Most people who know me call me Jen. I am 34 years old. I am a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister. I am an educator by profession. And I am an observant Jewish woman. Although I choose to continue using my English name as opposed to my Jewish name, I adhere to the modest dress of knee-length skirts and long-sleeved, high-necked shirts; I cover all of my hair, as is customary for married women; and I pray to G‑d every morning. I keep a strictly kosher diet, and I try to adhere to all of the Jewish laws that are applicable to me as a Jewish woman.
However, I grew up as a secular Jewish person from a traditional home. I attended synagogue three times a year on the High
|I never anticipated covering all of my hair
Holidays, was lenient with my kosher diet, and was most comfortable in pants and T-shirts. I never anticipated covering all of my hair as a married woman, nor did I expect that a siddur (prayerbook) would be one of my most prized possessions. So, how did I get from there to here?
At the age of 24, I met my husband. He was an observant Jewish man; he kept Shabbat and consumed only kosher food. Through our courtship I quickly realized that if he and I could even consider the possibility of marriage, we needed to share the same family values. Therefore, I chose to experiment with an observant Jewish lifestyle for myself. I discovered not just a love, but a passion, for Shabbat, and I overcame the struggles of being strictly kosher. Over time the inconveniences of not always having food at my disposal became easier, as I learned to plan ahead by bringing food with me when necessary. On the whole, I felt inherently good about my choices.
After I gave birth to my eldest son in July 2007, I decided to explore the possibility of hair-covering and modest attire. Since my son would don the customary kippahand tzitzit at the age of three, I decided that if this was important for our son’s Jewish identity, then I wanted to find ways to strengthen mine as well. I began to cover all of my hair with scarves and wigs, and I easily transitioned to wearing only skirts and long-sleeved tops.
All the while, my purpose was to strengthen my relationship with G‑d. And as my passion grew, so did my commitment to prayer. Today, at the age of 34, I find myself lost without saying my daily prayers, I am uncomfortable in clothing too short or revealing, and I feel naked without my headcoverings. As I continue to move further and further away from the very secular community in which I grew up, and inch deeper and deeper into the religious community I choose to be a part of, I feel a sense of solace in my choices. I am used to being an outsider; now I am becoming an insider in a new space.
I have found ways to contribute to my community through various leadership opportunities. I was the youth program director for my synagogue for three years, which allowed me to work with children within my neighborhood. As a summer camp director for a Jewish day camp, I have been able
|I have found ways to contribute to my community
to work closely with Jewish children of all backgrounds from all over Toronto. I appreciate the trust parents have given to me to educate their children, regardless of my upbringing.
But I still have a sense of unease about my choices. As a public school teacher and the daughter of secular parents, I still need to be able to function within the secular community. And yet my husband, my children and I also want to live comfortably within the religious community. I am trying so desperately to understand how to coexist within both communities.
As I ponder all of this, I ask myself: am I simply moving away from the very secular community I am so attuned to, or am I making a conscious effort to leave? Or am I even leaving it behind to begin with? Is there an element of fear of abandoning the past that contributes to the very essence of who I am and who I want to be? And of course, I must ask myself—can the “here” and “there” be in the same place and exist at the same time, thereby creating a brand-new space? As I become more involved in the observant way of life and the very tenets of my religion, which is ever reshaping my identity, I ask myself—do I have to abandon all of the old me?
What happens to identity when we move from “there” to “here”—from one space to a different space? Where is “here”? Are the “there” and “here” fluid? And when I question this fluidity, I want to understand—are the secular and observant Jewish communities fluid to begin with? Is there a possibility that this “fluidity” I am curious to understand may just be an actual evolution; and if so, as I take on a new identity, am I shedding my old identity? Or, as aspects of the old me and new me come together, am I still the old me with some changes?
I’m using this curiosity as an opportunity for discovery. I’m learning more about myself. I’m discovering how to appreciate my past so as to use it to elevate me spiritually today and in the future. I no longer choose to keep the details of my past hidden.
I am starting to understand that there do not need to be finalities to decisions, and it does not need to be all or nothing. Had I understood this earlier in my life, then maybe I would have been able to make faith-based choices more easily.
I have started to realize that identity is not linear. My spiritual journey thus far has always been based on the pretense that I must know exactly where I am at any given moment. But I am now starting to learn that we may not have all of the answers, and maybe we don’t need them to make decisions. Moreover, our identities always include a small piece of who we once were, as we continue to reshape who we currently are. It is virtually impossible to forget our pasts, and it is extremely difficult to assume that our past experiences will have no bearing over who we will continue to be.
And as I continue to solidify my identity as an observant Jewish woman, embracing the mitzvahs and laws of our religion, I am beginning to understand that I do not need to abandon all of the old me, because it is a part of who I am. In fact, it has helped to foster a love for my religion and culture; it has helped me embrace a more stringent yet rewarding way to live.
Therefore, I am now beginning to have a clearer understanding of how the “there” and “here” coexist, and how it is very possible to be a part of both spaces at the same time. I can use my secular past to help others within the observant Jewish community. I can also remain in tune with my public school students, who are of numerous cultures, ethnicities and faiths. I would like to continue to strengthen my role as an educator, both as a teacher and camp director, so that I can be a stronger teacher of character—one who gives children the tools to learn about themselves and value their own discoveries. I want to teach children to appreciate who they are, irrespective of the thoughts of others.
I also realize that my own children will reach a point where they will begin to make decisions for themselves along their spiritual journeys. As they do that, they will take pieces of their history
|It’s okay for my identity to always be evolving
with them, their memories influencing their decisionmaking. I would never want them to forget who they are or where they came from, so why should I?
I always thought that I needed a fixed identity; I never realized that it was okay for my identity to always be evolving. Today I sit at a crossroads about my name, wondering whether or not to go by my Jewish name. I now realize that I will probably remain here for a while. But I know who I am. And at times, even when I am confused, this is also acceptable. It is okay to have moments of confusion. This is also part of who I am. I have also come to realize that although many of the things I choose to do enhance my identity, they do not necessarily dictate who I am. Moreover, I will forever shift back and forth between spaces, at times allowing these spaces to mingle and overlap each other.
As I grow older, I am beginning to understand that I will always be in a state of becoming.