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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Collage by the Author


Something unexpected happened when, preparing for Torah study, I read the parasha about the original Passover. I had always found it easy to imagine that I was an Israelite, preparing the lamb in a mud hut, sprinkling the doorposts with blood, eating on my feet, dressed for a journey. Reading the story this time was different. I didn't imagine being an Israelite; I was one. The story was about me. I told Lakme, "This week I read Torah as a Jew. It meant something completely different to me. I can't describe it."

Lakme was delighted. "That's because when you read it as a Jew, you know that God is protecting you."

I hadn't analyzed the meaning, and I still haven't. It was something I experienced, that I felt rather than thought about. The next week I called Lakme to say I needed some distance from the process. I put away everything Jewish and stopped thinking about religious community. For a few weeks. Then books on Jewish spirituality fell off shelves into my hands again. Jewish magazines found their way to my mailbox.

My thoughts had taken a turn, though. I was disturbed to think that possibly I wanted to become a Jew in the same way I'd wanted to be other things I wasn't. I recalled a conversation years earlier with Lily Roanhorse. I'd said, "I'm always careful when I'm with Diné friends because I don't want them to think that I think I know it all, all about Diné life, that is. Sometimes I hide what I know."

Lily looked straight at me. "You have an identity crisis, just like we do."

Gratitude spread through me, and I nodded. But I felt guilty accepting her recognition. She was too gracious. We in her statement referred to college-educated Diné. It wasn't just college that had separated them from their people and ways. The alienation started way back in childhood when they were sent to boarding school. Today mainstream American culture still batters away at Indigenous identity.

"You don't know who you are," Lily said, "and neither do we."

I was so hungry to be seen, to belong, that I didn't argue. But I felt like I was cheating. I knew it was different to be White, wanting to be Brown, even feeling sometimes like I was Brown, and to know acutely that there was no way I ever would be. I knew I benefited from all the privileges our society grants to Whites.

Now, as I considered converting, I had to ask myself if something was missing in me that made me want to be other than self. At this time in the evolution of Earth's peoples, it may be important to cross these distinctions, to become other and self, thus one. Today there is a polar pull between distinctness and unity. Maybe the drive toward distinctness comes from frailty of identity, the deep need to assert who we are. Paradoxically, if we are to cross the lines and create oneness, not out of neurotic need but from a place of strength, it is necessary to first have a strong sense of self.

Despite my curiosity, my feelings for the mystery of my summer lullabies, of the magic circles of the Yé'iibicheii, I have not been drawn to explore Native spirituality. Maybe it's because I had to struggle so hard to establish an identity apart from the Diné world. And in the end, it was the struggle for selfhood that informed my decision about converting to Judaism.

Over the millennia since Abraham and Sarah walked the Middle East, countless people who were not born Jewish have become Jews. I wanted my roots to be Jewish. The late Renewal rabbi, Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, looks at the big picture and says that more people want to convert to Judaism today than have in a long time. He believes it's because the world needs more Jews after the great losses of the Holocaust. For a time, I grasped at that belief to justify my desire.

But I kept returning to the fact that I was not born a Jew. I went back to Lakme and asked her to tell me again about a concept she had mentioned in passing at our first dinner. I thought I remembered an approximate definition, friend to Jews, but I couldn't recall the Hebrew phrase. At the time, I had thought the designation was a pallid substitute for conversion, probably why I forgot the words.

Lakme told me the phrase, ger toshav. Its literal meaning, she said, is good stranger. It refers to a non-Jew who has the knowledge of what it means to be a Jew. That person would support rather than disrupt Jewish life. A non-Jew who is married to a Jew and is raising his or her children Jewish, without converting, is ger toshav. There is no ceremony for becoming ger toshav; it is something you are, something you can declare yourself to be. I am ger toshav. Some of my deepest spiritual learning comes from Judaism. I celebrate holy days and times with my Jewish friends as often as I am invited.

Ger means stranger, outsider. Since my early days in the Navajo Nation, I have worn the identity of an outsider. I have wondered if being ger toshav may not only entail living on the edge of the Jewish community. Maybe claiming to be ger toshav means claiming the religious identity of an outsider, taking on marginality as my spiritual identity. Outsiders have, from time immemorial, served as seers, storytellers, prophets, artists, writers, gadflies, healers, voices crying in the wilderness. If I accept the identity of an outsider, I will not be alone; I will join a great cloud of witnesses, scattered throughout society, who willingly, reluctantly or joyfully live with ambiguity and mystery. It seems that when I ran away from the church in my dream and toward religious identity, the journey took me to where I was all along, back to myself, the destination of all mystical journeys. Happily, it has given me acceptance of myself as an outsider. And it has given me a name for who I am, A Good Stranger.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


This is the final installment of "A Good Stranger," which was first published in Isthmus.

On Friday, Chapter VIII, "Tongues," a short, experimental essay will post in its entirety.

If you are just joining the serialization of Fissure: A Life Between Cultures, you can use the Table of Contents to go to the beginning and read in order.


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