Jew-ish: My Italian-Jewish Identity Crisis

Hannah Siegel
August 11, 2021

My Jewish identity has always been a struggle. I grew up in an Italian and Jewish family, where one side hosted Passover Seders and the other were ardent Catholics. My parents tried to integrate both cultures; they signed a ketubah, served Italian food at my brothers’ bris (apparently the mohel loved it), and I have both a Cornicello and a Magen David necklace. Jewish and Italian cultures are beautiful, but it was difficult for me to fit in a box. I struggled more with my Jewishness, even refusing a Bat Mitzvah just a few months before the date of my ceremony. My family always asks me why I did so. I was terrified of antisemitism and identifying as Jew, but I also was very integrated with Italian culture. As a little girl, it seemed easier to only embrace one side, instead of balancing two cultures. I realize now that they compliment each other so well, something I was unaware of while growing up.

Despite attempts to distance myself, my Jewish identity was never entirely gone. Classmates would ask me if I was Jewish, even though I wasn’t practicing. It used to bother me, until I asked myself why I was so adamant in ignoring my identity. I will always be Jewish, even if I choose not to self-identify. My childhood was filled with Passover Seders and playdates with my friends from Hebrew School. If I were not Jewish, I would not be me — I would never have those memories. My fear of antisemitism has always loomed over my head. As I got more involved and reconnected with my identity, I confronted that fear. When I spoke out on Zionism, my parents were worried for my safety. My grandmother was scared of people seeing my Star of David, fearing an attack. But I didn’t back down. I realized that sacrificing my Jewish identity would be sacrificing myself. I was always Jewish and coming home — just a little lost on the way.

There will always be people that hate Jews for being Jews. I refuse to let them win. To be Jewish is to be resilient, to preserve through centuries of hatred. History may be dark, but the future is bright. Jews have defeated the odds, and we are not going anywhere. After all, Jewish holidays are about survival. On Purim, we celebrate escaping death by Haman. On Pesach, we celebrate our escape from slavery in Egypt. Even certain cultural foods emerged as a result of antisemitism. As a child, it was scary to think about the Jewish plight and trauma that we passed down through our stories and holidays. But today, I can remember that these stories ended with a triumph. Haman failed, the Pharaoh let us go, we found ways to live and pass our culture on. Across language barriers and oceans, the Jewish community is one that looks out for each other, a collective with a shared culture and experience. Together, we are one.

In Hebrew school, we used to sing, “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish. You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.” I never realized how true it was until I left home. Joining Hillel at my college, Southern Methodist University, was one of the best decisions I could have made. The girl who avoided Hebrew School and her Bat Mitzvah reintroduced herself to her culture. Reconnecting with my Jewish identity was surprising to my family, but to me, it felt right. It was about being myself. With each Shabbat Dinner or Passover Seder with Hillel, memories of my childhood came flooding back. I got involved in any way I can, always looking forward to the next event. When antisemitism plagued my college campus, we stuck together. Our Rabbi was always just a text message or a Zoom call away, even as I left my dorm for my house 1,400 miles away.

I am proud to call myself a Jew. Assimilation would never help me escape antisemitism, and my Jewish family was always there waiting for me to come home. No matter how much I distanced myself, I was always a Jew. As I accompany my challah with penne alla vodka for Shabbat dinner, I realize that both my Jewish and Italian identity could coincide. There was never a reason to push aside that Jewish part of me. My DNA test even confirms it — 50% Ashkenazi and 50% Italian. I do not need to change myself or ignore my other half to be accepted within the community — I can just be myself. All Jews are treated the same, regardless of how much “Jewish blood” they have, if any. Despite years of persecution and resilience, Jews are so welcoming. I’m happy to be home. Times may get hard, but I will always wear my Magen David with pride and I will always find family, wherever I go.

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