I forgot to warn you about how Aliza’s hair may look in the morning… She convinced me that she usually has braids in her hair when going to sleep. I attempted ‘pig tail braids’ as per her request but that didn’t work out…nor did one braid. I can only braid challah. So I apologize in advance for my attempt to convince Aliza that two pigtails twisted into a pony is indeed a braid. I hope her hair isn’t a catastrophe in the morning.”
Last week I watched the children of a family friend. After leaving the house, I e-mailed the mother warning her about her child’s hair, since I had forgotten to shamelessly tell her such to her face. Apparently, my attempt at pretending that the child’s hair was challah in order to make a braid ended up giving the girl flowy waves for school the next day- mind you that her hair is usually pencil straight. It’s times like these when I truly reflect on my identity.
On occasion I fit into the stereotypical construct of a Jew and “tomboy”. Aside from the moments where I find myself picking up the dirtiest penny ever because, well, it’s a penny, I am usually closer to being considered a gay man than a “girly girl.” Many mock me for always announcing one identity over the other, but I find that my prioritization of identities highlights my true self, which partially has been created for me and I have created for myself. Granted my last name gives away that I am most likely of Jewish descent, I still accentuate my identity as a Jewish woman before any other aspect like my sexual orientation or religious and political beliefs.
I find it necessary to couple my gender with my main identity of being Jewish; after being ridiculed many times for looking too androgynous (seriously? me?!) and my entire Jewish education being a bit chauvinistic, gender has come to play almost as big of a role as my ethnic and religious identity. When fellow peers tell me that I’m intimidating, my initial [mental] response is “well, I’m a Jewish woman…and it runs in my family (thank you, Grandpa!).” Sexual orientation is more or less a social construct and while ethnic background may be considered such as well, I find it more relevant to a person’s makeup. Who you’re attracted to doesn’t mean as much as anything else; it’s more so about the relationship between you and someone else, and your identity should reflect more about you.
Focusing on my Jewish identity allows me, like other religious/ethnic identities, to take hold of the past. Denying my Jewish identity would be denying what has happened to my immediate family and how we came about as a generation. Although the argument can be made for sexual orientation as well, I do not find myself attached to all people who share my sexual identity; all straight people cannot feel connected to one another. Sexual orientation is just a minor identity while my being Jewish is more “macro.” Furthermore, sexual orientation does not involve much tradition and being Jewish is all about tradition. Sexuality, whether you are straight, queer, bisexual, or transgendered does not involve an adequate amount of tradition and culture when compared to ethnicity and religion.
LGBTQQIA people do not have certain “traditional” dishes on specified days or celebrations, though they may have alcoholic drinks that are deemed “gay” in bars. There may be rituals within the LGBTQQIA community but they are not shared or known to all within the community because of the constant change and making of history; Judaism has not added new rituals, for the most part, so nearly all rituals are known to most Jews within the community.
Additionally, for example, the flag used for the LGBTQQIA community is usually a rainbow but who said all of the members of that community like rainbows or understand why in the Lord’s name a rainbow is usually used to symbolize the community? Moreover, it must be noted that those in the LGBTQQIA community are quite diverse because they are everyone not considered heterosexual therefore making singular traditions and rituals within the community hard to find and agree upon.
On the other hand, the Jewish symbol and even the Israeli flag has a Jewish star- it’s our sign. It’s what many of our ancestors and families wore in the Holocaust- my family members were forced to wear Jewish yellow felt stars on their sleeves, announcing their identity, and later on we still wear Jewish stars but we took this symbolic representation back for ourselves. The LGBTQQIA community were not forced to wear rainbows while being scapegoated and then took that symbol back as theirs.
Announcing my religious/ethnic identity allows me to expand upon one of my identities: I’m not just Jewish, I’m an Ashkenazi Jew (Eastern European). This then usually stereotypes me as always being on time, but usually early, using everything with potatoes and paprika, and that I’m usually on the paler side (unfortunately, I did not inherit my Grandmother’s olive tone), which isn’t so far from the truth. Identities can sometimes be worn on one’s sleeve but by identities being so general in nature it allows for expansion and room for other identities to compliment each other.
Looking back at my last two years of Rutgers, I can finally grasp how people identify themselves. It’s not about what you’re necessarily born with but what you attach to most. When asked, many students would identify themselves as “gay” before announcing their ethnicity or religious background; this may be due to feeling more comfortable and/or accepted with this one identity or lack of open-mindedness that they possess other identities. Others would emphasize their age before telling me other relevant demographics. A majority of students assume I know aspects of who and what they are, skipping what they considered obvious like gender. Regardless, identity is a social construct and so we should take advantage of the construct we make use of and enable.
When I am asked “what are you?” it’s not a recorded slew of terms that I spew to each person; it’s a concise arrangement of terms that have been organized and prioritized for good reason. The distinction between “who” and “what” is that “who” requires a definition of focus on the demographics and details of who one is. “What,” on the other hand, focuses on personal experiences and history that make up a personal identity while taking into account current identities that a person labels themselves with. Next time someone asks “what are you?” give some thought before answering.
Photo courtesy of forward.com