The Myriad Jewish Identities of Boulder חי


Cole Drozdek

Though the city of Boulder does not have a large Jewish population, a myriad group of Jewish individuals can be found at Boulder High School

The city of Boulder does not have a large Jewish population, however, Boulder High hosts a myriad group of Jewish individuals. As a proud, active member of the Jewish community, I decided to seek out fellow Jewish students in the Boulder High community to find our differences and the bonds that tie our community together. Please note throughout the article, when I refer to “The Jewish Students of Boulder High,”  I can only speak for myself and those ten students I interviewed.

I’ve always known I was Jewish. From a young age, I attended Sunday School and Hebrew School (Schul). There I learned the prayers and the stories of the Jewish people, prepared for and became a Bar Mitzvah. Despite such involvement, I never believed in a God. Nor did I believe the Jewish people had been chosen for some higher purpose. Throughout the past year or so, I grappled with Jewish identity outside of the Jewish religion. I identify with my Jewish ethnicity and culture, despite not being religious. 

For those of you not familiar with the term Ashkenazi Jewish, it is one of three main ethnic classifications used to categorize Jewish people. Beyond being an ethnic group, Ashkenazi Judaism is a distinct and unique culture with its own cuisine and language, Yiddish. Most Jewish-Americans are Ashkenazi. American’s are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture, from the vibrant exchange between Ashkenazi and American cultures. It was Ashkenzis who brought bagels and the words “klutz” and “spiel” (among many others) to America.

Although ethnically non-European, most Ashkenazis define themselves as “White.” It is undeniable that Jews in America benefit from white privilege. Most Ashkenazis can “pass” as being of European descent despite some individuals having defining features such as curly black hair, larger noses, and thick eyebrows.

Among the Jews from Boulder High I interviewed, all were Ashkenazi. Senior Audrey Kaufman expressed, “I’m not really sure what Ashkenazi is although I know I am an Ashkenazi Jew,” a common sentiment from those I interviewed. I expect this is the result of years of assimilation of the Ashkenazi population. One form of assimilation common among Jewish Americans today is nose jobs, as a large nose is a distinctly Jewish feature. “A lot of the women in my family have gotten nose jobs,” adds senior Stella Hofferman. She admits she has “definitely considered it,” explaining how it makes her feel “insecure being one of the only women in [her] family without a nose job.” Today, young Jewish-Women are more likely to embrace their Jewish beauty – noses and all. Hofferman states, “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that I don’t want to conform to Western beauty standards.” Hofferman’s reclaiming of her Jewish beauty reflects much of what I’ve seen among my Jewish peers who are reclaiming or even just now discovering their Jewish identities.

Senior Stella Hofferman is proud to be Jewish, and is active in the community. (Milena Pajevic)

Jewish students at Boulder High express not feeling noticeably Jewish. Audrey Kaufman states, “I think other Jews can tell that I am Jewish. I have dark curly hair and dark eyes, but obviously, not everyone with dark features is Jewish. I don’t think it’s blatantly obvious when you look at me unless you know my last name.” The feeling of anonymity until one’s last name is revealed is not unique. Senior Phin Goldman explains, “based on my appearance and how I present myself I don’t think I’m immediately recognizable as a Jew. But then people hear my last name and that kinda gives it away.”

I also found that many Jewish Students are likely to hide their Jewish identity and name when they feel unsafe. When asked about this, sophomore Hannah Cohen answered, “Certainly when I travel to other places, I am conscious of when to hide my Jewish identity. I have a very Jewish name, so I may not give my name to people or wear a Hamsa. But in Boulder, I feel fine.” Even for some who do not think they are noticeably Jewish such as Phin Goldman, caution is on their mind. When speaking about driving through Middle America, Phin says that he “made sure to put his Star of David necklace under his shirt and make sure it wasn’t showing. It’s not because I’m afraid,” he explains. “I just [don’t] want to stand out.”

Standing out as Jewish can occasionally bring discrimination. “I’ve definitely been picked on for being a Jew by people that aren’t joking. Mostly by white boys at Boulder High, many of whom like to throw pennies,” laments Hofferman, “I feel that in order not to have these things happen, I need not tell people that I am Jewish, which is a privilege that I have. I’m very happy to be able to pass; a lot of [minorities] don’t have the privilege to hide their identities like Jews can.” Hofferman’s statement is proof many Jewish individuals feel being proud and vocal of their identity opens themselves up to minor-aggressions and, at times, outright discrimination. “Even in a place like Boulder, that is really liberal, there [are] always going to be ignorant people,” Hofferman said somewhat humorously. However, she goes on to say that “I don’t think I would feel completely safe as a Jewish person anywhere.” Hannah Cohen said she always makes an effort to ensure people aren’t leaving Jews out of the conversation or disregarding Jewish identity. She elegantly describes, “for so many years my ancestors struggled for the ability to be proud of their Jewish identities, or their Jewish identities were all they had to keep them from either being killed or fully assimilated. So, I want to be proud of that tradition.” While it may be hard at times to be Jewish in America, having the ability to be proud is worth celebrating. 

Other Jews at Boulder High, such as senior Sophie Katz, expressed, “I’ve never felt discriminated against because I was Jewish. I think especially because I didn’t even know much about it myself. So I don’t really talk about it or stand out.” It seems that in anonymity, there is a degree of protection. Jewish seniors Charlie Matyas and AJ Kaplan both expressed, despite many people knowing they were Jewish, neither experienced any annoyance or ridicule. “It’s just not a huge part of who I am,” expands Matyas. “So, I don’t see why I would be targeted for it.” Maybe being vocally Jewish invites a varying degree of otherization, or even hate, depending on one’s surroundings. Despite this, the Jewish students at Boulder High are unanimously proud, even if being Jewish isn’t a core part of their identities.

So how do the Jewish students of Boulder High celebrate their Jewish identities?  

Many shared ways in which they connect to their Jewish identities through Jewish cuisine. Hofferman says, “I definitely connect to my Jewish identity through cooking. It’s always really funny to tell my friends that I am making latkes for dinner and ask if they want to come over, and they all go ‘huh what’s that?’” Besides being absolutely delectable, Jewish cuisine is also how many Boulder High Jews connect to ancestral traditions. Phin Goldman lovingly described his mother’s Jewish cooking, saying her recipes came down from his great-grandmother and through eating these meals, he connects to the past.

Senior Sylvie Sussman wearing a Star of David. (Grady Clark)

Even for Jews such as senior Sylvie Sussman, who didn’t grow up cooking and eating Jewish food at home, Jewish cooking can be a way to get closer to her Jewish identity. “I only ever ate Jewish foods when I was with my Jewish family in New York,” relays Sylvie, “But in the last year, as I have been discovering my Jewish identity, I’ve been trying to make more Jewish food. Somehow it makes me feel more Jewish.” Cohen talks about how exploring Jewish cuisine brings her great joy, telling me that “I make a lot of challah, I’ve made some failed babka , and lots of blintzes. It’s exciting to both make the foods you grew up with, but also to branch out and try making foods from the larger Jewish community.” 

Ashkenazi cooking is a  central part of my relationship with my culture. The sound of my mom frying latkes on Chanukah or the sight of the beautiful round challahs I make with her every Rosh Ha’shanah brings me so much joy. In noshing on a scrumptious kugel or being nourished by warm matzoh ball soup, I feel connected to my ancestors, imagining that they felt similarly when enjoying such delicacies. For a lot of cultures, food is a way to connect to one’s roots. I feel that for Ashkenazi Jews, whose culture sometimes feels very distant, it is a core part of how we remember who we are.

Three round Challahs Clark baked for the new year. (Grady Clark)

Unsurprisingly, many of Boulder High’s Jewish students I interviewed also connect to Judaism through the Jewish religion itself. Of the students I interviewed, only four said they were religious. Of those four, even fewer said they believed in God; none, however, stated they believed in a special relationship between God and the Jewish people. Senior Sophie Frankel detailing her relationship with God, said, “for a while, I didn’t believe in God. I thought I might be an atheist. Then I went to a Jewish summer camp and started to believe. Then I went back [home] and realized I didn’t. It’s rather back and forth.” I found Frankel’s struggle believing in God was common amongst Jewish students at Boulder High. Cohen explains this back and forth through a story from the Torah, “Yisrael, which is now the name of the modern state of Israel, comes from the story of Jacob literally wrestling with an angel. Yisrael literally means that Jews are ‘the people who struggle with God’.” Hannah goes on to say, “I think this applies to me a lot; I am always doubting and questioning.”

The Jewish students at Boulder High certainly seem to struggle with God. All of the students I spoke to stated their beliefs in God had changed dramatically over their lives. Not one person I interviewed was forced into believing in a Jewish God; it was always a choice the individual made. When asked if they would raise their hypothetical children with Jewish culture and religion, all wished to raise their children with some degree of Jewish culture, but they would leave the religion as a choice for the child.

In researching the Jewish identities of Boulder High, I found Jewish identity is a spectrum, and many people choose to express their identities in different ways. Boulder High’s Jewish community is diverse in our experience and upbringing. While some considered their Jewish identity to be a core part of who they are, others barely thought of it. A number of Boulder High’s Jews are devoutly religious, while others celebrate the holidays primarily to connect with family. Some of BHS’s Jews wish to travel to Israel, but many have no desire. Though many are cautious with exposing their Jewish identity, others are loud and proud, whereas some don’t feel any need to connect to their Jewish identity. Regardless of how one defined their Jewish identity, all were proud to be Jewish.

Despite our differences, we know we are a community and within our community, there is friendship and festivity. Though small, Boulder High’s Jewish community is there, is proud and it isn’t going anywhere.