Assimilation has been on my mind lately. Both Purim and Passover deal in this question. Each story has as its central figure a Jew who passed between worlds, sometimes emphasizing Jewishness, sometimes hiding it. In the Purim story, Esther passed in a non-Jewish world until the situation demanded her to reveal the truth about herself. Similarly, Moses, having been adopted by the Egyptian princess but raised Jewish by his own mother/nurse, grew up as Egyptian but knew he was a Jew. He stayed in this in-between space until he could no longer: when he saw the cruelty inflicted on his people by his almost-people, he lashed out, killed an Egyptian, and fled. It was nothing less than the voice of the Holy One that compelled Moses to return to Egypt and free his people.
I find it interesting that both these stories deal with the in-between space of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. I find myself often to be in this in-between space, frequently questioning whether I will ever feel wholly Jewish, even given how much I have changed about my life in these past years in order to more fully align myself with my Jewishness.
By virtue of having a pluralistic community around me, I have learned that there are many ways to be Jewish. The whole notion of Jewish identity is itself multi-faceted. In my own community, we have a dizzying variety of observance and belief, all of it informed by a desire to live a life of kindness and usefulness.
I look constantly for ways to have Judaism be at the center of what I do, rather than an ancillary aspect of my being that I squeeze in. It turns out to be a moving target. By virtue of working at a synagogue, I find myself torn between observing holidays and facilitating others’ observances. Being in a family comprising a variety of needs and temperaments, I cannot always (or even often) prioritize my own spiritual needs. Living in 21st century America, I constantly negotiate among a variety of identities: mother, wife, friend, professional, singer, Jew – and more.
I think there is beauty and richness in this tension of being in between, and sometimes it arises in unexpected places. I spent the first part of Passover in Mississippi with my family. Then we came home Wednesday evening, in time for Bill and me to return to work Thursday. By coincidence, I was invited to sub in at my old church job for Holy Thursday. I worked all day, picked up the kids from their respective play dates, came home to make a spinach matzo pie, and then went to Cantor a Mass. Of course.
The Vicar of this parish is a lovely guy, a real mensch. As he is a member of the interfaith clergy association that meets at my new place of employment, I am guaranteed of seeing him once a month, which I love. He is unfailingly kind and cheerful, and brings a refreshing humility to every encounter. I was deeply touched when he began Thursday’s Mass by saying to the congregation how pleased he was to welcome me back for Holy Thursday, a service which locates itself at an intersection between our two traditions. From the pulpit, he wished me a happy Passover and said how honored the parish was to have “an older sister in the faith” lead the music that night. I didn’t feel at home, but I did feel like a welcome guest.
I think of these questions of identity and fitting in – when to be this, when to be that – as a modern problem. But even my ill-educated glance at the ancient texts shows that Esther and Moses encountered it as well. As one of my Rabbi friends frequently says, “If it weren’t a problem, they wouldn’t have written about it.” We read in the Haggadah, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
And so are we all.