The following letter was written as a response to an inquiry from a Crypto-Jew asking about the challenge of identity.
The Jewish people have always struggled with living in two worlds at the same time. The Midrash says that the majority of Jews/Israelites in the Egypt did not leave during the Exodus. They were so assimilated into Egyptian culture and religion that they had lost their Jewish identity. When the time came for them to be redeemed from Egypt they could not because they no longer identified with the Jewish people. The children of Israel continued to face problems with assimilation even in the land of Israel. Canaanite religion and culture presented a continuing problem as is recorded in the book of Judges and in the various books of the Prophets. In the Greco-Roman period, the challenge continued and this issue continues to this day. How can Jews maintain Jewish identity when they live in a Gentile world?
In my sister’s community, everything that her family does is Jewish. The kids have attended Jewish day schools and yeshiva. They go to synagogue on a daily basis to daven. They celebrate all Jewish holidays and do so for two days for each holiday (except Yom Kippur) as is stipulated in halakhah for the diaspora. They live in a predominately Jewish neighborhood and are constantly celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs, baby name ceremonies, brit milahs, Jewish weddings, etc. They are members of Chabad and are members of a Sephardic synagogue as well. At the Sephardic synagogue, there are Moroccan Jews, Jews from Bukhara, Iraqi Jews, etc. The Chabad synagogue has primarily individuals from Polish and Russian Jewish backgrounds.
Why do I say all this? Because whatever country they originate from, be it Morocco, or Germany, or Poland, or Iraq, etc. if you ask these individuals “what they are”, they will say Jewish. They may say, we are from Morocco, or from Syria, etc. but all of them see their primary identity as Jewish. It is not secondary or divided or hyphenated. They eat foods from their countries of origin. They maintain various traditions, i.e. wedding customs, family practices, etc. that are particular to those areas, but for them, they are all connected to their Jewish identity. They see their religious, cultural, and ethnic identity as Jewish.
Now not all of us have the ability or the resources to live in an environment where Jewish identity is constantly reinforced. We have to do the best that we can. The real issue I think is where our principle loyalties and primary identity lie. Jewish families who are able to successfully pass on their identity to the next generation typically see Jewish identity as the identity they are transmitting. Crypto-Jews or rather the descendants of Crypto-Jews seem to particularly struggle with this. They often feel torn between multiple identities, sometimes their previous religious affiliation, their family situations, even their national identity as immigrants or the children of immigrants, etc.
The problem lies in the fact that they are already facing an uphill battle. They did not grow up Jewish. If they do not focus on Jewish identity as the primary identity they foster in their families, the likelihood of their children growing up Jewish and identifying Jewish as adults, and perhaps most importantly, marrying Jewish is greatly reduced if not improbable.
I do not judge anyone who struggles with these issues. We just lost the participation of a friend who was from a Crypto-Jewish background because this person could not resolve multiple identities, the fact that their family was not on board and various religious issues.
I want you to know that my family supports you. At the same time, I want you to know the very real challenges that exist if a person is torn in multiple directions.
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. For a more complete review of Iberian Jewish history and the Crypto- Jewish Experience see Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism.