'My Unorthodox Life' star: Understanding my Jewish identity was a difficult journey

Being Jewish, It’s not physical, it’s historical. So says Miriam Haart, one of the stars of the reality television series My Unorthodox Life.

  ‘MY ANCESTORS’ persecution makes me feel Jewish – and my ancestors’ survival makes me feel alive,’ says the writer. (photo credit: Miriam Haart/Instagram)
‘MY ANCESTORS’ persecution makes me feel Jewish – and my ancestors’ survival makes me feel alive,’ says the writer.
(photo credit: Miriam Haart/Instagram)

Hi, my name is Miriam, and I am an American Jew.

Babushka is the name I was told to call my great-grandmother. My mother would always say it's B-aaa-booshka, not Ba-booo-shka. I could never get it right. Bubby is the name of my grandmother. Bubby and Poppy. Ema (Mom) and Abba (Dad). I am Jewish. I grew up Jewish.

But what does that even mean anyway?

These questions have been running through my head since my arrival in Israel, particularly since my arrival at the Western Wall. One would think out of all people, I know what it means to be Jewish. For one, I grew up in the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Upstate New York. I celebrated every holiday and kept every halacha (Jewish law) for most of my life. I not only followed the commandments of God, but also the commandments from rabbis who created boundary laws to make sure that it was absolutely impossible to break any law from God ever. 

I studied the Old Testament every day for hours. For two years, I even went to a school that taught Aramaic, an unspoken language in which the Talmud (the Oral Torah) was written. So I know a lot about Judaism. Heck, there is even a TV Show called My Unorthodox Life on Netflix about my family’s relationship with Judaism and their lives. But for some reason, I am genuinely questioning what it means to be a Jew for the first time in my life. 

I took a 23andMe test a few years ago, and my ancestral results indicated 99.8% Ashkenazi Jewish. Okay… so maybe that’s my answer, right? Being Jewish is an ethnicity. I am Jewish because I have Jewish ancestry. But that doesn’t make sense. Jews come from all over the world, including Morocco, Yemen and Ethiopia. I am Polish on my father’s side and Russian on my mother’s. So that can’t just be the reason I am Jewish. But I also know nothing about Polish identity and very little about my Russian.

My grandparents do not speak a word to me about their time in Russia. I never heard them speak Russian in my life, and I highly doubt I will ever. Being there, for them, was a time of suffering, a time of secrecy and paranoia. Being Jewish was enough reason to be thrown into the Gulags (torture camps). When my grandmother and grandfather decided they wanted to take their Jewish identity more seriously, agreeing that communism was not the answer and Judaism was, they escaped.

I’ve heard of the term “ancestral trauma,” but I’ve never understood it. How can someone feel the pain and weight of communities they have never met? How can it affect a living person without them even knowing it? I haven’t felt that fear, I haven’t felt that pain, but I did see it. In Yad Vashem, the largest Holocaust museum in Israel. 

There was one statistic that particularly stood out to me. One in every three Jewish people was murdered in World War II. I thought about two friends of mine and how one of us would be dead if we lived then. Polish Jews were almost completely wiped out. If my great-grandfather didn’t embark on a ship to Ellis Island in the early 1900s, he would have been murdered along with his family had he stayed.

I thought about the size of the Jewish people and how there would have been so many more, if not for the genocide. It hurts to think about these things. Because at the end of the day, what gives meaning and purpose to our lives is the connection we have with people, particularly our connection with our family. Am I a part of the Jewish family? I barely understand what makes a Jew a Jew.

When I was 16, I stopped being religious. To be frank. I didn’t just stop. I completely cut myself off from almost all of my friends and life back in Monsey, the community I grew up in. I moved across the country to San Francisco from New York and started a completely new life there, where being Jewish was just an afterthought. 

What made me Jewish then, and what makes me Jewish now? I am no longer religious. I do not believe in the Torah. Yet I feel the pain of my people. It feels as though my ancestors’ persecution makes me Jewish – and my ancestors’ survival makes me feel alive.

Being Jewish is not a race. Jews are not white. Jews are not Middle Eastern. We are from all over the world, from Russia, Poland and Morocco. My race, ethnicity and religion are not what make me Jewish. 

The Jewish people is just a community of people. A group that came together, a group that calls one another family. A family with a shared past, present and future. A family with shared pain and shared pleasures. 

Coming to Israel, I felt the extension of my family. I felt their warmth of them in my heart. I think I know what it now means. It’s not physical. It’s historical.

I am Miriam, and I am an American Jew.

The writer is the host of Faking It, a podcast on female empowerment. She is a recent engineering graduate from Stanford University as well as a past teacher in the Department of Computer Science, and has built over 10 iSOS-compatible apps. She stars in the award-nominated hit series My Unorthodox Life on Netflix. She is the CPO of +Body.