LOOKING FOR IDENTITY: HALF, OR PARTLY?

How often have you heard or said “I’m half, or part Jewish“? You surely have heard it at least, and the wisdom of some Native American elders has something to teach you in this respect. A very touching example, which can be applied successfully to us as well, was told by a physician from Oregon, Les Tate, who discovered as an adult that he was Indian. This is his story, from which each of us has something to learn:

* * *

Some twenty or more years ago while serving the Mono and Chukchanse and Chownumnee communities in the Sierra Nevada, I was asked to make a housecall on a Mono elder. She was 81 years old and had developed pneumonia after falling on frozen snow while bucking up some firewood.

I was surprised that she had asked for me to come since she had always avoided anything to do with the services provided through the local agencies. However it seemed that she had decided I might be alright because I had helped her grandson through some difficult times earlier and had been studying Mono language with the 2nd graders at North Fork School.

She greeted me from inside her house, directing me into her bedroom with the sound of her voice. She was not willing to go to the hospital like her family had pleaded, but was determined to stay in her own place and wanted me to help her using herbs that she knew and trusted but was too weak to do alone. I had learned to use about a dozen native medicinal plants by that time, but was inexperienced in using herbs in a life or death situation. She eased my fears with her kind eyes and gentle voice. I stayed with her for the next two days, treating her with herbal medicine (and some vitamin C that she agreed to accept).

She made it through and we became friends. One evening several years later, she asked me if I knew my elders. I told her that I was half Canadian and half Appalachian from Kentucky. I told her that my Appalachian grandfather was raised by his Cherokee mother but nobody had ever talked much about that and I didn’t want anyone to think that I was pretending to be an Indian. I was uncomfortable saying I was part Indian and never brought it up in normal conversation.

“What! You’re part Indian?” she said. “I wonder, would you point to the part of yourself that’s Indian. Show me what part you mean.”

I felt quite foolish and troubled by what she said, so I stammered out something to the effect that I didn’t understand what she meant. Thankfully the conversation stopped at that point. I finished bringing in several days worth of firewood for her, finished the tea she had made for me and went home still thinking about her words.

Some weeks later we met in the grocery store in town and she looked down at one of my feet and said, “I wonder if that foot is an Indian foot. Or maybe it’s your left ear. Have you figured it out yet?”

I laughed out loud, blushing and stammering like a little kid. When I got outside after shopping, she was standing beside my pick-up, smiling and laughing. “You know” she said, “you either are or you aren’t. No such thing as part Indian. It’s how your heart lives in the world, how you carry yourself. I knew before I asked you. Nobody told me. Now don’t let me hear you say you are part Indian anymore.”

She died last year, but I would like her to know that I’ve heeded her words. And I’ve come to think that what she did for me was a teaching that the old ones tell people like me, because others have told me that a Native American elder also said almost the same thing to them. I know her wisdom helped me to learn who I was that day and her words have echoed in my memory ever since. And because of her, I am no longer part Indian, I am Indian.

* * *

Things are more complex than they seem, for some of us, who, like Les Tate, discovered after their teen years the call of their blood. And he had the advantage of working daily in an Indian reservation, to have permanent contact with the owners of the old Native American culture!

You may want to learn, to understand; the identity and cultural heritage may have or not importance for one certain person, depending if he has any spiritual interests or not; but even if you learn and understand, some answers cannot be learnt only from the books or from the blood’s call.

For some, being a Jew means first of all Judaism, religion; for others, a distinct minority nation, with its own, specific traditions and culture.

You may be proud that you belong at the same time to two peoples, each with its own history and heroes, with its distinct traditions, which maybe in your family were blended in a special way; that Phoenix bird got reborn from its own ash and the Jewish people after the Holocaust; but, irrespective how well you may understand some of these aspects, and agree upon their meaning, I don’t know in which extent you can feel some of them, to be a part of yourself, if you haven’t been taught since childhood to feel them.

But for everyone the message remains the same: as long as you have a drop of Jewish blood, the door of the Community remains open for you, and, together with it, the gate towards getting acquainted with the other half of your soul, towards understanding the heritage you are carrying, a part of your own unique identity. This is why I am still saying and I will always say that I am half Jewish, because this is only a half of my blood, a half of my life, something inside me, but not everything, because it can’t be in my conditions; it can be everything in others’, though.

Everything is based on previous foundations, and we are the foundation to what will come after us, strengthening or weakening the future by our present deeds. A new world depends on what we learn, think and achieve. It is in our power this new world to be more tolerant, better, more brotherlike and more willing to understand – both the inner self and everybody else!

The reflection period during the Passover, inherent to the holiday, might grant attention, among other issues, also to the story above. And may everybody who thought once like above, to find the understanding, more than I could!

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