Who am I?

Hillel asks: If I am not for myself, who is for me? I first want to know: who am I?

All of my life, I have felt that I am a member of three communities, each vying for attention. As a US-born citizen, I am naturally an American, but growing up as the daughter of immigrants in an Orthodox day school where my friends were all children of immigrants, I was illiterate in the culture of baseball and homemade apple pie. My mom didn’t bake apple pie at home because instead I was enjoying Russian desserts due to my parents’ Russian backgrounds. Both of my parents are from the former Soviet Union and we spoke Russian at home. I learned to read and write in Russian and sing Russian children’s songs. Many of my parents’ friends were of the Russian Jewish community. Finally, there were the Israelis. Since my parents lived in Israel in the 1970s, we were involved in the Israeli community, going to events, visiting Israel almost every year, and speaking Hebrew. My favorite records were of Israeli children’s music; I knew every song by heart and was fluent in Hebrew at a young age.

Growing up, I felt unique in that I could slip in and out of these three vastly different cultures and be comfortable in each. But even though I was comfortable, I never really felt “at home” in any of them. I was adaptable, but where was my home base?

Since I got married and have grown in my observance, once again I feel like I don’t know where I belong. The life I had growing up is no longer the life I lead now; I observe Shabbat, I keep kosher – eating at my parents’ house has gotten to be more complicated. At the same time, I am not fully observant – I am just growing. Where are the people like me? How do I balance the diverse culture I experienced growing up with the new culture I entered of Torah learning, frantic cooking for Shabbat, and 24/7 Judaism? Where do I fit this new persona? And by the way, I am still balancing the three communities of my childhood!

As I take on new mitzvot, I noticed that I do a mental “purge” of myself to make room. If I do this new mitzva that takes up X amount of space in my mind, what do I have to relinquish of the “old” me to make room for it? But I have to be careful because I do not want to change so much that I become a person I do not want to become – I still want to be me. I have to be choosy about what I do. If cooking for Shabbat on a Thursday night means that I cannot go to a movie, then so be it. At the same time, I cannot change so much that my family does not recognize me anymore.

I need to find my place. Not only do I need to put my internal house in order, but I need to figure out my external relationships, those with society, my family, and my friends. I need to figure out for myself who I am before I let others know who I am, but it’s a difficult process.

3 comments on “Who am I?

  1. Neil is right. We lived in Houston during 1998-2000, until the company where I worked was bought and we were relocated back north. The people were ultra-friendly. At the Young Israel of Houston we joined, most members had come from somewhere else, so we all sort of became each other’s extended family. I lived there in an apartment before my family could move to join me, and was invited over for Shabbos meals (many different hosts) virtually every week for about 6 months.

    I remember the TORCH Kollel barbecue where each Kollel member received a black Stetson hat for community service. They specialize in outreach and are very approachable. Apart from the Kollel, there are many other activities, including adult-ed opportunities, at the Orthodox shuls. These shuls readily accept BT’s, and BT’s at various Jewish knowledge levels make up most of the membership. The main Jewish day school, Beren Academy, includes a high school.

    The heat/humidity in the summer is really intense, but air conditioning makes it liveable. Housing prices and taxes are very reasonable by East or West Coast standards.

  2. Sounds like you have a good grasp on who you are, if you ask me. Those concerned with getting closer to Hashem are all a “work-in-progress”. From what I know about Houston, there seems to be a lot of Orthodox resources (Rabbis, day school, TORCH) to help you continue to grow. Just stay focused. Your core personality will only blossom as you continue to make Judasim important to your life.

  3. Ilanit, great post. I definitely identify–I’ve got a few identities swirling around in me, too. It feels more manageable, however, than it did earlier in my teshuva process. Initially, I took on nearly everything I saw around me, regardless of its source, rationale or authority. That gave me a sense of belonging and authenticity, but eventually I had to find my own balance.

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