Not too long ago, I was at an event in the tri-state area. As I was making my way around the room, greeting familiar faces and making new connections, I went through the inevitable ritual of Jewish Geography multiple times.
It’s a small world, and the frum world is even smaller. It’s always exciting when you find a connection with someone you’ve only just met. But for me, the game of Jewish Geography is wasted. I sometimes warn people that I’m a dead end in Jewish Geography and suggest we move to a subject where we have commonality. Or lamenting why eggs are so expensive.
But when I stave off any attempts to find connections, it often alerts people that I have a story. And while I’m quite open about my background, having written and spoken about it for years, it’s not always something I’m in the mood to get into, and it’s not always an appropriate time to start sharing. I don’t always want to make a situation about me and my personal journey to Yiddishkeit. Sometimes I just want to network for work or enjoy someone’s simcha without having the spotlight turned on me. If it’s a one-on-one conversation, that’s a different story. But in a group setting? No thank you.
Our backgrounds are interesting things. We carry them everywhere we go. They form who we are. Our preferences, opinions, hopes, dreams, and desires are shaped by where we come from. But at some point, our background really should be just that – in the background.
It is, for sure, a process. And when someone experiences a big life change, like becoming frum or getting married or divorced or moving to another country, it’s only natural that, for a time, it will seem like the absolute most essential and influential detail in one’s life.
We can identify with many different life circumstances— being an only child, growing up in a divorced home, being an immigrant, moving a lot as a child, having a learning disability, being head of GO, getting into the best seminary, etc. The possibilities are endless.
All of these facets of our background are important and can and should be shared when relevant to share. But our environments should inform our lives, not define them.
Does the fact that I grew up in a non-Jewish environment impact the choices I’ve made in my life? You bet it has. Do I think about it every day? Absolutely not.
Most of the time, I don’t think about it at all. More often, the thoughts in my head are as follows: What’s next on my to-do list? Do I need to buy more cholent bean mix? I’m so glad the sun is shining; such a treat in the winter. I still haven’t made that appointment for my sheitel, ugh. How many more minutes do I have until carpool? Why did I walk into this room again?
Sure there are times when it comes into focus acutely, like when we were making our first bar mitzvah. We did our best to make my parents and family feel welcome at the simcha (I hope we did a good job, Mom and Dad), but most of the time, I’m just a regular frum woman, trying to juggle all the balls that so many of us are juggling.
I happen to have a lot of friends who grew up frum, and I noticed over the years that whenever I would complain to them that something was challenging “because of my background,” they would often point out to me that their second cousin or co-worker or sister struggled with the same thing. The vast majority of the time, whatever I was dealing with was not, in fact, exclusive to my background.
The more I’ve let my background be in the background, the more that’s allowed me to let other people’s backgrounds be in the background. It has allowed me to see past the circumstances of their lives and connect with them on a deeper, more satisfying level. Don’t we all want that?