Like a Jew Among Jews: A Jewish Media Fellowship Reflection

This piece originally ran on New Voices. TC Jewfolk is part of the New Voices Jewish Media Fellowship program. Subscribe to the New Voices newsletter.

It’s not always been obvious to me that I’m Jewish.

As early as I can remember, my sense of Jewish identity was steeped in cognitive dissonance. I would tell classmates about my family’s weekly Shabbat meals, maybe even reciting the prayers in Hebrew. “I’m not Jewish though,” I would assure them.

How could I have known? Though my mom is the one with Jewish ancestry, she never quite identified with it, and my dad is not Jewish. As I understood it at the time, my grandpa, despite being a secular humanist, was raised Jewish, and one of my uncles – who converted later in life – was also Jewish. I had Jewish cousins who received my family for Hanukkah celebrations.

Was I Jewish? Not exactly.

But my most cherished feelings of family and ritual came from those Shabbat meals. Maybe it was the challah bread that I so adored, or maybe it was the conversations between my mom and her siblings that I would sit quietly listening to. To this day I still retain a passionate fixation on carbs and onlooking.

I’m not from Israel, nor New York — I’m a Minnesotan. A Minnesotan with at least as much Swede and Dutch in me as Jew. My family was never a part of the broader Jewish community in Minneapolis. I never became a B’nai Mitzvah. While I was raised with the Shabbats of my mom’s family, two days after lighting candles, my dad would read from the Christian Bible during Sunday brunch in homage to his Dutch Reformed roots.

My late grandfather suffered familial estrangement and converted to Christianity – changing his name – to marry my Swedish Lutheran grandma. Both of them were atheists, but my grandmother converted to Judaism on her deathbed as a gesture of love. “You’re more Jewish than a lot of Jews I know,” a local rabbi told my grandmother, wryly, as she oversaw her last-minute conversion.

With Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry, including blond-haired, blue-eyed Germanic and Nordic Christians of Northern Europe, I sometimes wondered where I fit in. These sides of my ancestry are often pitted against each other due to history. I think of the quintessential Minnesotan Jew movie by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, where the nebbishy protagonist has nightmares about his brusk and blond cabin-going neighbors murdering his brother with a hunting rifle.

While this anxiety is born of historical and sociological realities, it’s one that becomes eye-roll-worthy for many of us who live straddling this intersection between the proverbial blond protestants and brunette Hebrews. My motley background isn’t just some kitschy battleground. Explaining to other Jews, seemingly astonished, how I come from these two stocks can be as delightful as it is annoying. Sometimes I’m light-hearted, making impish jokes about being an “Aryan Jew” or whimsical observations where I explain that, growing up, I don’t know whether we ate pickled herring because of grandma or grandpa’s heritage on either side of the Baltic Sea.

Other times it becomes clear that I have to keep my countenance and explain with dignity and restrained passion, that my background is not some gawk-worthy anomaly. My grandparents both lived through WWII, understood and rejected Hitler’s invented racial animus, and found a way to live and love without total rejection of either of their cultures. And now, here I am, as proof that we can all work to reject the hostility in false dichotomies too.

Throughout this year, as I’ve grappled with all the apparent contradictions that comprise my experiences as a Jew and a Minnesotan, one figure has loomed large in my mind: Bob Dylan.

Growing up in Minneapolis, the culture will make you acutely aware of Dylan as one of Minnesota’s two musical godfathers – alongside Prince. Later in life, I learned that, like me, he’s a Minnesotan Jew. Born with the name Robert Zimmerman in the Iron Ranges of Northern Minnesota, he would take on the Dylan moniker while studying at the University of Minnesota.

Constantly, Dylan moved between tradition and reinvention. For a time, he emulated folk singer Woody Guthrie’s voice while at other times used his natural accent. He caused controversy in the folk music community when he embraced electronic instruments. I often wonder if the placelessness of growing up in the middle of nowhere in a seeming Jewish desert like Northern Minnesota is what gave Dylan’s music its keen and forthright courage.

While raised Jewish, Dylan came out in the 70s as a born-again Christian. Later, he would associate with various Chabads, with some of his children having b’nei mitzvahs. In a recent interview, he reaffirmed his confusingly Jesus-loving, nonkosher, semi-Jewish, syncretic beliefs.

Yet, despite all of this, Dylan is embraced by the broader Jewish world. The broader Jewish world – which emphasizes adherence to tradition, and is understandably skeptical towards Messianic sentiments among Jewry – embraces this oddball. Just search “Bob Dylan” and “Jewish” on Google, and you’ll find a plethora of Jewish reporting and Jewish institutions paying homage to Dylan.

Dylanic Judaism” makes sense to me. It’s a healthy reminder from one Minnesotan Jew to another that I don’t need to strive, helplessly and aimlessly, to fulfill a falsely-monolithic idea of Jewish tradition.

There are many Minnesotan Jews with similar idiosyncratic backgrounds to Dylan. When I wonder why this is, I think about the popular journalist, Carey McWilliams, who, in the 1940s, called my hometown of Minneapolis the “capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” That same decade, my grandpa, just out of the navy during WWII, would enroll at the University of Minnesota — the same University of Minnesota Bob Dylan would attend another decade later.

I was awestruck to discover this outtake from Dylan’s early career where he sang one of the most uncanny, strange renditions of the ubiquitous Jewish song, “Hava Nagila.” Dylan’s version, recorded in 1962, is called “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues.”

By the time of Dylan’s cover, the song was known to Jews and Gentiles around the world, and was even released on a popular Harry Belafonte album five years prior. Dylan farcically calls the tune “a foreign song I learned in Utah.” Strumming a guitar, he painstakingly forces the words “hava nagila” out of his mouth before skipping the rest of the lyrics and letting out a loud yodel. Maybe the most pristine, repeatable Jewish melody in the cultural zeitgeist — completely out of rhythm, out of tune, Dylan fails to enunciate.

I find the song chillingly powerful. To me, it’s a reminder of how it can feel trying to be the Jew society asks you to be rather than the one you need to be.

My New Voices fellowship work with the local Twin Cities Jewish media organization, TC Jewfolk, helped me to tap into my own sense of Minnesotan Jewy-ness. I realized slowly that embracing unabashed localism in the way that Jewfolk does is not just chivalrous, but necessary. In this age of chasing after algorithms and search engine optimization, it takes courage and humility to stay devoted to preserving our physical closeness with one another.

Working with my editors, Lonny Goldsmith and Lev Gringauz, was an incredible privilege. They have that delightful mix of qualities I’ve found in so many fellow Jewish Midwesterners — a humorous Jewish frankness and critical eye along with Midwestern kindness and restraint. When we devised the plan for my ‘Klezmer in the Twin Cities‘ project at a Caribou Coffee in St. Louis Park, I was heartened to see their excitement as I went on to interview a dozen klezmer musicians who’d planted roots in Minnesota. This project and all my other work with Jewfolk and New Voices have taught me how important these different parts of myself are to me — musician, Minnesotan, Jewish, journalist.

The Yiddish word haymishe comes to mind. It immediately made sense to me as an equal-parts ironic and sincere evocation of the joy and warmth of Midwestern Jewishness. It feels like a Jewish version of the Nordic term hygge which is popular with the Scandinavian-Americans who number many in the Midwest. Often defined as “comfortable conviviality,” it is a genuine cozy embrace of the people around you, and living life for life’s sake.

Maybe I’ve not felt the stability of being raised squarely in a Jewish community; yes, maybe weekends in my home included Shabbat dinners and Christian Bible readings. Maybe I feel a bit uncomfortable attending synagogue sometimes. Maybe traditionalism feels inauthentic to me. Maybe I feel out of place at times among Jews, even other Minnesotan ones too!

Maybe I feel an incredibly deep, emotional pride to be Jewish despite it all.

Maybe, sometimes, not feeling like I fit in as a Jew is the most Jewish thing of all.