I’m a wandering Jew. I’m a secular, not religious, not assimilated, yet not affiliated Jew. Both wandering and Jewish is part of my identity and shaped who I am and what I stand for. Getting to the heart of identity, who we are, is a journey and every journey is filled with stories.
Stories are best shared and savored like a fine wine, or, a good piece of chocolate. In my personal and professional wandering, exploring identity has been a key character. As a communication coach, I help other’s uncover the nature of their identity through communication styles, an insight into how each of us communicate and behave. But there is so much more to identity, including religion and culture. What does it mean to be Jewish? This wonder has sparked this wander!
My wander: a conversational journey through Eastern Europe to talk with Jewish communities about their Jewish identity , how it shapes this identity, and more importantly, how that identity is maintained through challenging times.
My mother always says that the greatest miracle of all is that there are still Jews in the world. I say that miracle is created by a strong sense of identity and is the source for survival.
I want to know more about that sense of identity and where it comes from. In fact I often wonder how it plays in my own life. Do I have that strength of identity. My journey to the part of the world where millions of Jews were killed, and where survivors dispersed to more welcoming environs will help me look within. Looking outward, Poland, once home to three million Jews, now numbers three thousand. Which number is more mind blowing? There’s much to be learned and I can’t wait to start.
This is my second wandering to Eastern Europe. As a college graduate I opened the Iron Curtain and stepped inside to backpack for almost three months to small towns rarely visited by westerners. Behind the curtain a whole world opened to me, yet I was so focused on exploring my own identity I forgot or was not ready to explore my Jewish connections and roots that were right in front of me.
Identity is complex and I’m fortunate to have the luxury to travel back to journey forward and uncover another layer. I’ve changed, and aged over the decades –and so has Europe. I know I’ll now be able to visit sites that weren’t open to tourists ‘back then’. I also anticipate visiting new sites and museums dedicated to the Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust.
Once a month I visit a site which has sparked this journey. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, is the only synagogue I frequent. I go to docent/give tours rather than pray. The Museum at Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side of New York was the first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews in NYC in 1887. Still a ‘living ‘ Orthodox synagague, a congregation has prayed there every Friday night and Saturday since it opened in 1887. Guiding visitors from the US and around the world, Jewish and non-, through this cultural site is a wonderful shared experience.
As a docent my role is to talk and inform visitors about the identity of the building and its congregants. In turn, I am gifted conversation and insights about (Jewish) life around the world.
Hearing how small populations of Jews maintain their religious and cultural identity around the world leaves me in awe, proud, interested to learn more, and, very humbled.
Recently, a South African man living in Toronto reminded me how unchallenged we American Jews are to do anything Jewish. In South Africa, Jews have Friday night Shabbat dinners and celebrate their Jewishness. Assimilation (here), he pointed out, is easy, especially since there is so much competition for our Friday nights. (I agree, it’s so true and so easy NOT to be Jewish). In Canada, like in the U.S., the challenge and competition for his son’s Shabbat focus is – hockey.
(Somehow I don’t think my observance in watching the old TV show ‘The Nanny’ every week counts though I was always proud that the nanny named Fran was so unapologetically culturally Jewish!)
I’m a great ‘door opener’ and a good listener, helping others uncover their identity. They say if you got it, flaunt it, and I will as I step into synagogues and cultural centers in these former thriving Jewish communities.
Here’s my tentative itinerary: I’ll arrive in Berlin on October 11th, I’ll then travel to Warsaw, Vilna, Krakow, Budapest, Sofia, Croatia, and Bosnia. I’ll be spending about 3 days in each stop. If you know anyone I should talk to, please let me know.
I invite you to participate and add to the discussion. Afterall, identity is really something we talk about all the time. Talk with friends, loved ones, the person sitting next to you on the bus, and ask how they define themselves. Share what you learn.
Join my journey. Send recommendations of people to talk with, places to go, sites to see, food to taste!
Happy 5772 (the new Jewish year)! I wish you strength in connections and a year of happy, safe, and, enlightening journeys!