Jillian Powers – Applied Sociologist
Hello! Good afternoon!
(Audience) Good afternoon.
Jillian Powers: Louder. Good afternoon!
(Audience) Good afternoon!
Jillian Powers: Great, you guys are awake, and that is wonderful, let’s begin, because I’m telling you a story today. I’m going to take you back, I’m going to take you back to 2004, when I was 23 years old, and I was about to begin my adult smart-person life.
I just moved to North Carolina, to start a PhD program in Sociology, and I was really excited about it. I’ve always had a fascination with identity, culture, and how we create community. Here I was, I was getting a chance to specialize in this for a living.
But I was also feeling really alone at the time, I had left my friends and family behind to start this new adventure, and I didn’t feel like I truly fit in yet. The South and academia were just very different places and spaces from what I was used to. That’s really how I wound up traveling on a Birthright Israel trip with my college friend Lindsay. I was looking for a way to connect to people and find a sense of community. Unfortunately, my anxieties over belonging traveled with me like unwanted baggage, and they shaped how I thought about even the smallest of my experiences.
For example, filling out the entry forms, before even landed, on the plane, became a serious moment of soul searching for me. While Lindsay had been filling out her entry forms in crisp, block letters, I had been staring at my own for what felt like hours. I got stumped, stumped by the last question on the second line, “Grandfather’s name.” I turned to Lindsay, “Lindsay,” that’s how I talk to Lindsay, “I can’t remember my Jewish grandfather’s name.” She didn’t respond, so I said it again, “Lindsay, I can’t remember my Jewish grandfather’s name.”
“Well, then put down your other grandfather.” Lindsay failed to understand the severity of the problem here. I was raised Jew-ish. I’m the child of intermarriage, and while my mother converted, I felt like I still grew up with almost as many “Our Fathers” as “Baruch ata adonais.” So not being able to remember my Jewish grandfather’s name, it made me feel really uncertain in this space.
To me, his name was like a mark of verification; with his name on my tongue I had proof that I belonged here. Without it, how could I even participate in this trip? My very identity felt like it was being challenged and called into question. We hadn’t even landed yet, and I already felt exposed and revealed as the Jewish fraud that I felt like I was. Like an unprepared student during a final exam, I looked over at Lindsay’s paperwork. Unfortunately, I couldn’t lift any of her Jewish experience from the answers that she was writing on her Israeli entry forms.
So I sighed deeply, and I looked around the plane to see if I can see any Jewish signifiers that would jog my memory. In front of me, to my left, by the bathroom, there were a group of college kids, and they were having a great time. They were laughing loudly, they were gesticulating wildly, and they were definitely having a great time. It seemed like they all knew each other, although I knew that they all just met each other a few hours before in the airport terminal. Behind me, to my right, by the emergency exit, was an intimidatingly pious looking man.
I’d never seen his level of Jewish observance before. It was wholly different than the secular and Yiddish undertones, that shaped my Jewish experience on Long Island. He had a small black box that was strapped to his head by thick black straps, and whenever he would move to adjust the prayer shawl over his course wool suit, he would expose the fringes around his waist and the black straps that just seemed to continue up his arms. And while his back was towards me, I could just make out his jaw line, as it was moving in prayer. Yeah, and I got nothing.
I got nothing on the grandfather, friends. I felt caught; caught between secular socializing, which I wasn’t invited to join in on, by the way, and devout religiosity, which I wouldn’t even know how to if I was, and between these two, I felt really awkward, and really out of place.
So I turned to Lindsay, “Will Birthright send me back to New York if I can’t remember my Jewish grandfather’s name? Am I going to have to pay for this trip if I put down Guillermo?” And as the words came out of my mouth Lindsay started to laugh, and I smiled, because we connected in the moment, and it felt sort of subversive to make fun of myself and call attention to the border regions of Jewish identity, to neutralize my feeling of discomfort, and do as I always do, I cracked a joke. But upon reflection, my silly joke revealed just how deeply I’d internalized these narrowly defined, but widely shared ideas, of who counts as what sort of person. I am aware that there are Jews of Spanish descent, and I am sure there are few Jewish Guillermo’s walking about.
My Guillermo? He’s not Jewish. My Guillermo was Catholic. Most importantly, my Guillermo was Puerto Rican. Growing up, the only other Jewish Puerto Rican I knew of, besides my brother, was Geraldo Rivera. And he wasn’t exactly a great role model to understand how I could bring these two disparate pieces of myself together.