When I was eight, I wanted very little in life. I wanted a Barbie doll. I wanted the new Magic Tree House Book. I wanted to get my nails done. But most of all, I wanted a new name.
Leora Eisenberg. Say it with me. Lee-oh-rah Eyes-in-burg. The chances for mispronunciation are infinite. By the time I was in third grade, I had heard every single possible variant of my name: Lenora Isenburg, Leona Eisenbig, and my personal favorite, Leonora Eisberg. I hated it. It was too long. It was too hard to say. And it was too Jewish. None of my friends at school had names like this; they all had names like Abigail Jones or Hannah Anderson. Their names meant they were normal. My name meant I was Jewish.
Granted, as a young kid, it probably didn’t mean much. I eventually got over my name and decided that I indeed liked it and would keep it, but the seeds were planted. From then on, I wanted to be like everyone else, blond and Minnesotan. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be Jewish.
Unfortunately, this fear of having a “Jewish name” carries over to teenhood in the case of many children. And by “Jewish name,” I don’t mean having a name like Avi Rosenblatt or Nechama Greenberg; I mean being overtly Jewish.
To the average Jewish teenager, being Jewish means having an overbearing mother who nags you all the time about why you’re not dating a nice Jewish boy/girl. It means you follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the news. It means you have the yearly obligation to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and then come home and complain about it until next year when you have to do it again. In short, being overtly Jewish means carrying a lot of baggage that no one wants to deal with.
Teenagers especially do not want to lug this baggage around with them; they have enough of their own: college applications, budding relationships, seemingly misunderstanding parents. And, frankly, if being Jewish means going to synagogue once a week, they’d rather not be Jewish, because all the guys watch football on Saturday mornings. If being Jewish means having ties to Israel, they’d rather not be Jewish, because they saw those graphic images of Gaza on their Facebook feed and there’s already a BDS program at school. If being Jewish means they have an overbearing mother, they’d rather not be Jewish, because it’s embarrassing to go out and then have Mom yell, “Zisele, have you forgotten your sweater? And did you eat? I don’t want you eating treifus (non-kosher food) while you’re out!”
Kids especially don’t want to be Jewish at a time in their lives when there is great pressure to be like everybody else. When a Jewish teen is surrounded by blond Minnesotans (ahem), it is easy to want to be like them, since they are the norm and the norm is always good, right?
So, parents, I beseech you to give your children a reason--or rather, reasons-- to like being Jewish. Be the cool Jewish parents-- the ones who give their children awesome sweaters to wear and remind them to wear them before they leave the house. Make synagogue fun-- remind them that synagogue is more than just Yom Kippur; it part of their heritage, and part of their life, as a way to connect with something greater than social media and boy bands. Teach them about Israel-- encourage discussions and debates; go beyond the graphic images on Facebook and into history. Tell them that being Jewish is a privilege, and while it may not be “popular” or easy per se, it is fulfilling and special.
Teeangers, I ask you to remember that you are profoundly lucky to be Jewish. I’m not going to tell you that it’s always easy. It’s not. It’s not easy being Jewish when being non-Jewish is the norm. It’s not always fun being in synagogue for extended periods of time. Keeping up with Israel in the news is time-consuming. I sympathize. I’ve done all of this stuff before. But I can tell you from experience that it’s much more meaningful to be overtly Jewish and acknowledge my religion and culture than to hide them and resent an identity I’ve forced upon myself for no other reason than to be like everyone else.I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy to have a “Jewish name” when everyone doesn’t. But it’s certainly easier to acknowledge and be proud of your Jewishness than hide it because you think it’s better to be like everyone else, especially when you have so much to be proud of.