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PART 1 OF 3: Representation Builds Belonging: Exploring Judaism in Adulthood

This woman is looking for belonging by exploring her Jewish heritage. Image provided by Tanner Mardis via Unsplash.
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Hidden diversity can be defined in many ways. For Avery Ackelbein, hidden diversity means exploring her Jewish roots as an adult and looking for belonging in new spaces. In this series, we will walk through what it means to connect with your heritage for the first time and find belonging in the process.

Ackelbein grew up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father in Southlake, Texas. Her parents wanted to raise her with some form of religion, but they didn’t want to pressure her to choose between Judaism and Catholicism. Consequently, she was raised as a Christian. Now a college student, Ackelbein has been searching for ways to connect with her Jewish heritage in ways she hadn’t been able to in during her childhood.

Ackelbein believes that part of her disconnection with Jewish culture came from a lack of representation of Jewish people in the entertainment she consumed as a child.

The image is a screen capture of the title screen of a Nickelodeon "Rugrats" episode titled "Chanukah."
Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” portrayed a family celebrating Hanukkah and participating with their local synagogue. Permission for image use from Wikimedia Commons.

“Growing up, I remember watching a lot of Nickelodeon shows,” Ackelbein said. “While there was some effort [to show] more representation of more types of people and cultures besides white people and Christians, I still never noticed many shows with [Jewish] representation besides ‘Rugrats’ on [Nickelodeon] when the main characters celebrated Hanukkah in one of the episodes.”

Although seeing Hanukkah on television excited Ackelbein as a child, that enthusiasm did not last long. Without consistent, accurate Jewish representation, she did not maintain a serious interest in her heritage until many years later.

“If I had seen more television and entertainment that accurately portrayed what Judaism is or Jewish people are about, I would have been more interested in it as a child,” Ackelbein said.

Another obstacle for Ackelbein’s relationship with Judaism was the town in which she grew up.

“Considering a larger perspective about where I grew up… if there was more Jewish representation in media, people in my very white, Christian town might have been more comfortable with alternative world views,” Ackelbein said. “My mother was worried about raising me to be Jewish there.”

The image shows a Star of David pendant on a chain necklace.
Ackelbein’s feeling of separation from her heritage is not dissimilar to the lack of belonging often felt by CCKs and TCKs. Image provided by RJA1988 via Pixabay.

Now, as an adult, Ackelbein is taking it upon herself to learn more about what it means to be Jewish. Doing so helps to alleviate the disconnection she felt from Jewish culture.

Ackelbein’s feeling of separation from her Jewish heritage is not unique to her situation alone. It is a common feeling among cross-cultural people and culturally fluid people.

Growing up between cultures as a CCK or growing up in many cultures as a TCK, it is easy to feel isolated and out of place. This lack of belonging may be attributed to a lack of representation in mainstream media, particularly television and movies. These media are big players in what becomes the popular culture and can help to establish social norms. When people do not see characters or actors that look or think like them, it can create a sense of alienation.

Representation matters and Ackelbein’s story only just scratches the surface. Seeing one’s own identities reflected in television and in movies can help to create a true sense of belonging, no matter one’s geographic location. Entertainment is diversifying more and more every year, both with visual and hidden diversity. Hopefully, this will help the next generation of culturally fluid people feel like they truly belong, no matter where they are.

In part two of this series, we will look at what Jewish representation looks like in the mainstream media and the ways it impacts people’s understanding of the religion and what it means to be Jewish in the western world.

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