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Personal Identity in Progress

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Photo by Elīna Arāja on

Last year, I graduated with a doctorate in English, reaching the highest academic level possible in this field at the age of fifty-two. The road to earning this wonderful degree contained numerous challenges, particularly as an older student with self-confidence issues. To be clear, nobody ever made me feel uncomfortable or inadequate. In fact, everyone within this program treated me quite respectfully, offering an abundance of warm support and fantastic opportunities to encourage my intellectual growth. I’m grateful for that kindness. Because of my own anxiety, however, which I suppress beneath a seemingly calm demeanor, I felt awkward about my age at times, often critical of myself in comparison to the younger minds around me. But when I could put these self-imposed worries aside, moving beyond the intrusive, often exhausting obsessions, I finally appreciated the ultimate gift that this degree granted me. It supplied the most profound, enriching direction that featured a specialization in Jewish-American women writers, which I now view to be a major force in my personal identity.

As a writer of literary fiction, a woman, and a Jew, this crucial focus on Jewish women authors, the exact subject matter of my dissertation, represents much more than simply an academic effort. It’s a valuable pathway for understanding myself with greater depth, of finally feeling connected to my heritage in a way I’d never experienced before. Over the years, I’ve tried to fulfill this need by joining different Jewish communities, commiting to various temple memberships with my husband. But beyond the lovely synagogue where he converted to Judaism, a place that helped us develop an essential spiritual bond, and subsequently served as the site of our wedding almost twenty-two years ago, I have not found a temple that makes me feel welcome, accepted, embraced.

In my view, one’s relationship with God is private, not an issue to invite cruel judgment based on external factors such as the frequency of attending services or other actions that are literally apparent to others. The commitment to Judaism isn’t a competition and can be expressed through numerous gestures, often unseen yet still invaluable. Unfortunately, even those within a marginalized religion may demonstrate intolerance and, as a result, create a toxic environment. It’s an upsetting, demoralizing reality that I’ve quietly struggled with in shaping my identity as a Jewish woman, forging a meaningful link to the culture that I find complicated and not always nourishing.

Although I’ve never discovered a temple that offers me an important sense of belonging, I’ve somehow counteracted this painful disappointment through my dissertation. Without fully realizing it at the time, I shaped my research around the cultural alienation that I myself feel on a very personal level, applying this concept to the lives and works of my chosen authors. (As a side note, I must acknowledge with immense gratitude the thoughtful guidance that I received from my dissertation director, who helped me develop a raw idea into an authentic purpose, and my committee throughout this entire, eye-opening process. I am so indebted to each of these great teachers.) Over a period of two-and-a-half years, I enjoyed a mental closeness, wondrous in the rich emotions and kinship that I couldn’t have previously imagined, with the distinguished writers whom I researched and wrote about so intensively.

By studying the private lives of these authors and then considering how certain threads of their cultural estrangement were carefully woven into their literary texts, I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I could relate to the writers’ recounted stories of isolation, even ostracization, in elementary school during the holidays most of the other children so happily observed. That sense of endless inferiority through an ongoing, unspoken rejection, a cold indifference to and an open neglect for less prevalent religions, is emotionally damaging, powerful enough to affect an already fragile self-confidence.

This unfortunate truth is exactly what I endured as a child, engulfed in public school classes with very few Jewish kids who shared my identity.

The evident minority status, a membership that I detested at the time, also attracted unwanted attention. Once, as I walked home from school alone, some kids on the other side of the street shouted, “Jesus killer!” I didn’t understand what they meant and just quickened my pace to reach the safety of my house a block or two away. During this frightened scramble, I remember hearing their uproarious laughter, a vicious camaraderie that circulated between them as they terrorized me, and feeling more helpless as a result.

Anger never occurred to me then. I didn’t think I had any right to react with rage, especially since a yearning for acceptance overpowered whatever fury may have been buried beneath that initial fear. Instead, shame filled me. Automatically, I thought that the children’s meanspirited behavior demonstrated an awful flaw within my own desolate self, not a hateful reflection of their ignorance.

That traumatic interaction has stayed with me, symbolic of the alienation I still feel due, in part, to identifying with a culture that’s so often targeted by intolerance. Because of the current rise of extremism, anti-Semitic sentiments are certainly more prevalent now than in the recent past. It’s a terrifying reality, but this dread, sadly, isn’t new. Such panic has been ingrained within the Jews for centuries, an awareness that never eases.

Because of my dissertation, I discovered how other Jewish women, who also utilize writing to understand harmful experiences directly related to their Judaic identities, have coped with this relentless alarm. In many ways, their anti-Semitic encounters echo my own and this mutual understanding fosters a supportive community that flourishes within the published prose that I closely examined.

Through reading, research, and very productive conversations with my dissertation director, I detected a compelling thematic pattern deeply integrated in the complex layers of the authors’ literary texts. Each writer generated her own kind of a homeland, an ideal place, mental, physical, or even a combination of the two realms, to find sanctuary within a painfully biased world. Whether these authors were aware of that profound element or not, they consistently incorporated such a component within their stories. Its overall effect offers an illuminating contrast to the prejudice that the writers variously represent in their interpretations of society at large.

To build on that significant dimension, homelands also reflect a distinctly Judaic essence as Israel is so often defined as epitomizing the perfect destination for all Jews. So this utopian universe as constructed by Jewish women writers symbolizes yet another relevant facet that profoundly relates to Judaism.

I really love the concept of homelands and all of the wondrous possibilities that can be explored within its flexible framework. The very idea encourages positive connections that potentially embody heartfelt communities designed to accept, embrace, and provide universal inclusivity, where diverse cultural identities are never denied access. To me, I strongly believe that’s the way every society should behave, supplying a hospitable space that doesn’t view differences in a negative light.

It’s fascinating to consider how the Jewish women writers whom I studied embedded their own unique versions of the homeland motif into their texts, developing such a wide array of inspiring interpretations. Furthermore, because I’d been refining my murder mystery Detached for publication while also weaving together my dissertation, I became quite aware of the variation of homelands that had emerged in this work of fiction, never recognizing it beforehand.

The actual refuge that exists within my novel blossoms in the main protagonist Wanda Lindstrom’s mind through an obsession with true-crime shows as she copes with a paralyzing fear of her next-door neighbor. By heavily relying on the logic behind solving violent infringements of the law, she achieves more control over her private space, which is constantly dominated by the loud, brash, and hateful Charlotte Murray.

Cramped tightly together in a quad of townhomes, Wanda’s alert to all of Charlotte’s antics. She watches the shared driveway from her bedroom window whenever the slightest noise occurs, always imagining that an awful offense of some kind must be happening. To add to Wanda’s terror, she often sees Charlotte’s occasional boyfriend Adam Wilcox lurking around, his arm boldly displaying an enlarged swastika tattoo. As a Jewish woman home alone for most of the day, Wanda feels terrified that Adam might somehow guess her identity during his random visits to the quad.

These grim speculations appear somewhat accurate after a chimney fire burns through Charlotte’s townhouse one evening. In Wanda’s view, the circumstances only confirm Charlotte’s brutal nature, using arson to cover up an atrocious crime. That night, she overhears a detective questioning Charlotte on the driveway and believes her frightened intuition has been verified, now more certain than ever that a horrific event happened just beyond her own walls.

Despite this confidence, Wanda finds herself isolated to an even greater degree than before. Her husband Ben, with whom she eagerly shares all of her panicked impressions about Charlotte’s supposedly illegal conduct, dismisses Wanda’s theories. With no one else around to soothe this torment, she’s drawn even further into the world of true crime documentaries. It is the one universe that makes any sense to Wanda, where facts matter and can directly lead to satisfying consequences.

By actively absorbing nonstop programs about real-life crimes, she discovers a place of immense comfort that shelters her from all threats in the outer world. Even while still monitoring Charlotte, who now temporarily resides across the driveway, Wanda can retreat into her sanctuary, applying techniques that she learns from these shows to solve the perceived crimes. This undertaking, though in isolation, gives her the feeling of control over every chaotic danger that has seized Wanda’s living space as the investigation gradually advances.

Programs that examine vicious criminal cases may seem to be an odd translation of the homelands theme. However, they serve a very important role as an asylum for Wanda. These shows are the only security, however glorified, to insulate her from the hostility that pulsates outside of her townhouse. Furthermore, because she feels so vulnerable as a Jewish woman living among evident hate, true crime shows represent the actual justice that Wanda craves will be used to eliminate the peril she continually claims to witness.

While I’m certainly not at the literary stature of any of the Jewish women writers whom I’ve studied, it’s still comforting to notice my own incorporation of homelands into Detached. More importantly, though, this aspect demonstrates a common theme within the works of Jewish women authors, that desire to discover a refuge in an otherwise unsympathetic, alienating society to generate some sort of meaningful connection.

This like-mindedness with other Jewish women who analyze their worlds through writing, who develop their own depictions of the homeland concept, provides me with a necessary, quite reassuring bond. It’s particularly essential to me as I move forward in life without the built-in community that an affiliated synagogue supplies. I see now more than ever that I can rejoice in my Judaic identity and thrive, feeling a dedicated connection to my culture without actual ties to a temple. So I’m not less of a Jew, just someone who’s independently exploring her Judaic roots, creating her own definition of personal identity while also recognizing the emotional value of common threads with other Jewish women.

As my own individuality evolves, it may lead me in spiritual, religious, and cultural directions that I cannot fathom at this time. But that’s fine with me. I’m ready for such adventures. Perhaps, through this ongoing journey, I’ll eventually find a community that feels right, fully embracing the Judaic commitment that I have to offer. Whether or not this outcome ever occurs, though, the pride that I feel as a Jewish woman, possessing a private, quite supportive relationship with God, belongs to me and isn’t subject to anyone else’s judgment. My personal identity is definitely in progress and I’m excited about how this continuous, multifaceted endeavor will unfold.

Alisa Burris

Alisa Burris is a literary fiction author whose work depicts alienated lives with glimpses of mystery blended into the narrative layers. Her novel Detached explores how three vastly different women cope with the trauma of a violent murder in their townhome community as they face private secrets of their own. In addition to writing stories that reflect today’s complex world, Alisa holds a PhD in English. Her dissertation specifically examines the fiction of Jewish-American women authors in the context of the cultural estrangement that they personally experienced during the twentieth century. Currently, Alisa also teaches composition and literature courses, which greatly enrich her life.

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