RSS Feed

My Life as a Jewish Woman

One of my blogging friends suggested that I write about my life as a Jewish woman, and it scared me, because writing about being Jewish always scares me, just like writing about anything else people might judge me for scares me. I worry about anti-Semitism; I worry about people feeling alienated from me for being different; I worry about being rejected, and looked down on most of all. The image of the Jew as vermin has always stuck with me. I was born long after the holocaust, but it has never felt that far away.

“What are you talking about, Mommy?”

I grew up in Jewish environments, getting a Jewish education (or a few different Jewish educations), so being Jewish always felt normal to me. It was only when I went to college that being Jewish became an issue. Most of the higher educational world, no matter how many students at a school are Jewish, is based on a Christian world view. It is assumed that when you mention the bible, and you will, you mean the King James Version, including the New Testament. In a discussion about history or biology, or, god forbid, art history, teachers would reference books of the bible I’d never heard of, and I felt like I needed Google and Wikipedia, before such things existed.

“Ask me, Mommy. I know everything!”

It wasn’t just factual references that I missed and had to look up, there were world view things I couldn’t relate to. So much talk of heaven and hell, and turning the other cheek, had never come up in my childhood. I felt like I’d need a PhD in Christianity before I could understand much of anything. So I did my honors thesis on comparative religions, and read the King James Bible, and the New Testament, and the Koran, and forty other books on various religions around the world. I can’t pinpoint what I did with all of that information, and I didn’t feel like an expert when I was done, but I did feel more grounded. I felt like I knew enough to get by.

Despite the adjustment period, there was something freeing about not being in a Jewish environment anymore. I stopped feeling like someone was looking over my shoulder all the time, giving me demerits for each non-orthodox behavior. No one cared if the sandwich I ate for lunch was kosher. No one cared that I wore pants. If I went to school on a Jewish holiday, no one even noticed. It didn’t matter to anyone how religious I was, or wasn’t. They noticed that I was a good, and maybe compulsive, student. They noticed that I talked back to teachers (sometimes too much, sometimes just the right amount).

Being outside of a Jewish point of view allowed me to see how many different world views there really were. I started to see that even the Jewish world was not as unitary as it had seemed. Not all Jews are orthodox and steeped in the Talmud, not all Jews were red diaper babies raised by union activists, all Jews are not from Eastern European shtetls, all Jews are not “New York liberals,” or Pro-Israel, or Pro-peace, or well educated, or small minded, or wealthy, or clever, etc., etc.

The only really Jewish thing about my life now is the fact that I go to synagogue on Friday nights. I don’t keep kosher (sorry, God), and I don’t take out a prayer book three times a day, and I don’t wear a Star of David necklace. I do have a mezuzah on my door, but I never remember to kiss it.

My life isn’t especially Jewish, but I am. It is a big part of my identity, probably as big as being female, or American, or a writer. Being Jewish is essential to how I view the world around me, how I watch the news, how I meet new people. I am probably more skittish about traveling to, say, Germany than the average American woman. I am probably more sensitive about how Israel is portrayed in the news (though some evangelical Christians have me beat on that one).

The fact is, though, that I felt like just as much of a Jewish woman during the fifteen years when I did not belong to a synagogue as I do now. The rituals, and the belonging, while comforting and satisfying, are not the source of the identity for me. I know people who were raised without much involvement in Jewish community life, and they too feel their Jewishness strongly. There’s a mix of pride in the heritage, and fear of being targeted, and shame at being different, that we all share.

My dogs remind me, though, that my Jewish identity isn’t all of who I am. They are deeply connected to the energy of the universe, and they could care less if I am Jewish or Muslim or Christian or agnostic. The dogs represent the connection I have to everyone, not just to one small group.

“Hi Mommy!”

“If you’re Jewish, are we Dogish?”

I went to the supermarket one day, and some kid with weird hair was standing outside. Normally, I wouldn’t ever think of stopping to talk to a strange teenage boy, but he had a bulldog puppy with him and that changed everything. I met the dog, I got kisses, I talked to the boy on the other end of the leash, and he was friendly and talkative, and grateful that I liked his dog, and we parted as friends, feeling better about the world and the other people in it. Dogs do this!

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

So yes, I am a Jewish woman, and an American, and a writer, but before all of that, I am a dog person. It’s not an identity, it’s just what’s there, under all of the layers of identity, and my dogs think it is the most obvious thing about me.

Me and baby Cricket

Me and baby Cricket

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

194 responses »

  1. Really nice post! We are all the same, humans with feelings. If only humans see each other like dogs see us, the world would not have religions or races.

    Reply
    • We’d have big dog enthusiasts versus little dog enthusiasts versus cat enthusiasts. We would always find something to go to war about. It’s a people thing.

      Reply
      • True. This is why all that nonsense doesn’t matter. At one time or another I expect we have all called someone out for something so trivial – or even something they were doing right! So we can all understand that that sort of criticism is not about us.

  2. Great post!

    Reply
  3. You should read Matthew Lippman’s new poetry book Salami Jew. It’s about his Jewish identity. Very very good.

    Reply
  4. No one can walk past a bulldog puppy without stopping. But who can walk past any puppy without stopping! Love your self descriptor and thinking process about yourself. Most interesting & refreshingly open and honest~

    Reply
    • Thank you! I figure, if we could have puppies in every new place we have to go (first day of school, visit to the doctor, etc) the world would be a much better place, for all of us.

      Reply
  5. Loved this! I can relate to not wanting to talk about the parts of you that are different from what is deemed “normal”. That said, I got a chance to read a different perspective that gave me better insight than I had going in, so for that, thank you! I also fashion myself as a dog person as dogs are arguably one of the most unifying creatures on this planet. 🙂

    Reply
  6. I’m Catholic but grew up surrounded by Jewish neighbors. The houses behind me had one person in each house was named Leslie (Lesley for my best friend), which, for some reason, always made me smile. When I moved from NJ to FL, I was amazed that there were hardly any Catholics or Jewish people. So I married a Baptist! If you are dogish (Cricket is so smart!), I guess I am catish. I love it, Rachel!

    Reply
  7. Without knowing you personally, I can feel that you gave a very honest description of yourself. Continue to be proud of what you are. Not only dogs but everybody can say that you contribute a lot for the betterment of the world. Take care!

    Reply
  8. thank God for dogs. Like Mark Twain said, “If dogs don’t go to Heaven then I want to go wherever they went.”

    Reply
  9. What a fabulous post! I really enjoyed reading your perspective on being Jewish.

    My knowledge of the Jewish experience is one largely formulated by the books, mostly fiction, that I’ve read. Michener’s ‘The Source,’ all of Chaim Potok’s novels and his book, ‘Wanderings,’ and Herman Wouk’s books. It’s a rich history, and one too often filled with tragic events.

    Like you, I’m a dog person (and have a secret hankering for a bulldog – one my husband doesn’t share, unfortunately). I’ve never been able to walk past anyone who has a cute dog without stopping to talk to both owner and pet.

    Reply
  10. I really enjoyed reading this. Its always interesting to see another person’s perspective on life and what is always buzzing around us that we take for granted or as the norm. As a Christian woman, I would love to read more about what its like to be Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and everything in between. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Reply
  11. I love the photos and captions in this post, and I also love what you wrote. Our religious identities are all so personal, for some it makes up the real “fabric” of who they are, for others it is a cultural connection, and there are those who are more spiritual not traditionally “observant”. I have always found it important to respect each person’s choice in how they want to live their Judaism.
    I will share with you a funny story about Judaism and dogs, there is a Jewish custom when a person is sick to add a name, in hope that by adding the name it will change the person’s “mazel” and bring healing. Often the name given is Chaim – for life. I met someone in town walking their dog and like you I always stop to pet a dog and ask about them- I asked what the dogs name was and the person told me his name had been Max but he took ill so they added the name Chaim so he is now Chaim Max and he did recover! That was a first for me- but showed the power of the love of Judaism and love for a dog all together.

    Reply
  12. Very well said!

    Reply
  13. Thanks for allowing me to get to know something else about who you are as a person. Great post, I agree with you about dog persons, it does transcend all the other identifiers. 🙂

    Reply
  14. This is what I was taught my whole life… “never care what others think, what you think is all that matters.” Stand proud, be you, those who don’t like it, tough, those who do, great. I for one love reading about other people, their lives, their traditions, their ancestry, religion, etc. etc. Glad you made this post! You go.

    Reply
  15. From one dog lover to another, I agree with you 100%. Dogs make the world better and bring people from all walks of life together. As you said, people that you would never stop to chat with now become approachable and desirable due to a dog. The best part is, you usually get a very nice surprise about who the real person is on the other end of that leash!

    Reply
  16. I am atheist dogist 🙂 we actually have few Jewish people here in New Zealand, and while I have a few Christian friends, most people I know are atheist. We are a pretty accepting and liberal nation for the most part though.

    Reply
  17. You should come on over here. We don’t have many Jews – just one synagogue! – and don’t much care about personal religious choices anyway. It’s already too mixed up. The dog loving person is what counts.

    Reply
  18. When Mom was a girl, she read books like, “The Endless Steppe” and “The Promise” and “The Chosen” and wished with all her heart she was Jewish. Mom is adopted, and never felt like she belonged anywhere. She thought the Jewish culture was so close knit and family-oriented, and that she was always on the outside, looking in. Cherish your culture and your family, my dogish friend. Woof! Love, Maggie

    Reply
    • My brother loves that close knit feeling about being Jewish, that he could travel to another country and be welcomed into a stranger’s house for Friday night dinner, just for being Jewish. And yet, I just went to a class given by our Rabbinic intern, about all of the people who can feel excluded from synagogue because of the color of their skin or cultural background. She is black, female, and gay and would not have the same kind of reception as my brother, in a lot of places. And yet, she is just as Jewish as he is, and she makes ME feel welcome. We come in all varieties.

      Reply
  19. My best friend in third grade was Jewish, and told me about lighting the candles on the Sabbath, and it sounded like the coolest, most mystical thing in the world… this is a wonderful piece of writing, and really conveys a lot of important ideas. And yes, dogs are an immediate connection to the universe, as you so beautifully put it. Thank you, Rachel Mankowitz, for being out there & being a writer… and writing this!

    Reply
  20. You are so correct! It’s such an awesome post! Woof! We are dogist and no borders or religions can separate us from our fellow dogists and their dogs! Loved it. 🙂

    Reply
  21. Some years ago I met a couple from Norway. They had just completed a holiday in Western Europe and were on their way back home. The lady said that they had a great time, except for the time they were in Germany. She could not relax nor enjoy anything because all the while she was uneasy and felt she was traveling in Enemy Territory, so I understand the Germany thing. I did know a number of Jewish families in Scotland, but none here. That might be different if I lived in a city. However, there are certainly Jewish people in the rural and farmlands of South Australia but generally they are isolated ( it’s a BIG country) Hence the fact that Chabad of RARA (RARA = Regional and Rural Australia) comes to this area on a regular basis. They generally stop here for fuel and supplies as we are the largest of the country towns in the north. Next time the Patrol Padres stop in I must remember to ask them if they have ever seen the Hebrew people in their travels. And as regard to people – we are dog people and that, more than anything else, unites us irrespective of our religious beliefs or lack thereof. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a bad way to be united.

    Reply
  22. As a lapsed Catholic who attended a Jesuit grammar school, I can identify with much of what you say about a religious upbringing and identity. I may have once been required to defend my faith, but not my race. I have to say I remain grateful for the education I was given and for essential Christian attitudes to life, which made it difficult to draw away from some of the tenets and rituals. That took many years.

    Reply
  23. Being a dog person opens up a whole new world of friends, doesn’t it? I had a nice conversation with a lady at the gas station about our dogs. Will never see her again, don’t know her name, and she could be from anywhere, but for a few minutes, we connected. I like that.

    Reply
  24. My dad (who died young) was a Christian but instilled in me a love for all people. My stepdad was Jewish and I learned a lot. Then I spent many years of my adult life in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Burma and India. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism—bring it on. The world is a wonderful place. And cheers from another dog person.

    Reply
    • What an amazing life you’ve led! You’ve had the chance to meet people who live these different religions in their own skin, instead of just seeing them in vague generalizations on the news. That makes all the difference.

      Reply
  25. Thank you for posting this! It is always nice to find other Jewish bloggers:)

    Reply
  26. Thank you for writing about being Jewish. That took courage considering all of those things you spoke about. I was raised in Baptist churches of the fundamental stripe which made me the outsider at my schools because I was not allowed to go to movies or dance and a laundry list of other things. But somehow during that time, I developed a compassion for the Jewish people and the persecution they have suffered. So I began to do some research on my own. Anne Frank started me off. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I watched Schindler’s List an a plethora of like including Fiddler on the Roof. I learned a lot of history that way, but also got glimpses of the incredible courage of the Jewish people.

    Reply
    • I love Anne Frank, just the normalness of her in extraordinary circumstances. And she’s universal because of that. We’re all so similar.

      Reply
      • We are all so similar. There is something in the make-up of some people (insecurity?) who make careers of being bullies. I don’t understand it, but I do know that if we could all learn to appreciate our differences and work together … wow.

  27. Chelle's Dog Blog

    Wow, wow wow! There’s so much that I want to say that I hope that I don’t end up writing a novel on your comments section 🙂
    It was unbelievably courageous of you, despite your original reservations, to write this post and I’m so glad you did. My grandparents on my mom’s side were extremely religious and though I was not raised in a particularly religious household my mom and her sisters were, to the extent that my mom was made to break up with the first boy she ever loved because he wasn’t Baptist. I have grown up hearing the stories about it though while I was growing up my grandparents still went to church they were not as strictly religious as when they were raising my mom and my aunts. Reading your post let me see yet another side of that type of upbringing and I’m so glad you took your friend’s advice and wrote this!
    I loved the end where you pointed out what I have discussed with my friends and family so much over the years. Dogs are such amazing creatures that have the ability to bring people together regardless of religion, social status, age, race, etc. People that some may see as unapproachable all of a sudden become just another person all because they have a dog or puppy with them. It’s amazing and I so know exactly what you’re talking about! I never even think about the person really…..I see a dog and I’m instantly walking over there to give them some love, I can’t help myself. I have met some really amazing people being in that very situation and even the other way around. I’m out with my pups and it just seems to immediately open a line of communication.
    Thank you so much for posting this I so enjoyed reading it this morning!
    Oh! I almost forgot….I have to ask what kind of dogs you have? The pup on the right in the first picture resembles my Lola so much and whenever I see a dog that looks similar to her I have to ask since she’s a mix of several breeds. She is Maltese/Poodle/Cocker Spaniel

    Reply
    • Thank you! Cricket is a Cocker Spaniel/Poodle mix, and Butterfly is a Lhasa Apso. They’re completely different breeds, with different backgrounds and personalities, and yet, they make great sisters. I love how that happens!

      Reply
      • Chelle's Dog Blog

        No wonder Cricket and my Lola look so alike! I love when I see pups that resemble her mix 🙂 Your Butterfly is absolutely precious too. Mine are also very different. Seamus is a westie/poodle and their personalities are so very different but they are just perfect for each other and love each other so much

  28. Lovely post Rachel. I too am a doggy person, and the dogs know I’m a doggy person, and the people I talk to who are walking their dogs know I’m a doggy person. I wouldn’t have it any different.
    I don’t knock a person’s beliefs, but religions are contradictory and confusing. Dogs are not. Probably why I prefer dogs to people. 🙂

    Reply
  29. There ‘should’ be a ‘church of dog’ because dog people seem to transcend barriers that the world imposes – color, creed, religion etc. Well to me anyway. I was very impressed with this post and with your comfort in your own skin. I have always been awed by the history and heritage of the Jewish people and the antiquity which makes it all the more rich, at least to me.

    I belong to a religious group myself – the Mormons. I was born into the faith, and in my early young adulthood turned my back on what I had been raised to believe. It’s just lately that I’ve come back to my roots (as it were) and for me it’s the right thing now. It wasn’t then. Sometimes some of us apparently have to explore a world outside our known boundaries to grow.

    But my ‘dogness’ has always stayed with me and I love reading of Cricket and Butterfly and their adventures and wise advice to the world of the human. As I said at the beginning..there SHOULD be a ‘church of the dog’ because I believe it would be a place where anyone could be accepted. Unconditionally.

    Reply
  30. dare2dream2pursuereality

    I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing. It’s a brave thing to put yourself out there like that.

    Reply
  31. I started out Roman Catholic and went to parochial school from 2nd grade because we were getting beaten up at the public school. By high school I was seriously considering becoming a nun. In college I hung out with the Christian Fellowship, which included folks who spoke in tongues (yeah, I still don’t get it either) and went to one shabbat service and one seder with my best friend who was dating a Jewish guy. The Hillel folks were shocked by my interest, called me an honorary Jew. Together we started an interfaith council at my college, which I believe is still going. Seven years ago I gave up on the Romans and became Episcopalian, but i never fit it entirely–to Protestant for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Protestants.

    I got my second masters in christian theology at an Episcopal seminary, and in one class I said, “What if your god had fur?” and was shocked at how surprised they all were by that.

    Reply
    • People can be so rigid about who belongs with who, and dogs don’t care. When Cricket was a puppy, her favorite dogs were Golden retrievers, about ten times her size. Dogs know about looking deep into the other person to decide who they are, rather than sticking with the outside skin.

      Reply
  32. Thank you for having the bravery to face your fears and leave your vulnerability open. I identified with your words, although I am not a Jewish woman. I think this is because the way in which you describe you feelings strikes me as not having to do so much with being a Jew, but in feeling different from other people. In my experience, this is the feeling shared by artists throughout the world. It is your creativity that makes you stand out in the crowd, and I applaud you.

    Reply
  33. I am so glad you posted this. As someone whose family converted for we don’t even know why (though early 20th Century is easy to guess), it was very interesting for me.

    And dogs unite the world. Funny how many barriers they break down for us.

    Reply
  34. I honestly just enjoyed reading this so much. Your writing is also so easy on the ear and mind.

    Reply
  35. There you go again, scared and nervous and not without some cause, forging on and doing the brave thing anyway. This was a great post. I’ve had a lot of Jewish friends over the years and I’m very grateful for the way they shared their individual ways of being Jewish, and the way it enriched my life. I’ve had a lot of dog friends over the years, too, who also shared their individual ways of being dog and enriched my life. If we could just let one another be ourselves and relax about like dogs and cats do it would be wonderful.

    Reply
  36. Thanks for sharing your lovely thoughts. You are not alone. We all have insecurities and discomfort about something we perceive as “different” even though most around us are unaware of those feelings. Our family is ecumenical. Some have mezuzahs on the doorposts, some go to Mass every day, some are Protestants, and some don’t have any identifiable religious belief, but we don’t think much about external trappings and love one another deeply for the inner persons we all are.

    Reply
  37. Me and my cats love you and your dogs, Rachel.
    I’m a Christian, and most of my Bible is Jewish. I make a point of remembering that.

    Reply
  38. I really appreciate that you shared your feelings with us about being Jewish. I guess I always took Jewish people for granted – I admire the dedication the Jewish people have towards God and still honor Him the same today as thousands of years ago. But I never realized there are still struggles today. With studying the Old Testament I have come to understand a bit more of the Jewish history and the struggles of the past, it is just hard to think it still goes on today. For me and my Hooligans though we are glad to know you and for who you are!

    Reply
  39. I am Jewish and attended an Orthodox yeshiva through fifth grade. Then I headed for the public schools, where my observation of ritual became a problem. In high school, my sister and I were the only Jews in a huge school. We pretended, made excuses, tried to fit in. I had similar experiences to your own in college, Rachel, with the references to books of the Bible that were unfamiliar. After many false starts, it took me a very long time to meet the love of the my life, who happened to be Christian, and we married at the age of 40. Her mom is a Pentecostal minister, and we lived with her in the church parsonage for a year and a half, so it has been an interesting experience learning about all the Christian things that my parents tried to shield me from when I was young. I grew up being taught that Jewish people don’t keep dogs because it’s disgusting and unclean to have animals in the house and only goyim do that. Somehow, this did not prevent my mother from having a cat. Then again, my mother is good on justifying anything that suits her fancy. As for me, I remain pet-free (although we give plenty of love to the dogs and cat and chickens that live here on the property). My wife and I agree that no amount of doggy love is worth cleaning up the poop. I have kept kosher all my life (which is really very easy now that I’m a vegan), pray the Shacharit each morning and don’t attend synagogue because I have been unable to find one that I can tolerate in this area. I grew up in the Conservative movement. Reformed is a little too new-agey for me, and Chabad makes me feel like I’m 8 years old back in yeshiva again. I just hope that God will understand.

    Reply
  40. Great post , l enjoyed reading it.The fact remains solid as gold we are one universal family.,regardless what the opposition say.Regards.

    Reply
  41. Lovely post, Rachel. We all have our inheritance, beliefs and identity (hopefully), and we are all different from each other in some ways. But your dogs are right (aren’t they always?) that we’re all part of one big family living here, sharing this precious planet.

    Reply
  42. I love this post and relate to a lot of it. I grew up Jewish in a very Christian-oriented community and have spent my entire life trying to remind people that not everyone has a Christian filter when looking at things. It’s exhausting. I stopped going to Temple a few years ago but I will always identify as Jewish. It’s part of who I am. But you are correct – even more than that I’m a dog person. 🙂

    Reply
  43. I loved your honesty in your post. My grandparents on my mother’s side were orthodox. My mother did not follow her parents’ traditions but we did follow the holiday traditions, especially when visiting my grandparents. I was raised in a predominant Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia and our high school was at least 90% Jewish. As a mother I raised my boys with less traditions than my mother but helped them understand who they are as a human being and never forget they are Jewish. As for myself, I turned more spiritual in my faith than religious. I am proud of my heritage, respect it but I believe who I am as a spiritual woman is more important than the traditions of our faith. Thank you for an excellent post Rachel.

    Reply
  44. I felt exactly the same as you about embracing and accepting my spiritual side as part of me and who I am. Although when I use the word “spiritual” in this sense I do not mean it towards a religious tendency. I grew up never talking about what I could see that others couldn’t and what I knew instinctively. Even now I am very careful how I approach the subject and who I talk to about it. There’s always a 50/50 chance when I meet someone new and tell them about my spiritual side that they will accept me or reject me based on it. Then there are those who want me to perform for them like a seal “Go on what’s my future then?” I have said to people that I wish I had a choice whether to be able to do what I can do or not but I don’t. It is who I am and they will either accept me for it or move on!
    Well done you on being so brave and making this post more about you…I look forward to hearing more 🙂

    Reply
    • We are all so much more than we may seem on the surface. A teacher recently told me that you are allowed to wait until you feel comfortable to share more of yourself with other people. You don’t have to show it all on demand. I like that idea, of people gradually unfolding as you get to know them.

      Reply
  45. I am so happy you decided to write this post. It was a great read. I am a dog and cat ( and lots of other animals) person. 🙂
    I grew up and was raised as a good Christian child. When I grew older and started working, I met friends outside the Christian life I was accustomed to. Then I started to study other religions and beliefs and read so much, I could not get enough information.
    Just like you, I don’t talk or write much about my beliefs. I am fortunate to have friends that are Christian, Jewish, just Religious and Pagan. We all respect each other. Not many people know I am Pagan / Wiccan myself, but some will recognize my pendant and ask questions as they are curious to understand more.
    You made my day. Thank you. Have a good one as well. Hugs to the doggies as well.

    Reply
  46. Lovely article as always. I’m also a dog person first. 😊

    Reply
  47. I love your dogs and their comments – brilliant

    Reply
  48. Here, here! Our dogs love us no matter what: who we are, what we are, how we smell, what we look like, what we believe or don’t believe….that’s what makes them so amazing! Thanks for sharing. Yes I believe in this DOGma! 🙂

    Reply
  49. What others think is just rubbish; unto thine own self be true. Besides, you have a couple adorable pupsters, so just like the boy with the bulldog puppy, who wouldn’t love ya? 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: