Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

My Identity Problem

Belonging, yet standing apart.

Alan Shapiro

Forward (detail), 1996, by Max Ferguson (b.1959); private collection/Bridgeman Images.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | My Identity Problem

If childhoods have leitmotifs, mine was the steady, subtle, though sometimes bullying insistence on the unsurpassed importance of my Jewish American identity. On one side of my two-track upbringing, there was the uncontested conviction that Jews were the chosen people, the main players in God’s plan for humanity; on the other side, the daily pledge of allegiance to the American Republic, in all its shining-city- on-a-hill exceptionalism. How it is that my self-importance is not positively Trumpian is as big a mystery as why Muammar al-Qaddafi took over Libya and declared himself colonel, not king, or why, as John Berryman once wondered, cats love fish and hate water.

Unfortunately, and for reasons I don’t completely understand, my emotional investment in these and other inherited identities didn’t extend much beyond my immediate family, which was anything but coherent or harmonious. There was seldom a time when one of us three kids wasn’t being spanked or yelled at, or when my frazzled, overworked parents weren’t at each other’s throats. Daily alliances among the children were fungible; they broke apart and reformed in different combinations depending on who was tormenting whom or who was catching hell. I never felt closer to one sibling than when the other one was being teased or ostracized: my brother and I becoming angels when my sister acted out, my sister and I anointed as the chosen ones when my brother threw a tantrum, my sister and brother becoming best friends when I’d be sent off without dinner to my room, or the three of us suddenly turning thick as thieves listening to the parents screaming at each other in the middle of the night. If our earliest attachments determine or shape the quality of attachments later in life, it’s no surprise that my need for belonging, however deep and inescapable it may be, was and is still vexed, fraught with ambivalence and conflict.

* * *

An old rabbi and his family lived down the street from us. In our Jewish but mostly secular neighborhood, he was an anomaly. He was always praying in the window of his ground-floor study. I don’t recall ever seeing him outside, or anywhere but there, at that big table, under a gooseneck lamp, a satiny prayer shawl covering the shoulders of his dusty, rumpled black suit, his skull-capped head bent over a massive tome whose pages were so thin you could see through them when he turned one over, the print on both sides momentarily visible, like a cloud of gnats in sunlight, one crooked finger moving tremulously right to left across the words he mumbled along to, chanting Ha Shem this and Ha Shem that.

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