[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 17 – Engaging Millennials with Jewish Peoplehood What Does It Take? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Daniel Olson
When I was growing up, my mom sang in a Klezmer band called “The Prairie Heym Klezmorim.” As is apparent from its name, the repertoire referenced the experience of being Jewish in Minnesota. One of my mom’s favorite songs to perform was a version of the Yiddish classic “Roumania,” a nostalgic song describing the virtues of the homeland. At the end, she added a “Minnesota” version, full of homages to lutefisk, long underwear, and Jewish Olsons.
Being Jewish in Minnesota provided me many opportunities to share my traditions with others. I imagine these discussions are common to anyone practicing a minority religion. The one question people had that sometimes caught me off guard, however, was, “How could anybody be a Jewish Olson?”
Perhaps this question discomfited me because it made me doubt the authenticity of my personal identity. After all, half of my family is not Jewish. Some of my ancestors immigrated to the US not from countries like Romania, but from countries like Sweden. My paternal grandfather was a minister. My dad became Jewish only during his 20s.
Like many other Jewish millennials who have grown up in families from diverse backgrounds, I have grown comfortable with both components of my personal identity and see how they strengthen each other. An experience I had singing with the Yale Glee Club in Sweden brought home how the two sides of my family’s religious background were both within me. At the Uppsala Cathedral, the choir enters in a procession with a cross and six candles at the front, a custom incompatible with Judaism. Our director gave us the option of not participating in the march and just sitting in place. I had to decide whether I wanted to be involved in a church service in this seemingly official capacity. I figured that my Swedish ancestors would have appreciated a descendant participating in a service at the Uppsala Cathedral and decided to march.
Though it may seem as if I put my Judaism aside during this service, I actually came out of the experience with a stronger Jewish identity. Listening to prayers sung in a different language made me proud of the prayers that I know how to sing in a different language and of the connection I feel to Hebrew liturgy. About a week later, the Glee Club visited Prague. Our time there happened to coincide with Shavuot. I called the rabbi of the community and made a reservation for the yontiff dinner and Tikkun Leil Shavuot along with a few friends, including a Mormon who was interested in seeing contemporary Jewish life in 21st century Europe. My friends and I were invited to return for services the following morning. We came back and many of us were asked to participate in the service. I read the Haftarah, Ezekiel’s strange vision of the Merkavah. I saw this experience as connecting to Jewish Peoplehood in a more conventional way than the Swedish service, but I must say that having the chance to participate in both crystallized the experience of being a Jewish Olson.
Daniel Olson is a PhD student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU interested in better understanding how Jewish educational organizations create inclusive learning opportunities for all.