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.