I grew up in two different worlds — one that doesn’t exist anymore and one in which I didn’t feel quite at home. Like many children of immigrants, I struggled with the culture of America. I grew up in a time when it wasn’t chic to be a hyphenated American.
I remember trying to explain to some friends that my parents were German Jews who survived the Holocaust. They couldn’t understand how one could be both German and Jewish. Even though their families were Irish or Italian Catholic, they couldn’t grasp the concept. To them I was Jewish, and that was it. It wasn’t possible for me to be defined by more than one identity.
Many times I felt I was on the outside looking in. There were times I wanted to jump into the melting pot, blend in and be a plain old American kid eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wearing my baseball cap, but I couldn’t. Neither could most of my friends who were children of survivors.
Some of us had parents who told the neighborhood kids that the numbers on their arms were their phone numbers; some of us had parents who told stories of the Holocaust every night over dinner; and some of us had parents who never told us anything.
Some identities choose us and some identities we choose. The Holocaust was an identity that chose me — and I chose to keep it. I tried to run away but each time I tried, the stronger the pull was to come back. Finally I stopped running. I asked my parents to tell me their stories. I wrote a book of poetry about my family’s stories and about being the daughter of survivors.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that my identity struggle is what makes me a part of American culture. Maybe the melting pot of America is really a melding pot, and being a part of American culture means it truly is possible to have more than one identity.
Our nation’s president had a father who was black and a mother who was white. And that doesn’t begin to do justice to the person he is and the ways in which he identifies himself, or how we see him.
I can no longer define myself just as Jewish or just as American, or even just as a Jewish American.
I am a hyphenated American with as many hyphens as I choose. I am a Jewish-American-daughter of Holocaust survivors-daughter of German immigrants-poet-opera lover-teacher-voracious reader-curious about everything-filled with self-doubt-constant dreamer.
And that is just the beginning.