jewish tensions.
Even as I become a bat mitzvah, I continue to fret about being Jewish enough. I worry, “Did I learn enough? Did I do the process ‘correctly’? Will other Jews now consider me Jewish enough? Will other Jews think my children are Jewish enough?” Some people tell me, “But you were always Jewish.”
Again, all this worry may stem from internalized oppression. Oppression interferes with our sense of spirituality and disrupts the connections between us. On the other hand, a sense of spiritual connection can help us overcome oppression and the internalization of its effects. In closing, I invite you to join us today during our service to set a kavannah or intention to rise up against oppression and engage in a mission of social justice.
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 Leviticus Rabbah 2:9