Updated 7/13/21: This article has been updated to remove the photo of an individual whose personal safety was under threat.
When I was a kid, I was often told that I was special. I’m sure you were told that, too — but I was, like, really special. Like, even more special than you were.
Now, I know better. Turns out I’m just a Jew.
As a child, constant validation and promises of potential are inspiring and affirming. Adults say you can do anything — become anything and everything. Your individuality and uniqueness are preached unto you; you are a messiah of greatness and achievements yet to come. You are special, different. However, the repeated assurances of individuality paradoxically make it harder to come to terms with one’s identity or lack thereof.
Having phrases such as “nice Jewish boy” and “Jewish American princess” in my arsenal made me feel something akin to identity superiority. It’s not that I thought being Jewish was better than being any other ethnicity or religion, but I liked having something that made me different — something to call my own. I liked knowing and using these exclusive, kitschy phrases that were so beautifully cringe-worthy.
I also liked having an excuse. I used my Judaism as a makeshift crutch; ignoring its religious foundation and meaning, I applied ethnic Jewish culture superficially and conveniently in place of genuine personality or humor. If I felt insecure in a group setting but knew there’d be a validating laugh if I mentioned my Judaism, I would exploit it immediately. My conversations were more riddled with pop culture references of “Seinfeld” memes and Woody Allen than actual, meaningful discussions (not that “Seinfeld” isn’t meaningful — I can write a whole dissertation on George Costanza). It was easier to discuss the intricacies of bagels and lox than to have people actually, truly know me, because if they saw the genuine Melody, maybe they wouldn’t like her. I protected my fragile ego by wrapping it in external cultural identity. There wasn’t even much to protect; I frequently compared the size of my ego to the government budgetary surplus or Danny DeVito’s height. More often, I used my Judaism when I was feeling insecure, marketing my bouts of social anxiety as typical comedic Jewish anxiety. I justified my neuroticism with my Judaism — of course I’m acting obnoxious and loud right now. I’m a Jew! Haven’t you watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm”? It’s my culture. Judaism served as my excuse. Is it possible to appropriate your own culture?
However, I lived in Los Angeles, where Jews are as ubiquitous as overpriced kale salads. I was still able to convince myself of my individuality because I took neuroticism and self-deprecation to a whole new level (and of course, that was my personal hallmark of Judaism). I was a Semitic Snow White — the Jewest of them all! Yet, as I grew older, my idiosyncrasy became more threatened.
This identity crisis rose to its peak while I was auditioning for UC Berkeley’s various improv troupes. The groups themselves were diverse, but had a high percentage of Jews. It’s a nerve-wracking experience to unleash your vulnerability and have people know you’re trying to gain their validation. Trying to make people laugh and having them know that immediately puts you in a subtier.
My jokes about being Jewish didn’t play out as well as usual, because everyone knew these shticks — everyone else was also Jewish. I was used to having a receptive audience unfamiliar with the Jewish community — one that was more eager to laugh about a culture they were unaccustomed to. They couldn’t tell if I was doing my culture a disservice or not. I held them culturally hostage with my jokes, forcing them to witness a disingenuous version of Judaism meant only to benefit my hubris.
But now, I was in a setting where everyone was similar to me and carried the characteristics that I thought were ever so unique. They knew I was superficially capitalizing on Jewish culture, disingenuously using it to seem more eccentric than I actually am. It wasn’t that they were more Jewish than me — that would’ve been better. The issue was that they were just as Jewish as me. They had also experienced the embarrassment of wearing all white during Shabbat, while also on your period. They had also felt that immediate crush on anybody with a vaguely Israeli name (I’m looking at you Avi, Shai and Gilad). It felt as if I were being cheated on by my own culture — how dare Judaism lend itself to a population outside of myself! I was the Jewish Veruca Salt; it was supposed to be all mine.
Recently, I’ve undertaken the challenge of developing an actual, nuanced identity — it’s been kind of annoying. Can’t I just be one of those girls who “loves hummus, ‘Fauda’ and laughing with my fellow Jewish American princesses”? However, reducing myself to the most crude and rudimentary stereotypes of Jews does both me and Judaism a disservice.
It’s true that some aspects of cultural or ethnic identity are integral to who you are. I don’t think I would be wholly me if I weren’t Jewish. But I can reference my Judaism and have that serve as one of my key characteristics without making that my sole identifier. I am composed of characteristics other than my Judaism. For example, my perfection. Also, my modesty.
There’s a lot to think about. I think I’ll do a comedy set at the local Hillel to figure it out — I doubt there are any Jews who do comedy in big cities.