Julia White
Julia White

For questions about identity, I’ve written my own haggadah

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As a Bay Area teen, I am lucky enough to live in a community that contains bountiful diversity in all forms, but particularly religious diversity within the Jewish community.

As a longtime attendee of Camp Tawonga, a camp that “encourages campers to find their own spiritual paths — however they affiliate with Judaism,” I have grown familiar with the beauty and complexities that come with modern interpretations of inclusive religious practice.

At camp, I have befriended everyone from Modern Orthodox Jews to Jewish atheists to people who don’t identify as Jewish in any regard, but still find meaning in the rituals and community that they have found.

It was, in part, this acceptance that inspired me to pursue my own understanding of how Judaism fits into my life and identity; the knowledge that I could question and grapple with my faith and still be embraced unconditionally in my Jewish community.

Not unrelated to my questions surrounding modern Jewish identity has been my journey into social justice work.

In mid-2020, at peak pandemic boredom, I applied to be a fellow with the Kol Koleinu Teen Feminist Fellowship, now called the Meyer-Gottesman Kol Koleinu Teen Feminist Fellowship (and run by the Jewish nonprofit Moving Traditions). Through this fellowship, I have learned what it means to be a feminist, an activist, and a Jew, all with the same aforementioned acceptance that makes this growth possible.

Integral to the Kol Koleinu Fellowship is the yearlong social-change project, in which an individual or small group is paired with a mentor to create something to better our world.

I have been fascinated by ideas of intergenerational traumas, conflicts and legacies, so I decided to begin a project focused on legacies within the Jewish community. My project became a reimagined Passover haggadah focused on legacy and inheritance from a deeply intersectional viewpoint.

For this haggadah, called Yerushah (inheritance), I collected interviews, writings and art pieces dealing with inheritance to connect Passover, a holiday that is intrinsically history-oriented, with a legacy and continuation of the Judaism that plays out around me today.

I am deeply proud of this haggadah. Perhaps my favorite piece is the one that I created for maror, the part in the seder in which we eat bitter foods to remind us of the suffering of our ancestors.

I felt called to think of bitterness in a new way; that is, bitterness that one may feel toward religion, or religious practices in general. In addition to interviewing my atheist Jewish twin brother and a Presbyterian pastor who is the father of a close friend, and researching residual religious perspectives of Holocaust survivors, I spoke with my unofficial step-grandfather, John.

Despite having no connection to me by blood or marriage, John has always been a close grandfather figure, and I wanted to speak with him due to his late introduction to Judaism.

“Religion has never been a part of my focus,” he told me. “In fact, I have a very bitter approach to most formal organized religions that seem to wind up killing lots of people because they don’t wear the right-shaped hats.”

The section on maror continues thus: “In addition to bitterness towards the oft-misused power and legacy of the religious structure, the loss of faith that may come after witnessing intense tragedy can evoke intensely bitter resentment towards the divine being that was supposed to protect its followers from harm … I have come across a phrase over the course of my research that was anonymously carved into one of the cell walls at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria: Wenn es einen Gott gibt muß er mich um Verzeihung bitten, which translates as ‘If there is a God, he must ask my forgiveness.’ Grappling with bitterness gives us an environment in which to question, disagree, or even resent faith, but it does not necessarily preclude faith itself, in environments where questioning is permitted. There is hope and dialogue in the grappling, whereas bitterness itself is a brick wall.”

By bringing new voices to the seder table to grapple together with these intense questions, I hope the haggadah I have written makes the seder more accessible and approachable to those who may have felt left out or disconnected from traditional Jewish practice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Julia White
Julia White

Julia White is a high school junior living in Oakland.