More Lessons from Psychology

I am currently taking a class in which the professor has been introducing several different cultural identity models. While each model was developed specific to a particular culture, they can be used more globally as well. Interestingly, while studying William E. Cross’ African-American Identity Model, I found a lot of similarities with the journey that a baal teshuvah goes through when becoming religious.

The first stage in Cross’ Model is one of accepting the prevailing attitudes of those around oneself. Not too much thought is given to the exact heritage of one’s birth, or what makes one different from everyone else.

The second stage is one of specific events or circumstances where one is pushed to reconsider their identity. This event causes an individual to look at who he or she is within the greater world and focus on how they identify and fit in culturally. I know that, for me, my first trip to Israel certainly caused me to look at my Jewish identity, which to that point had been something that I knew made me different from others, but not that different. It was something that I had accepted, but not something that made me connect to others who were similar to me in that respect. But after being exposed to the bond that ties Jews together, I had to really think about that aspect of my life and how prevalent it was in defining who I am.

Cross’ third stage is one of discarding old views and building a new cultural identity for oneself. This stage is often characterized initially by extreme rejection of their past and a total embracement of their newfound identity. After some time, this mellows, and the new cultural identity becomes more balanced. I think many baalei teshuvah go through this in the early years of becoming religious. Initially, they are immersed in the new religious views they h ave chosen, to the point of vehemently rejecting the lives they led before and, sometimes, alienating those who were part of their lives. But after a number of years, they can then even out and find a balance between their former and current lifestyle choices.

The fourth stage is one of internalization, where a person really defines who he is within his new identity. This is where a person becomes secure with who they are, and within their cultural community. It is also where this new identity really becomes part of who one is, rather than an externalized focus. It can take a number of years for an individual to achieve this.

The last stage in called internalization-commitment, and is where a person maintains a lifelong commitment to the culture they have chosen. It’s not so different from the previous stage, but identified separatelt simply for its longevity.

I found it interesting that this model that was formulated specifically to describe the African-American identity formation could have so many characteristics that I see in myself and other baalei teshuvah that I know. I guess that’s why I am always fascinated by the transcendence of the human experience across cultures – people are people, universally in so many ways.

8 comments on “More Lessons from Psychology

  1. Chaim: It’s not that Israel itself is what ties the Jews together, but the bond between Jews is most strongly felt here for sure. All Jews, regardless of whether they recognize Torah or not, are spiritually connected. In Israeli it’s easiest to really feel that all Jews are family. So while the bond isn’t necessarily created here, it is most powerfully expressed here.

    Shoshana: Based on the above, I don’t think that your first exposure “happened” to be in Israel. It’s a phenomena that I’ve seen several times–nothing like coming here and seeing Jewish unity to make visitors examine their own Jewish identity.

  2. Rishona –
    Cross’s model is one model of African-American identity development, there were others that we studied as well, I just found this particular one to resonate with the BT experience. Perhaps one of the others would fit your experiences better. Or maybe your experiences just don’t fit any of the typical models. Additionally, Cross’s model and the way I protrayed it is probably an extreme scenario used to illustration, so it’s very possible that people you know who go through these identity transformations experience them in less extreme ways.

    Bob –
    Cross’s model did come out around the same time as the Roots series, and I think the time period was one of more upheaval than is currently experienced in the United States.

    Neil –

    Adi –
    Glad to hear that it resonated, it did with me also. Even if it doesn’t make going through the stages easier, it can make one feel like what they are going through is normal.

    Chaim –
    I wouldn’t say that Israel is specifically what caused me to feel the bond that ties Jewish together – I think it is Torah. I grew up in an environment where I was not exposed to Orthodox, or Torah-adherent Judaism. So while my first exposure did happen to be in Israel, I don’t think it was completely due to the land.

    Danny –
    According to Cross, a person can definitley, and often do, get stuck in one stage and never move beyond. I am not sure how it would be reflected in one who is moving the other way, however, my guess would be that the stages are similar.

  3. Shoshana,
    The stages struck me as being accurate. The question is, can a person get stuck at one level and never progress? Also, how does this compare with the mental process that a person undergoes if he is going the other way…being chozer be-sheelah [becoming secular after being raised as FFB]

  4. “But after being exposed to the bond that ties Jews together(ISRAEL?)”

    Rav Sa’adya Gaon taught: “Our Uma (nation) is not an Uma except through Torah” The ability of Eretz Yisrael to be a unifying force for Jews derives from the Torah, not vice versa. We weathered a 2000 year exile without a land-nation state to call our own, but not w/o the Torah

  5. Great post Shoshana! I can definately see myself in the stages you are describing and can identify on which stage I am now. Regardless of how this cross-model relates to African Americans, of which I am not aware, I think you have outlined a great model for the what a BT can experience in the process of becoming religious. Being Jewish doesnt mean you have to be religious. By becoming religious it definately emphasizes the persons identity which in return may lead to crisis and reassesment of self.

  6. Cross’ model may relate to the long aftermath of the TV series “Roots”, when some African-Americans began to want to connect with an African heritage they basically knew nothing about—not even knowing which tribe or region their ancestors hailed from or what language they spoke. They tried to piece together authentic identities anyhow. Some of these composite identities were more authentic than others; probably all contained inauthentic elements, as did the “Roots” series itself..

  7. The description of the sequence of psychological changes one goes through when adapting a new culture seem interesting and applicable in any case where someone may undergo such a transformation. I’m not quite clear as to how the sequence relates to African-Americans though. I know it is not exactly in accord with this blog; but I’m just really bewildred on that one.

    I’m “African-American” (I have issues with the term, but this is not the place to get into it!) and no where or no how do I see any regular occurence in the American Black community that comes even close to what a BT goes through. Maybe, perhaps when a Black person decides to become Muslim; but even then, the Muslim community is full of those who are converting or new to observance. I don’t know, I guess I just don’t understand :-/

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