Religious identity: A personal reflection

Last night I went to a holiday party/dessert potluck put on by Mipsterz, a fledgling community of self-described Muslim hipsters. It was an incredible time with the most fashionable and intelligent group of people I’ve hung out with in D.C. (and it was proof that alcohol is not necessary to have a good time).

To be hipster means, broadly, to be alternative and part of a the 2010s counter-culture, but it’s usually just associated with being pretentious and trying too hard to be unique. (Watch the TV series Portlandia for more on hipsterdom.) And it’s something that the Mipsterz themselves make fun of. In the description on the Mipsterz Facebook page: “Wait, they hate us cuz we’re Muslims? I thought they hated us cuz we were hipsters!?”

But the Muslim hipsters label is sparking more than some eye-rolling; it’s sparking an entire debate on what it means to be Muslim today. A couple of weeks ago, they released this video, complete with hip hijab-wearing women — check out my NPR buddy Amarra in the pink smoke around 1:20 — and found themselves in the center of an unexpectedly fierce conversation in the Muslim community.

The resulting conversation is summed up well in this Jezebel article: “The video has garnered mixed responses: while some have lauded it as empowering and stereotype-defying, others have criticized it of courting a shallow Westernized concept of ‘normalcy’ to the detriment of Muslim identity.”

As a non-Muslim, I can’t weigh in on whether the video is strengthening or corroding the religion (although as an American, I can say that it is strengthening the country by defying the narrow-minded stereotypes of Muslims in post-9/11 America). But I noticed that people on all sides of the debate seem to think that this was positive catalyst for a long-overdue conversation, and I think that’s wonderful.

Which brings me to my own religion. Among American Jews, there’s also a wonderful, long-overdue conversation happening, this one sparked by a recent Pew Research Center study on Jews in America.

The study was fascinating. It quantified everything from denomination preference to views on Israel to intermarriage rates — all of which were met with various combinations of optimism, outrage and uncertainty. Those are all really personal issues to begin with, and they’re made more potent when you think about the context: a mass genocide of Jews only 75 years ago, the fact that Neo-Nazis and Holocaust-deniers still exist, tension surrounding the only Jewish sovereignty in modern history. As a result, the biggest fear in the Jewish community, in my opinion, is either that we’ll once again be violently persecuted — or that we’ll finally assimilate into oblivion.

I want to talk about the second fear, assimilation. It’s something that I’ve thought about for years, having grown up in a relatively non-Jewish area. By the standards of many people, I am not contributing to the Jewish people. Most of my closest friends aren’t Jewish, my boyfriend of three-plus years isn’t Jewish, I feel uncomfortable talking about God, and last year I sang in a Gospel choir where Jesus was the topic of literally every song. Surely I am proof that the American Jewish community is failing.

And yet, I have never felt more secure in my Jewish identity. In fact, I strongly believe that being surrounded by religious diversity has forced me to question my own religious identity in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise — and I’ve come out embracing my Judaism. I’m self-critical and stronger for it.

Also, on an interesting related side note: The Pew data suggests that with each successive generation, despite more Jews intermarrying, their kids are also more likely to identify as Jewish. Jewish identity is so much more complex than who you marry or whether you have two Jewish parents, and I think it’s something that many leaders in the community fail to realize.

I know a lot of people like me, people who are proudly Jewish yet somewhat of an outsider in the formal, and sometimes exclusive, Jewish community. I think that’s why I’m so excited by the Mipsterz — in a way, they are the Muslim version of me. And they’ve found a way to build a community around their identity. It’s something I hope to find, one day, for myself.

4 thoughts on “Religious identity: A personal reflection”

  1. This is a really captivating lens to consider Jewish identity through. Watching the video, the question I walk away with is “Is there a Jewish equivalency of this movement?” I can’t recall seeing a portrayal of Jews with Tzitzit fully engaging in popular culture with zero stereotyping or irony involved.

    My 16 year old students are writing papers about human rights vs. national security. When I asked a student today why he thinks it’s okay for the war on terror to unfairly detain people he told me it’s because he would still be scared today if he saw a Muslim person walking down the street. Iny my experience, Jews are no longer ostracized as much as Muslims in this country (for the most part), yet I feel like in last couple years with things like the Arab Spring happening and the ripple effect of that in the media, it is Muslims who are slowly but surely re-contextualizing the Muslim experience in 21st century culture, while Jews are, in my opinion, either failing or not even trying.

    1. I think there is kind of a Jewish equivalency to religious people engaging in pop culture — Matisyahu or the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight” — but I don’t think it’s fair to compare those examples to the Mipsterz because, in general, religious Jews in America are already fully accepted as Americans.

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