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The Jew in You

The Jew in You

How real is your Jewish identity?


For the past 10 years, psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now Stanford) has studied the effect of praise on children. Her seminal study on 400 fifth-graders sheds light on the stuff that people are made of. Students were administered a series of IQ tests. After the first test, one group of students was praised for their intelligence, while the other group was praised for their efforts.

The second group – those praised for their efforts not talents – consistently proved to be more ambitious when offered a choice between an easy test and a more difficult test. They took responsibility for their failings when unbeknownst to them were given a test beyond their abilities. And, fascinatingly, they did 30% better on follow-up tests than their original test. In contrast, those praised for being smart alone, ironically did 20% worse on follow-up tests than the initial control test they took.

Why is this the case?

The stuff a person is made of is the stuff of truth. If we're praised for being smart, attractive, charming, etc., part of us would like to feel good about it, but in our heart of hearts, we know that we deserve zero credit for any of those qualities. Almost as surely as if we were praised for being tall when we knew we were short.

We truly live at the battlefront where we make choices.

We received our gifts either through nature or nurture, and therefore the praise is misplaced. It may be true that we're all those things, but the praise as praise is just not true.

We truly live at the battlefront where we make choices. My self, in the truest sense, can be found only at the point at which I am exerting effort.

You don't choose to be gifted, but you do choose what you do with those gifts. In fact, the only thing we choose is how hard we try. If we get recognized for our efforts, that rightfully fortifies our self-esteem, and motivates us to keep trying. On the other hand, the seeming "nicety" of praise for being smart, if detached from the effort we made to work hard, has the opposite effect. It causes us to rest on our laurels and simultaneously feel bad for not making the full use of the gifts we've been given – resulting, counterintuitively, in decreased self-esteem.

Self-esteem must be real. It can't be faked. So how we perceive ourselves must be an accurate reflection of the stuff of what we're made of – which is the fruit of our efforts.

Jewish Identity under Attack

The dichotomy between real and false esteem comes to play with our Jewish identity as well.

As someone who works with 20-something college students, I see upfront that Jewish identity is vanishing. Less and less young Jews identify as Jewish. And the reason is simple: identity must be real. It cannot be based on superficial factors alone. Camp songs, Seinfeld reruns, and mother's guilt just won't cut it anymore. A previous generation’s nostalgic connection has no real bearing on our inner core.

Anti-Semitism forces us to confront our Jewish identity.

Most young people are content to leave their Jewish identity undefined, nebulous. Until they encounter the reality of anti-Semitism, a cosmic force programmed into the fabric of human history that serves as the crucible for our identity through its applied heat. Anti-Semitism forces us to confront our Jewish identity.

If our response when attacked for being Jewish is, "Maybe it's something we did wrong," our self-doubt compels us to run and try to fix the flaw, like the bullied teenager who changes his wardrobe to avoid the bully's criticism.

But the proud Jew who understands the meaning of Jewish has a different response. When he sees the protests, the riots, the arson of a major kosher super market, threats of attacks on civilians, outcries that remain unheard to massacres many times larger, he is emboldened to take a stand to be unapologetically Jewish. The response is a galvanizing of Jews together.

In the face of raw, unadulterated hatred, we are challenged to stand taller and prouder. It cuts away the superficiality that comprises our Jewish identity and compels us to discover something much more real within.

To be a Jew means to choose to be a Jew. It means thousands of decisions every day in how to think, how to feel, how to treat others, what not to eat, what to strive for. It means being the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors sons or survivors sons of survivors – all of whom chose – actively in those thousands of daily decisions – to survive as Jews.

We are living in difficult times. Platitudes, propaganda, and politics are showing their true colors. May we use these forces to deepen our Jewishness and unify, to show our true colors as well.

August 2, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 8

(6) Dean_M, August 4, 2014 5:19 PM


Jewish identity is connected to the Sinai Event. If you don't feel that in your soul, your connection to the Jewish people may be lacking. If you do feel it, then nothing can change what you are.

(5) Antonia, August 3, 2014 8:36 PM

I just discovered my Jewish roots


Few months ago I discovered that my great-grandmother was Jewish; I was born in Romania and sadly, I did not know how many Romanian Jews died during the Holocaust until I visited the museum in Washington, DC.

Now I feel absolute peace for finding my true identity that I've been searching for all my life, especially the spiritual one. I finally 'connect' with things that I'm learning and actions of my past. I'm fully embracing it but without much support so any subscription to specific website, honoring the Shabbat, learning Hebrew, reading the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and anything I could get my hands on makes me want to learn even more. Some are not so lucky to go through life and discover who they really are so in this context, I feel so blessed. My recent visits to the Holy Land, my ancestors' home, felt just right and my first experience to the synagogue was indeed unique for I had a wonderful soul from Maryland who was next to me and who patiently walked me step by step through the maariv.

My heart bleeds in pain for every Jewish soul who perishes at the hands of Hamas. Indeed, many from this world have no idea why we survived after so many struggles, wars and still, neo-Nazi thinking around the world. Not only Jewish children need to learn about our origins but the entire world of gentiles would not have had the Bible had it not been for Moses.

Galvanizing Jews from the entire world is a big endeavor. I, for one, try to go to the local synagogue and 3/2 the doors were closed; nobody answers the phone or email. How am I suppose to find a mentor? How could I teach others about what we stand if I can't learn because I depend on others' help? Survival in itself is a miracle from G-d as nothing is guaranteed in this world but somehow, the Jews are protected from evil, thank Adonai.


(4) Marlene Langert, August 3, 2014 5:18 PM

Being Jewish is in your heart and soul, not your brain only

When my older granddaughter who is the progeny of a Jewish mother who is not that Jewish and a non-practicing , raised Catholic father, was still in high school she liked to hang out with the black and Latino kids. However, when the black kids would complain about slavery, she would tell them that "her people" had it much worse because in her grandmother's time Hitler tried to kill all the Jews. Slavery was not the same as genocide! And she was correct. She was and still is proud of her Jewish heritage, but wanted to mix with everyone. She is now 22 and still feels that way.One does not have to be steeped in JUdaism to be proud of being Jewish.

My parents and grandparents escaped from anti-semetism in Russia in the early 1920s and came here to the USA. All they experioenced was being Jewish, anti-semitism, and living amongst Jews. My parents spread out, but were European Jews. I started the generation of reaching out to different religions and my granddaughter reaches out to different races. We are all still proud of being Jewish!

(3) Robin Rosenblatt, August 3, 2014 3:59 PM

My Jewish identity is fine

My Jewish identity is fine. But, when I hear Rabbi's say Islam is a religion of peace, I wonder if I am the only Jew who lives in Reality.

dup, August 4, 2014 10:27 AM

Islam is not a religion of peace !!

Islam is not a religion of peace, because in every country where they are the majority they fight and kill people that belong to different religions or another type of Islam. In Africa they kill Christians, India and Pakistan they kill Christians and Hindos in Iraq they kill Christians and minority Islam people.

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