On October 27, 2018, 42-year-old Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in my lifelong home of Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11. The attack was explicitly anti-Semitic; Bowers had posted on social media multiple times to rail against “the filthy evil Jews.” Tree of Life is located in the heart of Squirrel Hill, the locus of Pittsburgh’s largest and most vibrant Jewish community. The victims were there attending regular Shabbat services as well as a bris, the Jewish celebration of new life. When the shooting occurred, I was sitting in the campaign headquarters of a political candidate I was interning for, five minutes away from the synagogue. I remember hearing the ambulances whizz by, getting the initial concerned texts from my friends, frantically calling our volunteer canvassers and telling them to stop what they were doing and get safe.
The massacre brought Pittsburgh to its knees—and then it brought Pittsburgh together. The city united in mourning, comforting, and demanding better. Residents from every neighborhood, background, and faith crammed the streets of Squirrel Hill to hold vigils and rallies against gun violence and bigotry. I remember one such gathering in particular, at the corner of Murray and Forbes, one of the city’s busiest intersections. From the pavement, I looked up to where the organizers of the event stood on a makeshift stage. I recognized one of them: she came from a well-known Orthodox family. I had gone to middle school with her; she would often stay home to observe Jewish holidays not deemed significant enough to warrant a district-wide day off. During the rally, she spoke to the crowd about the shock the shooting had sent through the Jewish community and about how much pain it had brought to the congregants of Tree of Life.
As I listened to her, I contemplated my own relationship with Judaism. I identify as a Jew—culturally, ethnically, genetically, whichever word you prefer—but I do not believe in the Jewish faith. I’ve been to many a Passover Seder and Rosh Hashanah celebration while visiting my aunt and uncle; I wore a yarmulke and recited the Kaddish at my grandfather’s funeral this past summer. But I think of myself as an atheist, and my family does a secular Christmas because “it’s more fun than Hanukkah.” Three out of my four grandparents were Jews—but not my mom’s mom, meaning I don’t fulfill the traditional requirement of matrilineal descent. I exist in a sort of grey space: Jew-ish.
As my former classmate shared her reflections, pausing frequently to keep herself from crying, I hated that I didn’t feel any special grief because the killings were anti-Semitic killings. I felt sorrow and anger as a Pittsburgher, but not distinctly as a Jewish Pittsburgher. How could I call myself a Jew if I didn’t feel more threatened by the murder of Jews than the non-Jewish person next to me? And then I hated that I even had that thought: was I somehow jealous of this girl’s claim to suffering? Why should my reaction to a brutal massacre have any bearing on my identity?
Nonetheless: identity—that was what was at stake. The more I considered it, the more I realized that I had felt severed from my Jewishness for a long time, that Tree of Life had merely crystallized a deeper internal insecurity. Growing up adjacent to Pittsburgh’s thriving Jewish community, going to friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs, watching my cousin fall in love with his Jewish day school—my relationship to Judaism existed relative to that of others. In my peripheral had always been the image of a “real Jew,” and that person never looked like me. And so, subconsciously, I had decided that I was not a real Jew.
To be sure, identity is inherently individualistic. But our identities, it seems to me, are also determined in large part by which groups we belong to. Simply by nature of my birth, I fall, to some degree, into the category of Jewishness, and therefore Jewishness becomes a part of my identity absent any of any choice on my part. And identity is dynamically informed by others: it twists and shifts, picks itself up and moves itself about within us in response to the rest of the group. As I matured, my Jewishness was influenced by the Jewishness of those around me, and I, compelled in equal measure by an affinity for Christmas tree ornaments and a disdain for gefilte fish, didn’t keep very close tabs. When Tree of Life happened, I reached for my Jewish identity only to find that it had relocated itself and shrunk.
Of course, this transformation didn’t happen overnight. I think back to the travel baseball team that I played on from ages 13 to 15, which, excluding me, was populated exclusively by evangelical Christians from the suburbs. My teammates all knew each other—they mostly went to the same school, and they had played on the team for years before I joined. They also weren’t the inclusive type. A practice without the casual use of a racial slur was rare; “gay” was synonymous with undesirable; a warmup exercise that involved swinging our arms in wide circles was colloquially known as “the Helen Keller.” (Any time I would protest, I was told to “stop being such a city kid.” Eventually, this was enough to make me quit the team). Already an outsider, I made the decision at some point—though I did not admit it to myself then—to avoid acknowledging my Jewishness in the presence of my teammates. Any time the fact that we were missing church came up in conversation during one of our many weekend trips to Columbus or Cincinnati, I would remain quiet. I figured it was easier to hide that part of myself—that part of my identity—than to reveal it and risk further alienation. After all, I needed someone to sit next to at post-game Applebee’s.
It must have been lots of little things like that—small sacrifices for convenience, for not rocking the boat—that added up to the distance I felt from my childhood classmate as she stood before me on that October night more than two years ago, proudly declaring her Jewishness, standing in solidarity with her people.
From what I’ve observed in a semester on campus, Princeton’s Jewish community, like that of Pittsburgh, is strong and close-knit. Several of my friends keep kosher; some don’t work on Shabbat. My inbox is flooded with emails advertising Jewish student groups. As before, I can’t help but feel that if a consistent, often public relationship with Judaism is what it means to be Jewish, I must be something else. Am I really a Jew at Princeton if I don’t make a point to involve myself in Princeton’s Jewish networks? Is it wrong for me to eat at the Center for Jewish Life if I couldn’t tell you which days it’s open? And am I missing out on a source of empowerment and meaning? These questions surface again and again. But I also wonder why I care about any of that—why I put so much pressure on Jewishness in particular to be a central aspect of my identity, why my impulse is to define that identity in others’ terms rather than simply allowing myself whatever relationship with Judaism feels right. Because the truth of it is it’s not that clear-cut. Jewishness is part of me, and it will be, in some form, for the rest of my life. But I am also more than my Jewishness—just as all Jewish people are. Robert Bowers reduced Jews to that single identifier, and so he hated them—hated us. But identity is far more complicated than that. I am a Jew, and I am also not a Jew. Yeah: I’m Jew-ish.