Imposter syndrome, Jewish edition

Imposter syndrome, Jewish edition
Image via Freepik

I feel it whenever there's a Hebrew prayer or song in the service, and my eyes skim over the Hebrew letters in the program to find the phonetic version below. No matter how carefully I try to pronounce each syllable, I never quite hit it right, and I inevitably mess up the inflection at the end of each sentence—I go up when I should go down, and vice versa.

I felt it as I wandered the aisles of the local kosher supermarket, in search of gelt (foil-wrapped chocolate coins) on the first day of Hanukkah.

I feel it whenever I'm reading a book or article and there's an unfamiliar Yiddish word that I can't figure out with context clues.

I felt it when I couldn't remember the Hebrew prayer for lighting Shabbat candles, so I defaulted to the English translation.

I felt it when my synagogue's weekly email, which includes details about upcoming Jewish events, mentioned a "Klezmer on Ice" festival and I had to resort to Google to figure out that klezmer is Ashkenazi Jewish folk music. (Traditional klezmer music will sound familiar if you're a fan of Fiddler on the Roof—the musical's score is heavily influenced by the genre.)

I've come to label that feeling—feeling out of place in Jewish spaces, feeling like there are embarrassing gaps in my religious and cultural Jewish knowledge, feeling like I'm not Jewish enough—as Jewish imposter syndrome.

The imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, was first described by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. Perhaps because they were writing in an era when women were entering professions and roles that were previously barred to them due to gender, Imes and Clance thought that imposter syndrome was unique to professional women. They defined imposter syndrome as occurring when high achievers are unable to internalize their own success. People with imposter syndrome think they've actually conned their way into their position, and they fear that they'll be exposed as frauds. According to a 2011 research review, we now know that imposter syndrome is a form of self-doubt that can occur in people across the gender spectrum, and it's estimated that 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in their lifetime.

At several points in my writing career, I've experienced imposter syndrome when I've taken on new job opportunities or projects. I don't have a journalism degree, and even though I have nine years of freelance experience, I still feel like a faux reporter when I attend press events with colleagues who have formal training.

I think a similar thing is happening with Judaism: I'm comparing myself to some "ideal" Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew, has a deep knowledge of tradition and ritual, and bakes impeccably braided loaves of challah. I'm sure that such Jews exist. But the fact of their existence doesn't mean that I am somehow under-qualified in my Jewishness. No one is lurking around the synagogue waiting for the opportunity to critique my Hebrew pronunciation, and no one at the kosher supermarket cared that I was celebrating Hanukkah for the first time. Of course, there are many, many things that I still need to learn about Judaism, and I do need to work on my Hebrew and Yiddish (I think that will be a lifelong process). But in the meantime, I need to stop comparing myself to an ideal.

However, there's another layer to my Jewish imposter syndrome beyond simply comparing myself to others and finding my knowledge lacking. I can memorize the prayers and do the rituals and celebrate the holidays. I can join a synagogue and embrace Jewish humor and eat lots of bagels. But there are some aspects of Judaism in which I will never, ever be able catch up.

Obviously, there are the lifecycle events. Instead of a Jewish baby naming ceremony, I had a Catholic baptism. I didn't mark my thirteenth year with a bat mitvah, a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish girls (boys have a bar mitvah; some congregations use the gender-neutral term "b-mitvah" to be more inclusive). I didn't get married under a chuppah, the traditional canopy that a couple stands under during a Jewish wedding ceremony.

Then there are the cultural aspects.

Because the United States is a predominantly Christian country, and especially for those of us who were raised in a Christian denomination, it is very common to categorize Judaism as a religion. It is, but it's also a culture. The Society for Humanistic Judaism explains, "Being Jewish was never just about religion. Judaism emerged from a tribal people thousands of years ago and Jewish identity remains a consequence of ancestry or choice. Membership in the Jewish people is not a function of belief; it is a function of identification, connection, and loyalty." I didn't just convert to Judaism as a religion; I adopted Jewish culture as my identity.

I absolutely believe that one can adopt Judaism as an culture—I wouldn't have converted through the Humanistic Jewish movement and I wouldn't be a member of a Humanistic Jewish synagogue if I didn't wholeheartedly believe that. But adopting a culture is a more complicated undertaking than converting to a religion. A religion is bounded and defined: you hold certain beliefs. Culture is food, language, folklore, values, expectations, assumptions, humor, aesthetics, and so much more (I learned about Edward T. Hall's cultural iceberg model in college and have found it to be a very useful concept).

There are so many things about Jewish culture that I struggle relate to. I didn't go to Jewish summer camp, which seems to be a formative experience for many Jews. I don't have a matzoh ball soup or challah recipe handed down from my grandma. I didn't grow up watching "A Rugrats Chanukah." I don't operate on Jewish Standard Time, a joking reference to the fact that Jewish services and events tend to start late. I can't play Jewish geography, the conversational game in which Jews connect by figuring out their mutual Jewish acquaintances, who they often met at summer camp. (There are about 16.7 million Jews worldwide, or about 0.2% of the population, so if you have spent a lifetime in Jewish spaces, playing Jewish geography is more feasible than you would think.)

Sometimes, the things that draw people born into a culture together can exclude those who have been adopted into it later in life.

My personal experience of imposter syndrome is that I have felt it the most when I don't fit the mold—for example, when I'm doing journalistic work that most people earn a degree to do. I think that's true of my Jewish imposter syndrome as well—I don't fit the mold. I'm a minority when it comes to the U.S. Jewish population: Jews-by-choice clock in at about 17 percent according to the Pew Research Center's 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study. My ethnic background also puts me firmly in the minority: Pew Research Center's Jewish Americans in 2020 survey found that 66 percent of the U.S. Jewish population is Ashkenazi, which means that they have Jewish ancestors from Central and Eastern Europe. Jews and non-Jews alike don't expect a Jew to have grown up lighting Advent candles instead of a Hanukkah menorah or to have Finnish heritage in lieu of Ashkenazi roots.

Over the past week or so, as I've worked on writing this post, I've realized that even though my personal background sets me apart from the majority of the U.S. Jewish population, my Jewish imposter syndrome is actually very much in keeping with the experiences of many, many Jews, regardless of their backgrounds. There's a reason that phonetic versions of Hebrew prayers are included in my synagogue's program—according to a 2021 survey by the American Jewish Committee, 42 percent of American Jews can't read or speak Hebrew at all, and another 36 percent can only read phonetically with minimal understanding. When I attended a new members brunch at my synagogue, I learned that many of my fellow members (including some in leadership roles) hadn't had a b-mitvah as thirteen-year-olds and were currently participating in an adult b-mitvah program because they felt like they had missed out. One member confessed that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't figure out how to braid challah. Another person, all of whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, was raised in a completely secular home and is connecting with Judaism as an adult so that she can pass her heritage on to her young children. Even people who had been raised Jewishly were learning Yiddish on Duolingo or had just celebrated Tu Bishvat, a Jewish holiday focused on the environment, for the first time.

I think that we all—myself included—can benefit from thinking about Jewish identity in a more expansive way, inclusive of people from a range of backgrounds. Some Jews speak Hebrew and have a family recipe for matzo ball soup; some of us don't. Over the past thousands of years, Judaism has been an ever-changing religion and culture, encompassing diaspora communities with wide-ranging traditions and a dizzying diversity of opinions. From the very beginning, there have been converts and Jews-by-choice. There has never been anyone who every Jew would consider to be an "ideal" Jew, because traditions and beliefs vary so widely.

Maybe, occasionally feeling a tinge of Jewish imposter syndrome is the most Jewish thing of all.