Observing my bi-national children cope with similar questions over the years has provided both insights and surprises. A now legendary family story, one we continue to tell now and again, suggests that this younger generation has a firmer grasp on such issues than I, including a sophisticated understanding of the complex relationship between national identity and religious affiliation.
A decade ago, when my son was about ten, my mother took him along with her to a public middle school in center city Philadelphia. At the time she was teaching a special math class for gifted children; part of an enrichment program. Her weekly volunteer work with the group happened to coincide with one of our trips back to the States, and she happily took grandson number one along for the ride.
At some point during the class my son, the visitor, was proudly introduced to everyone by his grandmother. The fact that he lived in Israel was of obvious interest to this group of children, primarily eighth grade African Americans from a socio-economic level that we can assume didn't include a lot of world travel.
At one point, after hearing about where my son lived, one of them had a kind of revelation and addressed him directly with the question, "Are you Jewish?"
My mother reports that, without batting an eyelash, my son met this boy's incredulous gaze and said, with absolute certainty, "No!"
That is pretty much where the story ends, although at the time my mother immediately interceded and explained to the group that yes, he was indeed Jewish; that he might have been confused by the question or simply not used to hearing his religious affiliation uttered in English.
With a bit of perspective I think that my son's response can be understood differently and has far greater ramifications. There is no question that he was startled by being asked to confirm an aspect of his identity. Being put on the spot caught him off guard. The boy might as well have suggested that he was purple, and obviously his response to that would have been the same resounding "No!"
Furthermore, I am certain that this reaction was in no way a denial of his religious affiliation. My son and his siblings know full well that they are, and will always be, Jewish; whether their cell phone pinpoints their whereabouts beside the Atlantic coastline or the Mediterranean. And, as burgeoning adults, obviously more savvy by the day, they know that this fact is very much their "raison d'être" here in the Holy Land.
Most significant instead, is that it indicates a self-confidence in national identification far more secure than my own; no doubt due to the fact that unlike me he was born into his bi-nationalism. Even in grade school he understood, at minimum, this one difference between his two nationalities; that while one encompassed his faith, for the other it was quite beside the point. His response, accordingly, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the concept of nationality without religious affiliation that is clearly part of being American. Confronted with the same question back home, on Israeli soil, his answer would no doubt have been a self-assured "Yes."
Looking back, I stand amazed, impressed and definitely envious. I would love just a modicum of his clarity of self-identification and self-confidence!