Born or Made?
Mixed-Up Brothers, Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and You

If you’re a regular reader of the New York Times Magazine, you may be familiar with this story. Brothers, fraternal twins, work together at a grocery store in Bogata, Colombia.  William manages the store.  He is smaller than his brother, and unsatisfied by his small life in the country. He has always been the one in the pair to steer them toward the city. Wilbur, his brother is taller. He works behind the butcher counter. His hands are cut and swollen from his work at the market.

Jorge and Carlos are also fraternal twins. Jorge is smaller than his brother. He works as a pipe designer and attends classes at a university in Bogota. His brother, Carlos, is taller and broader. He works as an accountant, but aspires to make more money and live a more luxurious life. His hands are soft, his nails are clean and well manicured.

One unassuming summer day, a woman and her friend head to the market to buy meat. She is surprised to see her co-worker, Jorge, behind the counter.  She does a double take, and says hello—but the man doesn’t recognize her. Her friend introduces the grocery store manager as William, not Jorge. It isn’t long before the women help each set of twins piece together the story: Two sets of identical twins, one from each set swapped at birth. One twin from the country goes to the city where he is cradled by someone else’s mother. One twin from the city is raised in the country, where he is raised as someone else’s brother.

Upon discovering the truth, the switched twins have the rare opportunity to look at their lives  and see how an alternate version might have played out. They can turn the question of identity over and over in their minds: What is it that makes me, me? Would I still be me if I had a different brother? A different home? Who am I, really?[1]

Nature verses nurture is not a new topic. We have, for a long time, wondered if we are born or made. The topic is fresh again this year, with a number of stories making the headlines reminding us that there is no single path we take to become ourselves.

It is impossible to escape the story featured on every news outlet from TMZ to 20/20:  Bruce Jenner, athlete and icon of the 1970s, transitions to a new identity as Caitlyn, a transgender woman. For many, it is shocking that this once-symbol of strength and masculinity now graces the cover of Vanity Fair, stunning us all as she strikes a pose in her perfectly applied lipstick and a fitted bustier. Caitlyn explains that she is finally living her truth. In a second story, Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, was controversially ‘outed’ to the press when her parents revealed that she was born white.

On its face, identity should be a pretty simple issue: We are who we are. And yet, these stories show us that we live in a world where it is hard to understand the difference between how we present ourselves, who we inherently are, and who others assume us to be. What was once simple and external, like race, or gender, is now a complicated question of legitimate individual expression.

What is identity? Are twin brothers who have never known one another still brothers? Are they still twins? How does one who has lived his life unhappily as a man reintroduce herself to the world as a woman? How far can one go into her identification with another culture, or another race? In what ways are we born ourselves, and in what ways do we become ourselves? 

In the years that I worked at Camp Newman, I saw hundreds of kids proudly affirm their Jewish identity as they hiked up a mountain to the six-pointed star that hangs protectively over the grounds.  Campers would peer over the edge, looking down to the fields and cabins below. Per camp tradition, they shout from the top of their lungs: “I love being Jewish!” Their pride echoes across the hills of Santa Rosa, and settles deep within their hearts.

In their book, The Jew Within, sociologists Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen notice that Jewish identity has always been linked to affiliation, whether it be the JCC, the Federation, the synagogue, or otherwise. But the authors explain that the discussion is broadening:  “American Jews . . .enact and express their decisions about Judaism [. . .] in the intimate spaces of love and family, friendship, and reflection. These are the spaces in which late twentieth-century American individuals—[. . .] are in their own eyes ‘most themselves’. . .”

Whereas one would once Jewishly identify with the flash of a membership card or a stamp on a dues envelope, Jews today increasingly find themselves looking to their own, inner selves for proof of identification. We don’t just talk about belonging to a Jewish organization, we also are comfortable expressing that “Jewish” is something we feel. 

How we feel deep down about who we really are is important, yet we are not all ready to stand at the top of a mountain and make a public proclamation. In a lengthy interview with Vanity Fair, Jenner describes herself as a young boy, sneaking into his sister’s closet to choose an outfit to wear.  Dressed in his sister’s clothes was where he felt most himself—not as he, but as she. It was in day-to-day life, winning race after race, lauded for his masculine physique and all American, boy-next-door persona, where Jenner felt like a liar.

Rachel Dolezal’s story, chronicled, among other places, also in Vanity Fair, is a more complicated example because it is layered with deception of the community she intended to serve. This is a woman who, to her core, identified with a People not her own.  Over the course of many years, as she sought to belong, she became an expert in Black culture and history. There are a number of complex intricacies that make her story difficult to comprehend, but you cannot argue with the fact that she fully, wholeheartedly immersed herself in her identity as a Black woman. Dolezal herself explained that, “From my earliest memories I have [had] awareness and connection with the Black experience, and that’s never left me.”[2]  From her scholastic proficiency in African-American literature, to her both practical and academic knowledge of black hair, Rachel Dolezal took it upon herself to create all of the components of a Black identity—except for the part that she just couldn’t.  No matter what she studied, or how she spoke, dressed, or otherwise presented—she couldn’t change the simple fact of her birth: she was born white.

These stories are news because of the drastic transformation each individual has experienced. They are news because of the resolve it takes to identify with a group that is not our own. These stories are news because Jenner and Dolezal are shouting from the rooftops that they are who they are—even in the midst of doubt, controversy, and confusion.

Jewish identity comes in a few distinct forms. There is the fact of birth, accompanied for boys by the ritual of circumcision, and for all Jewish children the bestowal of a Hebrew name. But there is also the birthright that requires a conscious choice by each Jewish adult. For example, the choice to be here, tonight, in a Jewish space with other members of the Jewish community, is not a small thing. It would be just as easy to dip some apples and honey at home, or to forgo the Jewish New Year in exchange for a single celebration in January with champagne, sparklers, and resolutions. 

And yet, here we are, prepared to open our hearts to the blast of the shofar and our souls to the work of these holy days. The ticket that we have tucked into our coat pocket is not in itself our Jewish identity. The ticket symbolizes the Jewish heart that beats underneath.

And we know that there are those here who, regardless of origin, are actively choosing Judaism for themselves or their families.  We increasingly understand that we don’t have to be born Jewish to feel Jewish.  Judaism does not have to be in our blood to reside in our heart.  We ourselves do not have to be Jewish to identify with the Jewish people, to feel at home in these walls, to observe this day as a part of this community.

The High Holy Days take us on a journey inwards, towards ourselves. Though undeniably complicated, there is something admirable about the way that Rachel Dolezal threw herself wholeheartedly into projecting her chosen ethnicity. She did everything she could to match her outside to who she felt she was on the inside. Throughout these Days of Awe we consider our labels, those groups with which we identify, and ask ourselves: how have I lived this year as a mother, as a brother, as a man, as a woman, as a Jew? 

Rosh Hashanah is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.  The difficult and thought provoking unetaneh tokef prayer reminds us that on this day, God is “both judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness . . . You inscribe and seal. You record and recount. You remember all that we have forgotten.”[3] Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, wrote that “the relentlessness of the High Holidays—the long days in synagogue, the constant repetition of the prayers, the fasting—wears down our defenses and helps us open to the truth of our lives . . .”[4] On this day we find a certain clarity, as we observe “from the perspective of Heaven.”[5] ‘Standing in judgment,’ means that we see ourselves as God sees us.  We are vulnerable. We are Open. We are born into a certain life, and we take this moment to ask ourselves: have we really lived it?

In 1972, Marlo Thomas and friends proudly sang that we are all ‘Free to Be You and Me.’ Revolutionary for its time, the album celebrated inclusivity and individuality, regardless of cultural expectations about gender. A recent colloquialism takes us one step further:  I believe I first heard it used by our own Rabbi Callie Schulman, as I was lamenting a mundane scheduling conflict:  ‘You Do You,’ she said to me. In other words: In this moment, don’t worry about what others might expect. Do what feels true to you. This is a subtly, though enormously different than the message to ‘be ourselves.’  To ‘do’ is active. It’s not just acknowledging our truth, but making choices and taking steps to live our full, complicated and multi-faceted lives. 

When William, the grocery store manager, showed the pictures of the mysteriously identical duo of city-boys to his brother Wilbur, the butcher, Wilbur shrugged.  “So we were swapped.” He said. ‘‘I don’t care who they are. You’re my brother, and you’ll be my brother until the day I die.’’  Six weeks after finding out about the switch, Jorge, the designer, asked his brother Carlos, the accountant, for a picture of himself. Jorge returned home a few hours later with an image of the brother he’d always known tattooed next to his heart. They might not be bound by blood, but they are brothers: by history, family, and now ink.[6]

It is similar, in some respect, to our community when we sing the familiar refrain ‘Hinei mah tov u’manaim shevet achim gam yachad,’ ‘how good it is and how pleasant to sit together as brothers.’ We acknowledge not only those who are Jewish by their birth, but equally so those who become a part of the Jewish family through participation and association. 

For the Columbian twins, neither DNA, nor what happened that fateful day in the hospital dictated who each man would consider his true brother.  In both cases, the one whose face they know as well as they know their own—even though it looks completely different, is the one with whom they really identify. 

It is one thing to share a bloodline, it is quite another to share your life. 

Not every example of identity formation is as rare as twins switched at birth, or as extreme or as startling as Jenner’s or Dolezal’s. However, we can understand them all as examples of people who have looked deeply inward and then made every effort to not just be themselves, but to really act authentically, from the inside out. It bears noting that the world has been receptive,  and has largely applauded Jenner’s transition from male to female.  Rachel Dolezal on the other hand was the subject of nearly universal criticism, ridicule, and bewilderment. Everything that we might find positive in her journey of self-discovery was tainted by her dishonesty about who she had been. When we express our identity, we are never only the person we present in the present: our past remains part of us.

Each time I leave my parents’ home at the end of a great visit, my Dad will rehash a ritual enacted countless times throughout my childhood. Half jokingly, but also quite seriously, he looks me in the eye, points, and says gravely: ‘Remember who you are.’ When I was younger I rolled my eyes.  Now, as a parent, working to instill in my own children the values of our family and tradition, I understand: I am me, a world unto myself.  But I am also my parents’ creation. We are both born, and raised.

We are, each one of us, a complete and complicated universe.  And we are also, each one of us, God’s creation.  On this Day of Judgment, we both remember, and discover who we are.

We cannot choose how we are born. Our sex, our race, our religion of origin are a part of us from the moment we enter this world.  We do get a choice in how we live, a choice in what we do, a choice in how we present ourselves and how we identify. 

We have made the choice to be here, tonight. We have chosen to be members of this congregation.  Our presence in this room is a statement about our community, our beliefs, or our family. So beginning tonight, we will journey together. Externally, we recite the words from these beautiful new books. Internally, we allow them to touch our hearts.

Tomorrow morning we will read the following prescription for the year ahead, a way to think about not just being, but doing. We will read, u’tshuvah, ut’fillah, u’tzedakah m’avirin et roa ha’gzeirah. Through return to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree. In other words, by doing the following three things we can affect the way we are judged—both the way that we are seen as we act in the world, and most importantly, the way that we see ourselves.

First, through t’shuvah. “T'shuvah begins with a turn, a turn away from the external world and toward the inner realm of the heart.”[7] . . . t'shuvah means returning to our authentic selves. Both the people we become through our birth, and the people we become through our experiences.

T’fillah, prayer, helps us uncover who it is we hope to be. Prayer doesn’t have to mean a formal setting with set liturgy. Sometimes all we need is time and space to center ourselves and look inward.

And lastly, through tzedakah we reconnect with the world outside of ourselves. Tzedakah, a righteous act of supporting and caring for others, reminds us that it is necessary to cap off the internal work that we do with external action. 

It is these three things, teshuva, t’fillah and tzedakah: internal assessment, reflection, and action that pave our pathway to the proverbial mountaintop where we face our harshest judge: not God, but us.

Burt Jenner, Caitlyn’s son, says that [his father] ‘was a better parent when he was moving towards his authentic self.’  So, too, will each one of us be at our best when we align our external identity with our inner self, clinging to our essence even as we turn and change. Judaism is something that we feel inside, and yet doing Jewish really means being a part of a community, a congregation like ours, and participating in the way that authentically reflects your Jewish soul. Rosh Hashanah implores each one of us: as if the day itself is familiar with modern parlance, to ‘do you:’ It’s not enough to simply be yourself, you have to do it—from the inside out.

With 5776 upon us, may you each find the action that allows you to ‘do you.’ Turn inward to both discover, and remember, who you are. Then, turn outward and show the world exactly who you have become.

Shanah Tova  

[1] “The Mixed –Up Brothers of Bogota.” Dominus, Susan. The New York Times Magazine, July 12 2015.

[2] “Rachel Dolezal’s True Lies.” Samuels, Allison. Vanity Fair: July 19, 2015.

[3] Mishkan HaNefesh, 174.

[4] Lew, Alan. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.  Little Brown and Company, New York: 1999.  p 127.

[5] Ibid p 137.

[6] “The Mixed –Up Brothers of Bogota,” p 41.

[7] Ibid. p 157.