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March 12, 2009

I read an article by a herbalist who lives in British Columbia. She attended a Native American ceremony, and heard an elder talk about how important it is to hold on to their language– how the language IS the culture and the culture is the language and without that their culture will become nothing. She started thinking about her Irish roots, and realised that she needed to get back in touch with her heritage– to learn about her trade (herbalism) from that perspective (Celtic). She described how much happier she was now that she ‘found’ this, and started learning the language, etc.


Which got me thinking and wondering, if I were to do such a thing– to go in search of my roots– where the hell would I go searching. I was born Jewish. The fact that I feel that Jewish practices are outdated, and that the rituals are in a meaningless language and that I don’t actually believe any of it means nothing– I was born to Jewish parents, and carry in me a part of that lineage. Half my family is Sephardic, and half are Ashkanazi. The only connection I feel with any Jewish rituals are to do with the Friday night dinners that my family has had for as long as I can remember. My Jewishness is connected to chicken soup and wine and apple crumble and candles. To go in search of a Jewish history, I would feel like a fraud. Politely knocking on doors pretending to be something that I’m not in order to steal a little bit of an identity. When I see Sephardic rituals and such, it’s cool and pretty and exotic, but I have nothing in common with the North African traditions that are entwined with Sephardism. Ashkanazi rituals create a kind of revulsion in me. They exeplify everything that I dislike about religion and masculine-oriented societies. The thing that troubles me the most about Judaism is that within what I learned I cannot find traces of any Earth-based religion. In fact, if I recall my Jewish history correctly, Judaism was created specifically to do away with the earth-based religions. There  may be traces of goodness in the rituals and teachings, but they have been so corrupted by those who teach them and pass them on that I want nothing to do with any of it.

I was born in London, and moved to Glasgow when I was young, so my cultural identity issues started around then. One day, after being in Glasgow for a few weeks, my brother and I came running home from school saying “Mummy, mummy, we don’t WANT to be English any more. We are Scottish now.” And that was that. But even growing up in Scotland, I never felt fully Scottish. I don’t know if it was the first few years in England, or if it is because I always knew that I would move to the States, or if it was because I never had a fully Glaswegian accent (even though nobody on the south side of Glasgow sounds Rab C Nesbit Glaswegian). I remember one time in Jewish assembly at my high school– the Jewish alternative to going and singing hymns for half an hour– one of the ‘leaders’ brought up the question: Are you a Jewish Scot, or a Scottish Jew. I don’t remember what their point was. S0mething about how Jews in Germany thought of themselves as German first before their country turned on them. Something about how it’s good to stick together. I remember thinking that if anything I was a Jewish Scot. But that I wasn’t fully Scottish and I wasn’t fully Jewish. I remember feeling guilty for this. Like somewhere along the road I dropped and stepped on my patriotism gene, and was so ashamed that I didn’t tell anybody.

When I think about tracing my roots back, like that woman did, to ‘find where I come from’, I hit a few crossroads. One being that I am not sure whether I go with the Jewish thing or the British thing. Two being that only one of my grandparents’ parents was Scottish, six were German, one was Lithuanian. So, er, do I trace back to Germany–a place that I’ve only stopped off in on the way to other places? Three being that I would feel like a fraud with any of these, because any pretense I have at nationality is just that– pretense.

Living in America, I meet so many people who consider themselves Scottish, or German, or Italian, or French, or part French, Brazillian, German and Scottish. Or any combination of any nationalities on the planet. I remember getting into an argument with a guy who I met at a party in high school. He had a tattoo of a Scottish flag on his shoulder. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: *WHACK* (sound of me hitting him on the arm). You’re SCOTTISH?!?!
Douchebag: *shrug* (sound of apathetic Southern California teenager trying to be cool). Yeah.
Me: Awesome! Whereabouts are you from?
Douchebag: Uh, my family is from somewhere near Glas-cow.
Me: Glasgow.
Douchebag: yeah, Glas-cow.
Me: (somewhat suspicious). Where were you born?
Douchebag: Well I was born in Palm Desert but
Me: so you’re American.
Douchebag: yeah, and
Me: not Scottish at all then
Douchebag: But that’s where I’m from.
Me: when was the last time you went there?
Douchebag: I haven’t been yet, but I’d really like to go sometime.
Me: You’re American, not Scottish.
Douchebag: But I am Scottish (shows me the tattoo).
Me: Oh. I didn’t know it was that easy. Maybe I should get an American flag tattooed on my arm, and then I’ll get a green-card and all my problems will be solved.

His absolute certainty of his cultural identity bothered me– how can HE be so certain when he’s never even set foot there. He’s more certain of his Scottishness than I am. I share an office with a black man called Jaymz. We talk about cultural identity a lot. He was telling me that when he went to Africa for the first time, he was really shocked to find out that they hated him. Black people in Africa think that black people in America are weak, and all kinds of not-nice other things. He doesn’t like Africans. My step-brother had a similar thing happen to him: he was adopted from Ecuador at a young age. His whole life he had thought that he just felt disconnected because he was actually Ecuadorian. When he went there for the first time though, he discovered that he was nothing like the Ecuadorians that he met. He had been living in Scotland and America his whole life– of COURSE he wasn’t Ecuadorian anymore.

Being rooted is taking on a new meaning. A couple of hundred years ago, it wasn’t too common to have families that come from different corners of the world. Now it is. And this is a good thing, in my opinion. This whole planet is constantly moving and evolving. We have evolved from the plants who travel from generation to generation, spreading their seeds, to human beings with planes and cars who can travel great distances in one day. But at the same time, we have lost the roots that we used to take for granted. Milan Kundera describes this phenomenon really well in… I think it’s “Testament’s Betrayed”, or maybe “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. He describes how so many artists have their art tied up in their cultural identity. How so much art is attributed to the culture from which it emerged. What happens when these artists emigrate? TS Eliot is now shared between America and England. Nabokov is American and Russian. Kundera himself is French and Czech, although he writes exclusively in French now. He talks about roots, and how when one’s roots are wrenched from the culture they grew up in, there is a disconnect at first, how they try to fit in the new culture, and then when it becomes apparent that they no longer fit anywhere, they grow into the art instead. How beautiful is that… to have your art be the ground you walk on, the place where your roots settle (at this point I would like to launch into a discussion of where that art comes from, but I fear that I will digress too much and write a much longer blog than you, dear reader, have time to read). When I moved away from the UK, I went through a similar thing. I was no longer fully British because I had assimilated a new culture. But I was never going to be American. I didn’t belong anywhere in the traditional sense. Lately, ‘being rooted’ has taken on a whole new meaning to me. One that isn’t defined by borders and governments, but by land and spirit.

The way I see it now, I have roots. They just do not extend back into the past like those of a person playing archaologist on their family tree. My roots are strong, and they fill the present, and they fill up the earth wherever I am. I have a tribe. We don’t look the same, or dress the same and we don’t come from the same places. But we speak the same language and have similar roots. I have a culture. I just have no way to define it to you or to anybody else. We are all people with a mish-mash history and no cultural identity, or I should say, no identity that can be defined by anybody else. And we are on the front-lines of root-evolution. That, to me, is much more authentic than a label and a flag tattooed on my arm.

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