As a child, I moved among three cultures, societies, and languages: My mother is German; my father is Swiss; and we lived in Germany and the United States. That multicultural upbringing influenced my sense that we are masters of our identity: Identity is not determined solely by the country of one’s birth or childhood. I consider all three countries “home” and I feel comfortable speaking all of the languages.
Languages hold up a mirror to the thinking of the speaker. The language(s) we grow up with and learn have a major impact on how we think. Each language has a unique structure, and each emphasizes specific aspects that have an enormous impact on its speakers (e.g., Hebrew is a language based on verbs and it thereby stresses action, whereas German usually revolves around subjects). Moreover, the richness of each language’s vocabulary and all its varieties broaden a speaker’s and also a learner’s mind.
We live today in a globalized world where we are virtually connected to almost everyone else on this planet. We’re mobile, moving from the places where we were born or schooled to different cities, countries, and continents. We adapt to new societies, cultures, and languages. Some people grow up in one religion but, given any number of reasons, find their way into another.
Our interconnected and globalized world has enabled many people to search and find their spiritual home in a religion different from the one in which they were raised. People who have found their spiritual home in Judaism enrich both their own lives and the tradition itself. As a Jew by choice, I see how converts can enliven synagogues and communities. I see how my own deep involvement in Judaism, a culture and religion different from the one I grew up with, blessed me with an ability to adapt to many circumstances.
Understanding the gulf between languages, the ability to pass over that gulf, the capacity to observe with different parts of my brain and self, to move from the outside to the inside and back, are additional tools for my professional Jewish leader toolkit. Coming from a different religious and cultural background has helped me to understand Jews who are on their spiritual journeys, who come from different countries, and who bring different cultures in their life-backpacks.
I embrace all of what a Jew brings to his or her Jewish practice; I see it as my task as a rabbinical student and future rabbi to help wanderers find their place within this extraordinary religion. As Jews, we share one religion, a common history, and, to some extent, a single heritage. But it is the vast array of practices and customs originating in communities from around the globe that so enriches our experiences.
1 Paul Bloom and Frank C. Keil, “Thinking Through Language,” in the September 2001 issue of “Mind & Language,” volume 16, issue 4, pages 351-367.email print