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Samuels: What does it mean to be a “Juman”?

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Jumans of Toronto event photo (Mike Savatovsky photo)

I am a Jew. I identify with a religious practice, a cultural community and a wealth of generationally-transmitted knowledge and insight.

And, in doing so in public, I place a big “Jew” label on my forehead.

In my eyes, being a Jew is part of my identity. But, in the eyes of others, being a Jew is my only identity. More pressingly, what they know of being a Jew is my only identity.

Today, many Jewish young adults keep their religious affiliations under wraps on and offline. For many of us, something about publicly declaring our Jewishness makes us hesitate.

What, then, does it mean to be a Juman?

In 2018, The House created a campaign called “Jumans of Toronto,” inspired by “Humans of New York,” where we featured 100 Jewish young professionals who are pursuing their passions, each of whom was featured in an article on our social media platforms. The House works to inspire young professionals and foster an appreciation for the relevance of Jewish wisdom and values in our daily lives. Jumans of Toronto brought that connection to life, as in the last two years, this campaign grew into a community event with 16 panels, 80 speakers, and over 500 registered participants.

The creation of Jumans provoked necessary confrontation with questions of identity, forcing young adults to interact with the tension of adopting a label or choosing to reject it.

Yes, the name “Jumans” is undoubtedly cringeworthy. We created this campaign to bring to life the intersection of Jewish ideas and how young adults see themselves in the world today, all the while not taking ourselves too seriously.

Most nominees jumped at the chance for a feature, while some adamantly refused because of the title. “Jumans?” one exclaimed. “I won’t associate myself with a name like that.”

While many do not want to display their Jewish identity online, I realized that an essential part of the campaign actually had to be about the acceptance of the name “Jumans.”

It can be easy to define someone by their label. In fact, we are actually trained to do this. And in a world of self-branding, young professionals can declare their discomfort of associating with their Jewishness by not associating with it at all.

But, building community and forming connections go far beyond a name. The name acts as the mere vehicle through which we elevate the whole. In the case of “Jumans,” the light-hearted name opened up the opportunity for hundreds of young adults to get together, learn from each other and create a social and educational interdependent movement.

So, while the exclusivity of labels should not stop us from owning our identities, we also cannot deny the active role they play in forming those identities in the first place.

How can an argument that advocates both for and against a name yield exactly the same results? Well, that’s an easy question for Judaism to answer.

The truth lies in the in-between space of the tension that exists between adopting a label and refusing to acknowledge it at all.

Being Jewish is about wrestling with the discomfort of identity. The Jews have always been faced with clashes of modernity, assimilation, and tradition, all in the name of perfecting the world, and elevating our own lives.

This complexity is lost in the slapping of a label onto a human being. The danger of labels lies in their limited capacity to embody the whole.

Due to social conventions and reliance on heuristics, we are often boxed into our labels, defined and limited to them. Others will always bring their preconceived ideas and stereotypes in confronting our labels, despite what they may mean to us.

Identifying myself as a Jew gives others the opportunity to see me for my Jewishness alone. We need look no further back than the past 100 years to see the consequences of such labelling.

Perhaps the residual antisemitic sentiment explains why so many young adults shy away from embracing Jewishness publically, and deflect the discomfort with their Jewish identity by ignoring it altogether.

But, when faced with such paradoxes, instead of logging off, we must submit to the struggle, and actively engage in the search for identity.

“Jumans” is a catalyst for questions. Its self-conscious silliness provides us with the opportunity to ask questions that go far beyond any superficial name: “Who am I? What can I contribute and become?”

The discomfort propels us into layers of self-searching. Maybe this unsettling engagement in these questions is the essence of being a Jew, and a Juman.

So, just like Juliet, we can ask: What’s in a name? But perhaps more pressingly, we can ask: What can our names help us become?

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