Soon after my move to Pocatello, Idaho from Chicago, Illinois, a “fallen Mormon” boyfriend who knew more about Judaism than I did inspired me to visit the nearest Barnes and Noble to stock up on Jewish reference materials. In the past, my sister Sara had been my Jewish reference material being a Jewish educator, but it was time to build up my own library.
Barely a few years out of graduate school at the time, my religious library consisted mainly of many feminist spirituality books and guides. Books like “Living Wicca,” and “The Once and Future Goddess” fueled my graduate school-era pagan phase, many tenets of which I still embrace (as well as I embrace any organized religious structure) today.
Other than that, I had my Gates of Prayer and the Book of Mormon, a copy of which, as a pious and ethical person, I stole from a hotel room in Salt Lake City. For residents of the Gate City area, the nearest Barnes and Noble is 50 miles away in Idaho Falls—a stretch of I-15 that in winter, is often covered in fun-for-the-entire-family black ice. Aside from the Book of Mormon replacing the King James Bible in hotel rooms across the Mormon Corridor, the Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls reveals another subtle difference in this part of the country. In many of the urban big-box booksellers, the Judaica book section can span an entire row, and the books on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS–Mormons) are mixed into the smaller world religion categories. Here, the opposite is true—and alongside the many shelves of LDS books, I was happy to find my essential “The Jewish Book of Why,” and a book that strongly resonated with me called “Generation J,” by Lisa Schiffman.
Schiffman defines Generation J as third-generation American Jews—Jews whose grandparents were born elsewhere and immigrated to the US. She describes this generation of Jews as often lost, rejecting Jewish rituals for similar ones in other cultures, or abandoning religion altogether. One paragraph has always struck me in particular:
“We were a generation of Jews who grew up with television, with Barbie, with rhinoplasty as a way of life. Assimilation wasn’t something we strove for; it was the condition into which we were born…When we used the word schlepp, it sounded American. Being Jewish was an activity: Today I’ll be Jewish. Tomorrow I’ll play Tennis. In secret, we sometimes wondered if being Jewish was even necessary. We could resist that part of ourselves, couldn’t we? To us, anything was possible.”
Schiffman charts her course as a Jewish wayfinder through intermarriage, through keeping kosher, through conversations with JUBU’s, (Jewish Buddhists) through participating in Mikvah. As a Jewish wayfinder myself, I followed her course in some respects, taking some time to explore my own Jewishness. I kept kosher for a while much to the amusement of my local friends, who liked to bait me with bacon and cheese-wrapped freshly hunted moose-kabobs and such. How many Jewish laws does that one meal break? After a short time, I began dating a Jewish man living in Montana, and I considered that my replacement Jewish activity. Then I married a non-Jew who insisted on a Jewish wedding, and I got married under a chuppah after all.
I feel “Generation J” gave me permission to explore my own unique sense of Jewish identity, and it has been as invaluable a resource as any book on Judaica I have read. “Call us a bunch of searchers, call us post-Holocaust Jews, call us Generation J,” Schiffman says. Ain’t that the truth—at least for me.