Teen Talk: Maintaining Jewish Identity and Pride in the Public Atmosphere

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My name is Ariel Lotman. I am a leader for CTeen Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and I am a sophomore in high school. I love to play basketball, sing, run, hang out with my friends, travel, eat out at restaurants, and lots of other things. You could say that I like to do many things that a “normal” teenager would do. You could say that I really am just a “normal” teenager. But in reality, that not only does not apply to myself, but that statement is not applicable to each and every person sitting in this room right now. Here is how.

In March of 1990, my parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to America. Being under the communist rule for all of their lives, they were not able to keep in touch with their Judaism, much less observe it. When my parents went shopping for their first time at a supermarket, my mother almost passed out when she first walked in. She had no idea that food could be in such abundances. What you and I may see as just another Wal-Mart or just another Costco, others may see it as an oasis. Now applying this to freedom of religion and freedom in general, some of us as American teenagers have no idea how privileged we are. This problem still applies to our counterparts across the world where teenagers have a hard time or are afraid to show that they are Jewish.

When I was a little kid my family was not religious, however we knew that we were Jewish and we were proud of it. There was nothing to be afraid of since my parents were no longer in communist Russia. As time went by and my older brother, my only sibling, started becoming more interested in the idea of religious Judaism, my father decided to tag along. My father’s grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust, whose names I saw in the record books in Auschwitz this summer on my CTeen Heritage Quest. His father, my grandfather, fought in the air force against the Nazis, and I believe that this was a big factor in his path to becoming religious. In any case, my mother and I did not follow in the steps of my brother and my father, but we kept our non-religiousness to ourselves. Every Shabbat morning, I would wake up earlier than my parents to turn on and watch the Saturday cartoons. My mother would usually wake up second, and then keep lookout for me until my father was coming down the stairs, which meant it was time to turn the TV off. Then, one morning, I thought it was my mother coming down the stairs, however it was my father who came downstairs instead. Even though he was still tired, the look in his eyes as he simply just stared at me is a look that I will never forget. It was a look of waste and shame. In my father’s eyes, it was saddening to see all of the rough times and times of endless work, go to waste. Escaping Russia, just so his son could watch his Saturday cartoons. At that point, although I was very young, I was not completely stupid. I understood what my father was feeling, and decided to give being observant a try. After all, what choice did I have anyway, I was only like six years old, and the only thing I would be giving up was my cartoons. So I did, and my family did. My brother, a Rabbi, who actually lives a few blocks from here with his wife and newborn son, made a huge decision to leave high school after sophomore year and go to Yeshiva. At first my parents were terrified, however they decided to give it a chance. It worked out in the end, but they had no idea what the future held for him. Nevertheless, we went on with our lives, and we slowly became more and more observant, and we saw that it wasn’t so bad after all.

Now, people to this day still ask me, “Would you still be observant as you are if you parents didn’t force you too?” And my answer to that is, what force? There was no and there is no force. Sure, maybe there was some when I was a kid, but now as a 16 year old, I am old and mature enough to make my own decisions on the matter. There are certain things that I do and do not do to a certain extent anyway. For example, I will go out to eat at a non-kosher restaurant, however I will just not eat any meat or shellfish. I will buy something non-kosher from a store as a snack if it does not involve any meat or shellfish. I don’t listen to Jewish music, instead I listen to Hip-Hop and R&B. I do not wear tzitzit. I do not keep the laws of tzniut, such as wearing only pants and shirts that cover the elbow. I am not shomer negiyah, etc. Now this is not meant to back up that this is OK, however each Jew keeps in touch with his Judaism in different ways, no matter how religious or how non-religious. There is however one thing that really defines a Jew: Pride.

Pride is an emotion that everyone has. You can be proud of yourself for something you achieved, you can be proud in your child for something that they did, you can be proud of your dog for learning a new trick, everyone is proud of someone or something in their life. One thing that every Jew should be proud of is the fact that they are Jewish.

As a student of Nicolet Public High School, I walk the hallways like every other student, getting from class to class. But what defines me as someone who stands out? What differentiates me from the other 1,000 students? The common answer would be the Milwaukee Bucks kippah that I wear to school each and every day with pride, one of the two boys wearing a kippah in our high school. I’ve been wearing a kippah ever since my upshernish, so it makes no difference to me in reality where I wear it, because it is like my drivers license, you would never drive anywhere without it. Even though this may be pride, it does not feel like it to me, like I said, it is normal for me. Besides, people at my school would know whether I was Jewish or not, that’s just how it is. Everyone at my school knows who is and is not Jewish, no matter if they show it some how or not. No, my pride comes from somewhere else.

My pride comes from knowing that my people, the Jewish people, are one of the smallest minorities in the world. My pride comes from knowing that my homeland, Israel, is a tiny state surrounded by threatening enemies who would do anything to get rid of the Jewish people, and have thank G-d failed each time. My pride comes from knowing that the Jewish people will always remember and persevere through any persecution and any discrimination, because although we are small, we are strong. My pride comes from knowing that there have been people who fought and died just so that I, and many others could be Jewish freely. My pride comes from feeling like I should be embarrassed or uncomfortable when dancing or singing or celebrating with my fellow Jews, but I feel quite the opposite. That’s just me however, and each persons pride may come from a different source. But whatever we do, we MUST make sure that we actually have that pride. No matter how rough times get and it may seem like the easiest thing to do is to crawl back into your shell and pretend like you were never Jewish, we have to jump over that wave. The Jewish people have lost too many people to the “easiest” option and to the “easy way out”. We must be proud of who we are, and spread that pride to our children, and make sure they spread it to their children, so on and so forth. We must each reach deep down into ourselves and look at what makes us not only a Jew, but a proud one too, and each and every one of us has that in us. It really is in our DNA as bright as day, and we should not be ashamed of it whatsoever. What is there to be ashamed of after all? Nothing. We are G-d’s chosen people, and that is for a reason. Each one of us is handpicked by G-d himself for a reason, and we should embrace that. If we do something, we not only represent ourselves, we represent the entire Jewish nation. We must ensure that we as teenagers and the next generation especially represent the Jewish people in the best way possible, and that can only be done through the Jewish pride that each and every one of us can find surging throughout our bodies. Because I am a Jew, a proud one too, as bright as day, it’s in my DNA.

I would like to give a huge shoutout to the CTeen organization. CTeen has allowed me to be a proud Jew and has helped me spread the joy and pride of Judaism to others. Back in Milwaukee, our chapter has a house right behind our high school where we serve lunches over the holidays and do much more. We have different themes for each day of Chanukah and for Yomim Tovim, for example Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Schapiro and I walk the 4 miles from our Shul to the house to make sure the Jewish kids that are in school are able to celebrate the holidays as well, hearing the Shofar, shaking the Lulav and Etrog, etc. We also have tons of other fun activities that we do, all because of CTeen. CTeen has changed so many Jewish lives for the better, not only in Milwaukee, but all over the world, and I witnessed it personally with some of the guys who went on my CTeen Heritage Quest. So once again, a huge thank you to CTeen for being the organization it is, thank you for making this beautiful shabbaton, and thank you all for listening.

(P.s. Watch out for CTeen Milwaukee in the next couple of years, we are definitely a contender for chapter of the year.)