My friends, my work, my life &mdash can you really be too Jewish

“I’m too Jewish.” When the words escape my lips, they leave a bitter taste. I started saying them once I realized my world had become a bubble.

The irony is, for most of my life, I wasn’t Jewish enough. I was the Jew who knew nothing. An impulsive date to Israel changed me. I went because I’d fallen for the guy who wanted me to go. I left smitten with the country and my newly found identity.

I arrived in San Francisco in 1996, fresh from living in Israel for about two years and intent on forging a new path. A Jewish path. A previous outsider to the American Jewish community, I got in the only way I knew how — through work. With the right job, I was guaranteed entry, 40 hours a week.

Six years later, I’d forged more than a path. I’d built an autobahn. My co-workers, friends and activities were mostly all Jewish, all the time. And it was good. But eventually I began to wonder why my world had become so small.

Thoughts of journalism had been with me for years, and when I’d gone as far as I wanted to go in Jewish communal service (at the time, I was with the Anti-Defamation League), I applied to graduate school.

At my U.C. Berkeley interview, I was told that while they were impressed with me, the admissions committee had a concern. I held my breath as the interviewer struggled to find the right words. “Well, it’s just, you seem so focused. Are you sure you want to give this up?”

I told her I wouldn’t have applied if I didn’t.

“Some worry that you might not be objective, that you might … how do I say …” I let her off the hook and offered, “Have an agenda?” She looked relieved that I had said it.

I admitted I’d worried about appearing “too Jewish.” I worked to convince her that I was more than this. But I understood that if this school didn’t want me because of this, then I didn’t want them. I finally said, “I’ve spent enough time with Holocaust survivors to know that I will never apologize for who I am.”

She nodded, smiled broadly, and I

was in.

This exchange stayed with me, though. It raised my deepest worries about coming to Berkeley. How could I prove myself as a journalist, on a campus like this, while still loving Israel and having ADL on my resume?

A course offered my first semester was entitled “Reporting on Islam,” and I enrolled to take it. I wanted the exposure, the opportunity to be a sponge. But I dropped the course right after the first meeting. I’d been singled out repeatedly by the instructor, before my peers, because I’d been honest about my background. “You won’t like what I have to say.” “You’ll want to challenge me on this.” “This part will upset you.” “This reading will make you angry.”

This teacher, who knew nothing about me beyond my resume, had set me up. If I took her class, I’d be the defender of all things Israel and Jewish. Exhausted from my years at ADL, and excited to be just a student, I opted out.

When former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke on campus last fall, I covered the story and immersed myself in the hordes of protesters. I sought out the people I’d spent years believing were “the enemy” because I had to in order to do my job.

And you know what? They weren’t all that bad. Sure, there were those whose signs made me shudder, but they stood alone. The ones who deserved coverage were smart, well-spoken, with different perspectives, as is their right.

That’s the beauty of this new path. Armed with a notepad, I have an excuse to be curious. With my obligation to report fairly, I seek out all sides, and I’m never positioned to defend anything or anyplace. It suits me better.

I’m still self-conscious, though, about the magnets on my fridge — UJA and AIPAC, among others. They’re only there to secure pictures, but do visitors realize this? There’s the self-portrait of a Chassidic man, the Israel Museum poster, the dusty Judaica and, oy, to look at my bookshelves.

Too Jewish? As long as I’m about more than my resume, my social circle and what crowds my refrigerator door, I’ll keep telling myself “No.”

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].