On Performing, Being Authentic, the Confusion In Between

My minor existential crisis about whether to attend Rosh Hoshanah services began at approximately 11:53 pm the night before.

At said time I was lying in bed, engaged with one of those nightly rituals I perpetually intend to stop and perpetually don’t of scrolling through social media before sleep, when I came across a photo of a friend who–inhabiting the role of “better Jew,” for the evening at least–had managed not only to remember but also to attend Erev Rosh services that night. Adding insult to injury, she had done so with friends.

Feelings of envy, shame and insecurity narrowed toward the particular question of whether I should attend the next day’s service: one being held, as High Holy Days across the Diaspora often are, in a suburban event center several freeways away.

I typed a scurry of texts to friends I thought might be going. Realized it was past midnight and I had better stop. Slept. Woke up, checked responses, replied, typed some more.

By the time I folded into the backseat of a friend’s car after biking two miles to meet her and her wife outside a South Minneapolis bodywork studio, I let out a sigh and explained that the trajectory of my deliberation could effectively illustrate my generally ambivalent, often tortured relationship with being Jewish.

Here’s one fact: about a year ago, some of my weekday activities included phone calls to admissions offices at Rabbinical schools. Here’s another: for more years of my adulthood than not, I’ve not regularly participated in organized religion.

(Like many) I feel deeply called to certain things that religion can hold: spirituality, community, reflection, ritual, a sense of tradition and connection to past.

And (like many) I feel deeply conflicted about others: Israel, for one, and (related) exclusionary forms of tribalism, organizations (like synagogues and nonprofits, religious or otherwise) that capitalism pushes to prioritize their own sustainability, forms of collective faith that can feel irrelevant, obscure and, often, inauthentic.

*

During introductions at a recent anti-oppression workshop, someone explained that what they disliked about such spaces was the way in which they tended to feel performative; their intro, of course, felt exactly that–steeped in the desire to be perceived a certain way.

I think of that moment often, and I thought of it again at services as, in an overstimulated and decaffeinated haze, I observed the (almost all white, Ashkenazi) Jewish masses strut and stumble into the spacious, (rather viciously) open Earle Brown Heritage Center: sheathed in suits and jackets and tallit and tights, I watched as we all engaged in the singular performance of High Holy Day ritual: that of sizing one another up. Of judging. Of comparing our relative worth and relative Jewishness.

For myself and many other Jews I know, practicing collective faith can often feel like performance. Assembled in our rows of stackable chairs, so many expressions of this identity manifest outward: from the paraphernalia of shawls and caps to the fluency of spoken and sung prayers to the physical markers of hair texture, skin color, facial features– we can so easily hone in on ways that fellow congregants do or don’t fit our expectations of what it means to be, or to perform, Jewishness.

*

The night before, instead of attending services, I’d attended a workshop for white allies led by a beloved, Twin Cities-based black activist and leader. The room, at a coffee shop in St. Paul, felt thick with a particular kind of tension: the kind that surfaces when (eager, well-meaning) white people surround POC leaders. It’s textured with numerous layers and vectors and that generates a species of discomfort likely necessary (not just to experience but to examine–no one said this work was quick) to dismantle white supremacy.

The tension, at least as I understand it, is rooted in some messy, identity-based calculus: I see myself a certain way, I want others to see myself this way, too; I don’t want to appear as though I care what others think but I do, I care more about what [insert POC leader] thinks of me than these other white people, but that doesn’t feel great, etc.

I felt reminded of that tension at shul the next day: again, all of us negotiating various, complicated ways in which we see ourselves and want to be seen.

And that’s the thing: when one feels firmly attached to a particular identity, I think it’s pretty natural to desire for that identity to be perceived. I don’t think that desire is purely bad: it’s deeply tied, rather, to what might be the most universal and powerful human urge–to belong.

When we look around in faith or movement spaces and measure ourselves against others, what we’re also doing is saying: accept me, don’t cast me out, I belong here, with you. 

*

At a recent lunch with a female writer friend, we shared about ways in which each of us is cautious about publicly expressing political rage: not because we don’t feel rage, but because of how that expression could be perceived.

For me, as a white woman (aka the demographic that elected Trump and has enabled white supremacy forever), I feel like it can look ridiculous to express (read: perform) indignance about oppression when so many of us have been complacent and complicit for so long: I can imagine (and, I think, have observed) how such expressions can trigger resentment, anger and frustration among women of color–for whom rage (and the awareness of assorted oppressions driving it) is nothing new.

My friend is a black woman. She reflected on how she sees non-black women of color express rage on social media more assertively than she feels she can: “If I were to say those things,” she chuckled, “I’d incite riots.”

In different ways (and with notably different stakes), she and I were expressing a reluctance to share our genuine emotions due to how they would likely be seen.

That conversation reminded me of how tricky is to traffic in accusations of behavior that is “performative”–as though that isn’t something all of us do, all the time. In ways large and small, just and unjust, we all adapt our behaviors and our speech to our context. We always calibrate, to an extent, based on who we’re with and what we might want them to think or know. 

That doesn’t mean those calibrations aren’t ever misguided, or shouldn’t ever be challenged. But unless we’re sure someone is driven purely by how they want to be seen, I think we ought to be pretty cautious about critiquing them.

It’s likely a lot of others in that ally training and a lot of others in that shul had some awareness and perhaps some anxiety about how they were being perceived. But it’s also likely that most of them (at least those not schlepped by relatives) were there because of a genuine personal interest in dismantling white supremacy, or being part of a faith practice and community.

Put another way: I have a hard enough time teasing through the layers of my own motives when it comes to how I want to move through the world. Far be it for me to make assumptions about what’s driving anyone else.

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