I am an American. But what does that really mean, and how do I unpack the significance of the meaning inside of that? There has been an intrigued and increasingly important movement in modern America to both represent the culture that you come from and while conversely trying to fit into the mold of being an American. While many other people I know have vibrant cultural backgrounds, at times, I felt semi excluded from the conversation, growing up in a traditional American household, with little significance being placed on my own family’s cultural roots. At times I feel like a man without a homeland, obsessed with the cultures of the world, yet not having one of my own. Utterly becoming a cultural expert to compensate for the lack of ties with my cultural past.
To give some background, my family on both my father and mothers side both came to America in the early 1900’s, with my father’s side hailing from Italy and Wales and my mother’s from Germany and Poland. As my family passed through Ellis Island and began to culturally integrate into American society, many of the traditions that came to Europe with them were lost in the exchange. This meant that many of the traditions in my family were simply adopted depending on where my family was living at the time. My personal culture is a weird mixture of Americana and New Mexican values, but now it is constantly changing as I meet new people and expose myself to new experiences.
Being lost in a world without a culture is a challenging thing to overcome. Luckily my move to Eugene, Oregon reignited my passion for Judaism, which created some resolve and solace for me. Judaism is much more than a religion, but a culture in and of itself. It represents in its teachings the history of a people, a story of overcoming challenges and hanging on to the important things in life: family, community, a belief in the greater good and the significance of food.
Judaism endures. It has as a religion endured 5,000 years of hardship, hatred and persecution. Yet, it is resilient; a character shared by all Jews across the world. This endurance is mimicked exactly in the food culture that Judaism entails. Many of the foods that my family has during holiday’s are foods of necessity, foods that helped nourish our minds and souls for millennia. We do not eat Matzoh at Passover because it is tasty, although the nostalgia it brings every time I have it does make it tasty in a way, but we eat it because it reminds us of the hardship and challenges that our people have overcome. It also keeps us grounded in our ideals, highlighting the importance of the simple things in life, the power of bread and the forward momentum it creates.
Every year during Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the high holy days in Judaism, my grandma makes a lovely dish of chopped chicken liver. The chicken liver itself is quiet delicious but certainly an acquired taste. I never truly realized the significance that this dish poses to both my cultural history and the history of the Jewish people. We have chicken liver during holiday’s not because it delicious but because chicken livers were a great and cheap alternative to real meat, something that was hard to come by both in the old country and in the early days of my family’s American experience. It is a dish that has endured many changes not because of its deliciousness, but because of what it represents. With each bite there is an introspective look at where we came from and where are now, sharing in the flavors of past and present, humble beginnings and modern society.
This endurance of Jewish tradition through the years in our food has also mimicked the endurance of Judaism, in a weird way, within me. As I moved away from Judaism shortly after my Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen, as I grew older, it became an enduring factor of family connection and heritage. It became a proud and deciding factor when describing myself, of who I was. It became the identifier and culture that I thought I lacked, even though I had it within me the entire time. I thought because many people didn’t understand it, I needed to leave it in the past and move on. Moving on in itself, was leaving a part of me behind, a part of me that was important to who I was and where I come from. Over the past few years I have become proud to be Jewish, proud of my heritage and willing to share it with others. Now I realize, yes, I am an American. But more importantly, I am a Jewish American, and I am incredibly proud to say that.