A Conversation on Modern Jewish Identity
It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon and I’m sitting on the floor of my best friend Zoë Manilow’s Bed Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant) apartment. She’s trying to decide what to wear, while I flip through a copy of Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex and re-read all the parts I’d underlined.
Zoë Manilow is a writer, a stylist, and a crystal-carrying Libra. She’s also a bit of a paradox. She’s a young Jewish woman who lives in the heart of Brooklyn and who often feels isolated from her community and disconnected from her heritage, in part because most of her family lives in Florida. Though not Jewish myself, I’ve had a keen interest in Jewish culture and languages pretty much my whole life. Whenever I’m in town, we make a point to discuss, celebrate, or otherwise acknowledge Zoë’s Jewish heritage. This visit is no different.
“See, I love that. I love that I could say something like beshert to you and you would know exactly what I’m talking about!”
“Maybe that’s because our friendship is beshert.”
Once Zoë is done rolling her eyes at me and has on the perfect #OOTD (outfit of the day), we head out.
In the cab (well, let’s be real, the Uber Pool) to Williamsburg, I open the StoryCombs app on my phone and start showing off my albums. I suggest that Zoë download the app, too, just in case we find something interesting that she would want to remember today. She’s not a big fan of Facebook or posting a lot of public photos and she rejects the idea. I explain that she can just keep her StoryCombs Hive private or only share it with her siblings if she wants, and that does the trick. We’re dropped off outside a combination mini-mall/Chabad house on Bedford Ave. It’s here that our real adventure begins, by which I mean it is here that I start asking a lot of questions.
Is there one Jewish holiday or tradition that you miss the most?
Chanukah, maybe? I mean, that’s a really fun one, obviously, but there are also more religious ones that I like, like Yom Kippur.
How would you celebrate Yom Kippur?
It’s like Shabbat, but more. It’s super holy so you fast and pray a lot. Go to services and stuff like that so you can be closer to G-d.
Why don’t you celebrate it next year?
I feel like… because I’m Jewish culturally and by blood and everything, but I don’t go to Temple or Chabad or anything like that… I feel like other Jewish people don’t think I’m Jewish enough.
Do you feel ‘Jewish enough’?
Well, yeah, I mean, my mom is Jewish. I went on my birthright trip and all that. I’m definitely Jewish. I just sometimes feel like I’m too Jewish for the regular world and I’m not Jewish enough for the Jewish world, you know what I mean?
Though I won’t ever know exactly what that feels like, in some ways I do know what she means. Once you begin to feel distant from your family and your heritage or cultural background, it’s difficult to get that connection back. But it’s not impossible. Before we leave the mini-mall, I encourage Zoë to snap a picture of the Chabad house through the glass door in the back of the bookstore and add it to her new album “Only in Brooklyn.”
We explore more of what Brooklyn has to offer—kale smoothies, massive public libraries, and the best Jewish Children’s Museum I have ever been to (also the only Jewish Children’s Museum I’ve ever been to). All the while, I keep snapping pictures, asking questions, and recording video snippets of our conversations. The longer the day wears on, the more animated Zoë gets, the more excited she is to share more about her life as a Jewish woman in Brooklyn. She’s not just excited to share it with me, but to document it for herself and share it with her family, too. Our adventure comes to a close in a particularly kitschy little store, where Zoë happily poses with a coffee mug featuring a menorah and the phrase "Oy to the World."
“Jake is gonna love this.” She’s still looking at the photo on her phone as we walk out of the store and I’m still trying to figure out how to use the word kvell in a sentence well enough to say how proud I am of her.
In just that one day, months ago now, Zoë took a huge step toward reconnecting with her Jewish identity. It wasn’t so much the places we went or the questions I asked as it was the effect of having a place to tell her stories as privately or publicly as she wanted. As Chanukah rapidly approaches, I find myself thinking about her and hoping that she’s still telling her stories now, sharing them with family, and hopefully getting some new stories about her family and her Jewish background in return.
If you found yourself relating to this story and you’ve been feeling disconnected or distant from your background, this holiday season is the perfect time to take steps toward healing that divide. Visit StoryCombs.com to read more about how Hives work and give the gift of connection to yourself and your entire family this year.
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