By: Cecile Wolfe
“What are you?”
This is a common question in the United States. Usually people ask this question when trying to find out the national origins of a person. Living in an immigrant country means it’s a valid assumption to think most people you meet are a part of a family that moved to the United States not too many generations ago. With only a short family history set in America, many Americans identify by nationalities outside of the United States. Perhaps their families still speak the language of the countries they came from, or have traditions that have carried over for a few generations.
This is not my case. Both sides of my family have been living in the United States since the 1860s. Both sides originally come from Western and Eastern Europe, but we don’t speak any of the languages from those countries and we don’t have any traditions that have carried over.
When I receive the question “What are you?” I have two responses that I give. The first is to tell people I’m a proud American mutt. With so many generations having lived in the United States, it’s actually a bit hard to know my entire lineage.
My second response is something I said more regularly when I was a child, but is still something that resonates for me. As a young kid trying to be witty and throw people for a loop, I would tell inquisitors I’m a Texan Jew. No national origin over here, just a Texan Jew.
Personally, my sense of identity is shaped more by where my Dad’s family has lived since they immigrated here- Texas- and my mother’s religion- Judaism. My family and I moved here from Texas when I was two weeks old and I always thought we would eventually move back. My parents thought so too, but ended up sprouting roots that will keep them in Virginia for the rest of their lives.
The Jewish part of my identity is something that has slowly become a larger part of my life. My family did the bare minimum when it came to my brother and I’s religious upbringing. We went to Sunday school, lit the Sabbath candles, and practiced the major Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hannukah and Passover. But that was about it. Yet over the years, I have gravitated towards the Jewish religion and culture and become more involved with the Jewish community.
Living in Virginia for practically my whole life I now feel much more Virginian than Texan, but to me, that’s where my family comes from. I suppose my perfect response nowadays could be that I’m a Texan-Virginian Jew. There’s still no trace of a national origin, but for me, it’s the simplest way to convey my sense of identity.