Jewish Heritage

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Our Jewish Identity - "From the Womb to the Tomb"


Identity is who we are. It includes our total being, how we look, how we think, what we do, our outlook on life, our successes, our failures; it is our behavior, our actions, even how we walk – our gait, our history, our religion or lack thereof. We are all very unique human beings and it is our identity which defines us. Even our fingerprints label and differentiate us, one from another. 

We know that adoptees frequently feel that they are lacking in the knowledge of who they are and feel that they want to know their birth parents to fully establish their identity. Psychotherapists have identified the borderline personality as one who, among other traits, does not know where he fits, or the multiple personality disordered individual, who has been described as an individual who unconsciously “shifts” from one personality or identity to another with the accompanying traits of these multiple personalities. According to some accounts in the famous psychoanalyst’s, the late Sigmund Freud’s, theories, the individual's personality is determined or fairly well established by the time he/she is five years of age. The worst scenario is the person who has no identity; the one who feels normless (the sociologist Durkheim called it anomie) and does not believe he fits in anywhere. This can ultimately lead him to suicide!

For us who value our Jewish heritage it is especially important to retain our Jewish values and to be secure in who we are. We have within the past two plus decades seen more and more intermarriages and if we continue along this trend we will soon be a vanishing, an extinguished breed. I have seen many such people who reject their past and go through life not feeling secure, not knowing who they really are, what they should believe, or whether they should believe at all. They may become Jewnitarians, atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists, Rosicrucians or a mixture of any or all of the above and a host of unidentified others. Thus their identity becomes “muddled” and they have very little to give them a secure identity. They are not quite certain who they are or what they believe. They may deny their Jewishness, although the anti–semites in their midst will remind them in a generally negative, hostile fashion. These folks who deny their background are at times the most hostile and confused, who damn their own people and their own erstwhile identity, thus basically hating themselves. They are the adults who are so beautifully described in a children's story of a man named “Peter Schlemil” who “Lost His Shadow”, or the story of “Saggy Baggy the Elephant” who was a very sad, alone baby elephant who wandered through the forest feeling outrageously big and ill fitting with all the little squirrels, birds and reptiles. He was able to establish his identity only when he saw a matured heard of pachyderms who looked just like him and whom he could join.

Our beautiful Jewish identity begins when we are born. We celebrate the birth of our boy or girl in the synagogue by giving them a Hebrew name in addition to his or her secular name. The boy additionally is circumcised on the eighth day of his life. At twelve or thirteen the girl has a bat mitzwah and the boy a bar mitzwah. He or she is now considered matured enough to carry out the Mitzwoth (blessings and duties), theoretically as many as the child, now “grown”, can do of the karyagim (613) mitzwot . He or she has the duty to be decent and honest, to think of others, and not just himself/herself. He must, as one of the ten commandments states, “Honor thy mother and father so that thou shall live long on earth”. He is expected to give charity. The child, as he grows, celebrates the Sabbath – the Schabbath is a special time when the candles are lit and there is a loving family dinner on Friday eve. He hears his father say the Kiddush over the “challahs” (braided loaves of bread) and partakes of a few sips of wine. He sees his mother light the candles and the warmth of these candles together with all that follows gives the young person a glow that he recalls into his adult life and is part of himself and makes him special. Each family has its own unique way of singing and carrying on the customs which have been in existence for eons of years. The blessings and the Zemiros (songs) are often passed on from generation to generation. There are customs and ceremonies for every aspect of life. There is the Jewish wedding ceremony which includes breaking a glass. This is the symbolic reminder of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year seventy, after which the Jews were dispersed all over the universe. Even the burial ritual is specific and the mourning process that follows is proscribed and lasts for seven days, during which the mourners sit on or near the ground/floor, giving the grief stricken the opportunity to express their sadness. There is security for those who profess their Jewishness and thus preserve the things and situations which have meaning to them. They do not have to ponder to any extent what they should do as far as their beliefs and rules of life are concerned. They need not guess; they know who they are!


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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