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Generation J

Generation J by Lisa Schiffman
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"I'm not alone. I am part of a generation of fragmented Jews. We're in a kind of limbo. We're suspended between young adulthood and middle age, between Judaism and atheism, between a desire to believe in religion and a personal history of skepticism. Call us a bunch of searchers. Call us post-Holocaust Jews. Call us Generation J."

Generation J is the ambivalent generation: unaffiliated seekers, men and women who have grown up questioning the bounds of organized religion. Lisa Schiffman is one of these seekers, and Generation J chronicles her journey through the contradictory landscape of Jewish identity. Moving from the personal to the universal, from autobiography to anthropology, from laughter to tears, Schiffman shows us the many ways in which one can be religious.

Whether dipping into a ritual bath, getting henna-tattooed with the Star of David, unravelling the mysteries of the kabbalah, or confronting what Jewish tradition has to say about gay marriage, Schiffman reveals the conflicts of meaning and connection common to all who try to chart their own spiritual path. And, through it all, with humor and sensitivity, she confronts the reasons for her own quest and begins to untangle some of the thorniest questions about identity, community, and religion in America today.

This engaging exploration of what it means to be Jewish is every bit as much a fascinating tour of the varieties of contemporary Jewish practice as it is an unusual personal quest. Smart, funny, and provocative, Schiffman brilliantly explores the problems and possibilities facing any spiritual seeker today.

HarperCollins; May 2009
176 pages; ISBN 9780061926457
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Title: Generation J
Author: Lisa Schiffman

Chapter One

Generation J

It was a Sunday just before the new millennium, which meant that somewhere, a workshop was going on. Somewhere, off the backroads of Boulder or at the outer edges of Manhattan, people were together in a small room, sitting cross-legged on the floor or straight-backed in folding chairs. They were doing things that would seem odd in any other setting. They were inhaling the scent of vanilla, for example, and writing down a memory. They were standing up in front of strangers and telling their most personal revelations. They were shedding their weekday wear of suits and ties, leaving behind their laptops and cell-phones. They were forking over personal checks in the hopes of finding out (in a cosmic sense) what it all meant. They were--once again, because the process never ended--trying to define the elusive boundaries that made up their identity.

I was no different. Early one Sunday morning, I wrapped my hands around a steaming cup of cappuccino and squeezed through a crowded Berkeley doorway into a workshop on Jewish identity. I did this voluntarily. I actually paid good money for a conference on Judaism and psychology.

In front of me, on small chairs with rigid backs, sat twenty psychotherapists, a lanky choreographer, and a few wispy graduate students. Most were women and all were hunched over their laps, writing furiously on a piece of paper divided into four areas--one for paternal grandparents, one for maternal grandparents, one for parents, and one for siblings. Each area contained the words: I am a Jew, and to me that means ______.

The workshop leader, ethnotherapist Joel Crohn, gave me a form as I entered. I was supposed to fill in the blanks by composing a line describing what being Jewish meant for each of my relatives. I took a seat and began chewing on the end of my pen. I usually despised psychological exercises. I either felt superior to them, a condition that I figured indicated some sort of delusions-of-grandeur neurosis, or I felt the absolute dread of hard work, as though someone had just asked me to mow a lawn with scissors. I eyed the door. Perhaps I could make my way out, bail before anyone noticed.

No. I hunkered down more deeply in my seat. I was there to find out more about myself, to make sense of the question that American Jews kept asking: What does it mean to be Jewish? Crohn strode across the room. "The name of this exercise is Ancestral Shadows," he said. "And by the end of it, you're going to hear many voices."

He closed the door. I was in it for the duration now. He pointed to a small woman named Deborah and asked her to choose people to play her ancestors. Role-playing. My palms began to sweat. I wanted no part. I averted my eyes, lowered my head. "You," she said, her voice in my ear, "maybe you could be my grandmother." When I stood up, she stepped back, assessed my face. "No, you look too nice," she said, waving her hand. "You can sit down."

Too nice? I thought of my never-leaves-New-York sister, who had once tried training me in nastiness. She said it was for my own good. In Manhattan parlance, nice meant sucker. It meant your new landlord took one look at you, upped the monthly rent by a few hundred bucks, and kept the key-deposit money when you left. I narrowed my eyes at the small woman in front of me. She smiled, turned away, pointed to someone else in the group. I sat down, nicely, in my seat.

Soon her surrogate relatives began populating the center of the room. At Crohn's signal they stood in a cluster and began to recite their lines over and over. Imagine an entire family talking at once, saying different things. (If you're Jewish, this shouldn't be too hard.) They didn't listen to each other. They each said who they were as Jews, again and again. It was a dissonant, disorganized chorus, but in it I heard the shifting nature, the generational voices of Judaism:

surrogate grandparent 1: I'm a Jew, and to me that means following the rules without question.

surrogate grandparent 2: I'm a Russian Jew who escaped the Cossacks, and to me that means being Jewish is a hardship.

surrogate grandparent 3: I'm a Jew who fled Germany, and to me that means Jews are never safe.

surrogate grandparent 4: I'm a Jew, and to me that means making sure my kids are Jewish.

surrogate mother: I'm a Jew, and to me that means feeling especially Jewish when my Catholic daughter-in-law comes to visit.

surrogate father: I'm an atheist Jew--formerly a Communist--and to me that means religion is meaningless.

Crohn raised his hands to silence the buzz. "Now tell your ancestors who you are," he said to Deborah.

She paused. She looked at the group in front of her, skewed versions of her mother, her grandparents, her father. "I'm a Jew who's spiritual," she said, "and to me that means I haven't found my own way."

Wayfinding. That word came to me. An anthropologist, someone whose name I've long forgotten, once used that word to describe the process of mapping an identity. To him, identity was something always on the move, something difficult to track. It was strange terrain. To chart it properly you had to cover it on foot rather than peer down at it from a distance. To find your way, you had to cast yourself into the muck of life, explore, toss away the topographical maps.

My own Jewish identity was impossible to map. It defied the idea of precise boundaries, refused to have its coordinates pinned down and traced. Its borders shifted. There were variations and anomalies in the landscape. I knew this. Still, I imagined trying to map my own path.