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Free-fall into identity

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

"You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all." /Maya Angelou/

Eleven years ago, while preparing for my Masters’ thesis in English literature, I suddenly realized there was something else I had to explore. Something that had been lying dormant inside me during most of my childhood and teenage years. Something that had in the meantime erupted, and was no longer ready to be pushed back inside. I waved goodbye to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and stepped into the world of Intercultural Competence.

Born in the 1980s in Hungary, I grew up in a society where one simply did not refer to themselves using the word ‘Jew’. You just wouldn’t. ‘Jew’ was a swear word, something filthy you wouldn’t want to touch. A black graffiti against a yellow wall, surrounded by swastikas. Even picturing the word (‘zsidó’) today gives me a physical sensation of dirt. And since you wouldn’t use the word, you had no way of talking about it openly. The fact that my mother’s family was Jewish, and that my grandfather had returned without his twin brother and older sister from Dachau was taboo. My grandfather never talked about it. Neither did anyone else. In my grandmother’s semi-autobiographic war novel, she is portrayed as non-Jewish. We seemed to be trying to convince ourselves and everyone else that we had nothing to do with that ominous word: ‘zsidó’.

My grandmother’s favourite joke does well at illustrating the atmosphere that was lurking in the background of my otherwise mostly carefree childhood:

(In a hushed voice): Have you heard? There was a baby elephant born in the zoo!

(In a similarly hushed voice): Yes? And is that in our favour, or against us?

(Still hushed voice): Indifferent.

(Still hushed voice): So why are you whispering?

(Still hushed voice): I have a cold.

The same hushed tone seemed to cover our family history in thick fog. I can’t recall the moment I realized I was Jewish. There might never have been such a moment.

And then somehow my sister and I managed to break through the fog. We were done with the fear. We wanted to understand what this history and heritage were that we were denied access to. We wanted to make sense of that part of our identity. And to our grandmother’s terror, we went off on a Birthright tour, enrolled in Hebrew and Yiddish courses, and signed up for a year-long exchange programme in Israel.

One day, after university, I visited my grandma. I was clutching my bulky Hebrew book. She took it from me, turned it around so the big Hebrew letters wouldn’t show, then pushed it back in my arms. One of her best friends, who was almost like another grandma for me, was around. She had just heard about our Israel study plans. She turned to me frowning, and I could detect anger, as well as fear in her voice when she asked: ‘Marikam, what’s this about? Why would you go looking for trouble?’

Trouble is not what I found in Israel. Love is. I met my future husband. So did my sister. The question of my Jewish identity remained complex. The way Israelis were Jewish seemed to have very little in common with the ways in which I felt Jewish. Their Jewishness seemed either too heavy, or too light. When I first heard a Holocaust joke, I teared up. They were tears of hurt but also of anger. How dare this person, who had no family killed in the Holocaust, make fun of something that was such a visceral part of me? Only much later did I manage to understand, and to some degree appreciate, Israelis’ collective coping mechanism of Holocaust jokes. When a few months ago the librarian in Yad Vashem, who was helping me research my family’s documents, exclaimed: ‘So they didn’t go to Auschwitz. They missed out on all the fun!' I hardly winced.

But that year in Israel, and the exploration of my Jewish identity helped me realize that I had some unanswered questions. To what extent do the various groups we belong to define us? How do these groups shape our perception of the world? How does ascribed identity make us feel? What do we need to belong? Do we need to belong? Why do we fear the other? And most importantly: What does it take to peel away the layers of groups, and see each other for what we are: human to human? Eleven years ago I set out to answer these questions. I’m nowhere done, but I have gotten certain insights. In my articles I am going to be sharing thoughts, best practices, and posing many more questions around these, and connected topics. You are welcome to join me, share your views, and ask your own questions.


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