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The Whole Spiel

My Jewish Identity

May 11, 2020

I tie my Jewish identity to places. From where I grew up to places I’ve only heard stories of. From Lithuania to Japan to Russia to Ontario to DC. That’s the journey my family has taken, and the places that define who I am as a Jew. My family packed up their bags and were able to escape Lithuania before Hitler’s regime got that far. They got illegal visas in 1940 to go to Japan, issued by a man named Sugihara. My great grandfather’s name, Moses Kaplan, is second on his list. They went to Japan and ended up travelling back and forth between there and Russia again and againThese places and a few incredible people in each of them ensured my family made it to their next destination. In a remarkably straightforward way, these places are the reason I am part of the DC Jewish community today.

List of illegal visas issued by Sugihara, property of The Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall

After quite a saga, they landed in Cornwall, Ontario where they had to restart their lives as farmers. I’ve been lucky enough to visit this farm. While my family has long since moved out, the owners today have turned it into a garlic farm – something we joke would have made that original Kaplan family proud. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to and learn from family members who escaped and lived on the farmOntario is where my family really became close as they adapted to this entirely new life together. Since then, the Kaplans have scattered around the continent, with my mother ending up in DC.

My Jewish identity in DC isn’t as straightforward as these other places. That is weird to say, since I have lived here my entire life. Yet, somehow, I don’t understand my place in Jewish DC as much as for those other places. My Jewish identity here is the community of people I have become a part of, but has no depth in terms of understanding the history and the place of Jews in DC.  

Krupsaw Antique Shop, CJM collections

However, I’ve already learned so much about this part of my identity through being a member of the CJM teen council. I’ve had the opportunity to visit historical buildings, learn in depth the history of the synagogue featured in the museum, and so much more through the artifacts and stories gathered. Each time I read about an artifact, whether it is a shop sign from a Jewish deli in DC, or an old tzedakah box, I am able to piece together what being Jewish in DC means. Maybe even more powerful, though, is understanding how the Jewish community has had a direct impact on the development of downtown Washington. Seeing photos and learning about many parts of life influenced and developed by Jews reminds me that DC has such a rich history, and one that I want to keep exploring to understand the profound identity of DC as well as myself.