Once upon a time, I was told that I was not a real Jew. I had never been so angry or offended. My friend wasn’t trying to be hurtful. In his mind, he was making a simple observation. I didn’t attend temple therefore I was not a real Jew. Unfortunately, his painful declaration felt like a demon reaching inside to steal a part of me, something that I had proudly weaved into my identity. Instantly, I was being denied access to my Jewish friends, my family, my heritage and a part of myself.
However, I have learned a lot since that moment. I’ve learned that labels are imperfect, dangerous and tricky; but they also are quite necessary.
At the time that I was denied my Jewish identity, there were plenty of other Jews that would have claimed me. To paraphrase my aunt, if Hitler came today, I’d be sent to the camps. Isn’t that a nice thought? Yet, twenty years later, it rings true. After dedicating myself to Pagan path, I am still considered a Jew by many.
Does it matter? Not really. I am not a label or a title. None of us are. Socially-derived labels are imperfect.
(Note: I’m not discussing biologically-derived labels that refer to fixed physical states or conditions; although, cultural bias does lay its dirty hands on these as well. But that’s a different story.)
I have never fit completely and comfortably into any label – social, political, religious etc. In fact, when I traveled through Europe, I was always misidentified as being Canadian or British. I can’t even be a model American.
Most people don’t fit neatly into any one label. Our existence is like a Venn diagram in which our true self rests somewhere in the confluence of multiple generalities.
But, unfortunately, labels are necessary. In order to function, we, as humans, need to order our chaotic and complex reality. Culturally-derived labels are information packets, derived from social constructs, that enable humans to understand the world and function day-to-day.
Not only do we base our own identity around cultural labels, we also base our expectations on them. For example, If I were tell you that my neighbor is a Southern Baptist, you would generate a mental “picture” of my neighbor without me having to say another word. You now have expectations.
Ultimately we are tied to these labels. They are everywhere. Some we give to ourselves. Some are given to us by others. Some labels we try on and, then, toss out. Some we hold on to with all our might. Some labels are positive and others…well, not so much.
But no matter what, we must always remember that these culturally-derived labels are fluid constructions, imperfect impressions created by subjective minds. When we start inflicting statutes and limitations on labels, we become inert in our ability to progress spiritually, expand past our own experiences, or form meaningful relationships. Yes, it is true that labels are necessary for daily operation but they can also be detrimental if we don’t allow for flexibility.
You know, that Baptist neighbor happens to know that I’m Pagan and has never once tried to convert me.
Am I Pagan? Yes, without question. Am I Jew? My heritage and cultural upbringing makes that so. And, if Hitler came today…well, let’s just hope he doesn’t. Am I Wiccan? I have my credentials, having been formally initiated by a High Priestess. With that said, I don’t necessarily fit into the expected cultural mold. Am I a Witch? I don’t weigh the same as a duck. So maybe I’m not.
Am I me? Absolutely 100%, all the time. No label needed.
(Photo credits: Star of David by Alex Proimos of fotopedia.com;Duck by Loggawiggler of Pixabay.com; Question Sign by Colin_K of Flickr.com)