During a break at one of our Intro to Judaism classes, my husband slid a brochure my way. My eyes scanned the title, “PNW Sisterhood Retreat.” Me? I thought. My husband must have read the expression on my face. He told me he thought it would be fun for me and a good way of meeting other Jewish women. “Besides, why not go?”
I wondered if the women would except me. Maybe I could “pass” like my black grandfather used to tell me I should do if the U.S. ever returned to an overt rampant racist state with separate spaces for people of color. At 13, he’d told me I should pretend to be white if I could benefit or feel safer from the lie. I bristled at the thought of denying half of myself. Being biracial was who I was and I would never let the government coerce me into denying my family. I imagine these strong reminders of identity during my youth is why I feel so compelled to explore my new Jewish heritage.
Some people have suggested I continue to tell people I am biracial because this is who I was raised to be, but I don’t want to feel like a fake. Since I know I have zero African DNA, it would feel like lying and I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of being a “Rachel Dolezal.” She felt black and yet was attacked for “pretending” to be something she wasn’t. I also wasn’t sure if I should claim I am Jewish. I have 50% Ashkenazi Jewish DNA, but as I’ve mentioned before, who’s a Jew is a complicated question. I didn’t want my Jewish peers to denounce me for holding myself out to be something I wasn’t.
I decided I would try and blend in but would tell my story if anyone asked. I still had trouble saying the words out loud to strangers that Sam Rubinstein was my father because my new reality still felt foreign. It was these types of experiences (going to camp, Jewish cooking class, attending Shabbat service) I was hoping would give me a familiarity with new past.
Sitting in my car outside the dining hall at Camp Kalsman, I took a deep breath. My fingers toyed with the Jewish star necklace my husband had given me. Inside the star stood a tiny tree of life. Marcus and I have always loved this symbol. He gave me the necklace to show his support in my decision to embrace being Jewish.
Having to put myself out there in unexplored environments brought back flashbacks of being a teenager. “You belong here,” I whispered to myself as I got out of my car. A woman immediately greeted me and walked me into the dining hall where I was given a name tag, swag bag, and my room assignment. At first I was disappointed I had a solo room as I thought sharing a room would be a good way to make a new friend. But then it occurred to me, I would likely be emotionally exhausted at the end of each night and would need the quiet for a good night’s sleep.
The first night we played an ice-breaker I had participated in on a cruise, “Majority Rules.” I was in a group with two other women, we were the smallest group. There was a list of questions about being Jewish, “What is the most popular song?” or “What is a must-see place in Israel?” Your group gets a point if your answer is what a majority of the groups answered. I think being an “outsider” made it easier to guess how everyone would answer. Our group won.
During Shabbat dinner, I noticed another woman who wasn’t saying the blessings. She had her head down and was trying to hide the fact she didn’t know the words. I vowed that would not be me. I would hold my chin up and be proud of who I am, proud of learning about being Jewish. Of course, my lack of knowledge generated curiosity about me. Some women asked me carefully worded questions about my “Jewishness” so I didn’t feel picked on. Just like with any small group, word quickly spread. I’m not sure what they were saying, only that I knew I was being discussed.
As I walked to the art center to paint Mandalas the next morning, a woman walked up next to me and asked my story. She looked at me incredulously and said, “You didn’t know you were Jewish?” I shook my head. “But you look SO Jewish. I knew you were Jewish from the moment you walked in the door.” I’m sure she had no idea what her words meant to me. This was the first time anyone had ever told me I looked like I belonged somewhere. I never fit in before. I was too white for the black side of my family and a bit too swarthy to look like the white side.
We spent the weekend playing games, attending lectures and services, dancing and eating together, and talking about kids, husbands, and life. While there were times I felt out of place, for the most part, I was just part of the group. The last day, I walked into a room to listen to a lecture on How to be an Effective Social Justice Advocate (something I love about being Jewish) and saw just one other woman waiting. I sat next to her and she told me her story. Her father was Jewish but her mother was not. She wasn’t raised with any Jewish experiences in her childhood home. As an adult, she decided she wanted to be a practicing Jew. I asked her if she converted and she said, “No, why should I? I am Jewish.” It was then that I didn’t feel like an imposter. Even though we had very different pasts, my story was similar to hers. I thought I AM Jewish too. The words didn’t feel so foreign anymore.
Over the weekend, I learned from the ladies how important summer camp is to Jews. All of them had stories about attending camp every summer for their entire childhood. I went to Camp Orkila on Orcas Island for a week once when I was younger. Yes, it was fun but it wasn’t epic as they described the Jewish summer camp experience. These ladies went to summer camp for 4–8 weeks. I wondered what it would’ve been like to attend camp for so long. If you went every summer, you would certainly develop some amazing friendships.
I did a little research on Jewish camps to try and understand why it’s such an important aspect of Jewish childhood. The first Jewish camps were created to give city-kids a “country” experience and to help Americanize the children of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. Starting in the 1920s through the 50s, camps began to focus on providing children with Jewish culture and education. During this time, many camps had different themes: Zionism, socialism, and Yiddish. You could find denominational camps for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. By the 1960s, Jewish summer camps were molding young Jews into Jewish adults. Today’s Jewish camps offer an array of choice but all focus on instilling a Jewish identity into their campers.
I’ve let my older boys, age 15 and 17, follow my inquiry into being Jewish as much as they’ve wanted. I tell them about my experiences and why being Jewish resonates with me, but I believe they are old enough to make their own religious decisions. I wish I’d found out about being Jewish sooner, I think they missed out just like I did on being part of an amazing community. My youngest, age 11, has shown more interest than his older brothers. He sings Shabbat songs with me and we’ve been trying to learn a little Hebrew together. I want to give him some of the experiences I missed out on, so I enrolled him in a two-week session at Camp Kalsman. It will be the longest he’s ever been away from home. Together we are creating our family’s Jewish traditions.