Tenth grade changed everything for me. Not only had I matured to understand that holy ideas can be good, even if in practice they are misapplied by their human believers, but I was also shocked to learn that I wasn’t anti-religious. I find it no strange coincidence that my introduction to social justice coincided with my true introduction to Judaism. While I had read the American Girl series about the World War II era; Anne Frank’s diary; Number the Stars; and Make a Wish Molly! as a child, I was ignorant of Jews and Judaism beyond a basic understanding of what transpired during the Holocaust.
Tenth grade world history included the Second World War and naturally, the Shoah. My social studies instructor brought Holocaust survivors through the Facing History and Ourselves program and the books Night and The Sunflower into my life. My burgeoning adult intellect came to see Judaism as a powerful tool of resistance to the evils of the world. Fighting for peace and existence is what defines us as Jews; it encourages us and ennobles us. I learned this from Jacques, a Hidden Child from Brussels, who spoke at my school; the residents of the Warsaw ghetto, courageous enough to uprise; and the Bielski brothers, who were brave enough to fight. In the midst of one of humanity’s greatest horrors, Jews fought to protect their responsibility to bring peace to the world. It is one of the biggest demonstrations to me that we are a covenantal people, with a dogged and chronic permanence, and a unique ability to transmute pain and horror into life-affirming substance. We suffered, we survived, and we built out of these ashes one of the most successful countries in the world.
The Holocaust remains one of the central points of Diaspora Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. I grapple with my connection to this atrocity every time the topic comes up. I remain uncomfortable claiming this history as mine, despite my impending conversion that would have been enough for the Third Reich to condemn me to the camps. The Shoah is, for me, a matter of history, not personal memory. I do not seek to distance myself from the possibility of a repeat experience in the course of history; I lodge my destiny with this people, and the destiny of my children and my children’s children. I distance myself only because it feels emotionally dishonest to claim this as my own when my family did not fear for its life, flee its homes, or wear its identity on its sleeve.
Yet it was the lessons of the Holocaust that led me to my library to understand better who the Jews were and what Judaism was like. I read book after book, and each resonated with me more and more. I discovered that I wasn’t non-religious—I was just not a Christian like most of my family. I was self-conscious like any other teen and hid this new facet of my identity from my family and friends. While the clues were prominent enough to put together if they wanted, I never voiced to my family members that I would one day enter the mikvah. I was only sixteen at the time—I was afraid they would reject me or accuse me of being in one of many adolescent phases, this one particularly hypocritical due to my previously vocal distaste for religion.
But I knew that my name would one day be included among the names of the people Israel, and nothing can extinguish that light of identity. Ten years later, I will finally go before a beit din and make official my affinity, my membership, and my obligation to this people, my people. It is not a common choice in this increasingly secular world: some seventy years after Hitler’s regime, the choice to abandon Judaism has no consequences in our modern American society. But to claim this heritage as your own, with pride and confidence, regardless of consequences, is the litmus test of one’s faith. Ani yehudi. I find new ways and new reasons to say that each and every day.