Belonging and Renewal

March 27th, 2009

For most of my life I have lived away from my native home and my husband has always said, “You can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the girl.” Being a Jewish girl from New York has been a part of my identity as basic as my blue eyes. Yet for all of the space that this cultural identity has taken up, and the personality attributes that accompanies it, I have found very little comfort in where I come from. Functional though it may be in getting things done, it has always required some kind of explanation or excuse.

Recently I returned to New York for a business show. Walking the cold wintry streets of the city, I searched for how I belonged to this place and how it had so solidly planted itself in me. Most of my memories of New York are tied up in the dysfunctional family that I grew up in and was mostly an experience of isolation. The harshness in my tone and demeanor was the language I was raised in. My ancestors, though were solidly Russian immigrants, living on the lower eastside; my great grandfather was a tailor and an orthodox Jew. By the time I knew him he was close to 100 years old. He spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish, both languages that I knew by sound, but little else. He lived out his life in an old hotel on the Atlantic shore of Long Island and I remembered thinking that he was taken to temple to pray more regularly than he was taken to bathe.

On this trip, a friend brought me to a Jewish renewal service, where for the first time in all my years of being a Jewish girl, and for all of the hundreds of Jewish services that I have attended over those years, this one finally taught me who I am. A language barrier was crossed and the Yiddish and Jewish words of my history fell into ancient songs and chants that moved the whole room. People I have never met engaged in a deep search for connection and meaning had familiar faces. I was at home for the first time.

It is when our heart is cracked open wide that the lessons we have learned, that have stacked up in us over time sinks in. Ancient Hebrew chants cracked open my heart that had spent all its years searching and yet never quite belonging. Unmet needs of belonging, lives in us as deep longing, which has been a driver in my life. I married into a family whose identity can be traced to the same land for over seven hundred years. Each trip we made to my husband’s homeland, Slovenija (where they don’t buy vowels) cemented my children’s sense of identity and yet left the gap for me wider still. It was a longing that created a schism between us, I couldn’t quite imagine the loyalty and connection he felt for his family and history, and he couldn’t grasp how separate and lonely it was for me to witness it.

Family is the vehicle for creating a sense of belonging and identity. They are our first tribe. Having four children was how I made my own tribe and even as I have watched them grow into confident individuals with a clear sense of identity, I never could quite name my own. Finding one’s tribe is often how we come to grips with our identity.

Attending that service last week was a watershed. In ways that I don’t even fully understand I left that renewal service fully renewed. The experience created a context for my long history on these city streets. Being a Jewish girl from New York is far more than the dysfunctional family I grew up in or the bits of orthodox practice I witnessed as a child. It is connected to centuries of devoted prayer and joyous soul searching celebration. I am not sure what this revelation will create in me or in my life, but I know that this new connection to who I am has changed everything. Seeing myself as a member of a tribe has given me the ability to see myself with gentler eyes. It is not from out there that we find love and acceptance, but from within ourselves. It is in truly having what we have and being who we are, where renewal begins.

It is spring, the season that reminds me that we get another chance. That’s what this story is for me, a new beginning and the first time that I can feel the long line of people behind me. I am sorry if it is taking advantage of editorial privilege to share it here, but I hope it inspires you to bear witness and gratitude for the tribe that has created your identity, or at least gives you hope of tracking them down. All the tribes at the beginning taught the same message to survive- love one another.

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