When I was a kid, my mother had a rather fuzzy and roundabout way of telling me stuff. Rather than talk directly, she preferred cryptic notes and obscure messages. One of her favorites was the way she would sign letters when I went away to camp or to weekend seminars. She would write, “Remember who you are.” Not, say, “I love you” (who said that?! Outside of television shows of course. So unrealistic.) Not, say, “Have a great time.” Not “I’ll miss you.” No. It was always the same. The ominous, commanding, almost threatening, “Remember who you are.”
This was in the 80s, before The Lion King came out, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Bear with me.
I vividly remember now knowing what my mother meant by that. The voice in my head would be asking, Who am I? And also, What am I supposed to be remembering? I had no idea. But it sounded important.
For a while, the most obvious interpretation was connected to a larger theme in my family that we were somehow special. My father loved talking about his own gifts and personal chosenness, a kind of destiny he believed in himself. There was apparently a family tree somewhere that could trace our lineage back to the line of King David. So the first thing that occurred to me whenever my mother would write or say this “remember who you are” thing was that I was in a special family with some kind of secret lineage or knowledge or status. Not that I could identify what it entailed or what I was supposed to do with that information, but it was planted somewhere in my brain. It was a recipe for narcissistic megalomania as much as some kind of Jewish-moral mission. But mostly it was confusing. How can you remember something that you never knew to begin with?
As I got older, though, I started to understand the implications. My mother would emphasize the “remember who you are” thing anytime a boy would enter my life. It became less about my family and more about my own behavior. It was like a personal missive to me, the potentially wild one, to keep me in line – in one area in particular. I finally got it. Remember who you are was my mother’s way of saying: Do not have sex.
For girls to “remember who you are” was a way of not threatening your “purity”. Of not giving away that precious thing, which was your virginity. When I finally got this, it was like this giant, private “aha” moment.
I should have understood earlier. After all, it was a theme in my world. Another favorite aphorism to this effect was, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” You know, that if you give the boy sex before you’re married, he will never marry you. As if to say, he’ll get what he wants but you won’t get what you want. As if sex is a negotiation of goods. As if sex was something precious that girls hold on to that boys desperately want, like a purse full of gold coins or like the Wifi password, and it was all we had going for us in the world. Our job as girls was to hold on to it tight and not let them have it. They will try and get it from you, but “Remember who you are” – you are the guardian of that treasure and if you let go, you lose your entire identity, your entire purpose of being. And of course your marriage prospects, which were everything.
On the 80s in my Orthodox yeshiva and community, I had no alternative story to help me get through these messages. I had nobody in my life to talk to, nobody offering any different message about girls and sexuality. For me, this was it.
These messages, all consolidated in Remember who you are, stayed in my brain for many years – all of them, that I owed my family something because we were “special”, that sex was a service that females provided to males, that my sexual desire was something I had to hold on tight to because I shouldn’t “give it away for free”, that my greatest aspiration should be to get married, and that I had a great responsibility to my family and my ancestors and my people the world to remember all this, or something else that I wasn’t fully sure of.
You can imagine my reaction to seeing that scene in The Lion King, you know that pivotal scene in which Mufasa comes back from the dead to tell Simba to go back and take his rightful place on the throne and save the world from the evil hyenas and Uncle Scar who had destroyed the Pride Land. “Remember who you are” he roars from the beautiful darkened sky. And with those words, Simba suddenly understood everything. He knew who he was – king – and he recognized some kind of innate, essential destiny. It was all clear.
Well, okay. Lucky him. Clarity. I am SO JEALOUS of that clarity! Imagine hearing those words “Remember who you are” and just sort of knowing what you’re supposed to do in this world with your whole life because, like, it’s been predetermined by the stars. Wow, how nice that is for Simba.
And how super for Simba that the thing that he was told was his predetermined destiny was the thing that worked out great for him like five minutes later. Wow. I’m wondering how many women are feeling that vibe, especially after a year of Corona lockdowns and giving up of work, sleep, privacy, and ambition? How many of us are like, “Yeah! I have a destiny! And all I have to do is just want it badly enough and go get it and it will be mine!” Mmm-hmmmm. Lucky Simba is not a woman. And also that he is just a Disney character.
And also, how nice for Simba to have a supportive father. Or, a sort of supportive father. You know, he’s happy when you’re king but less so when you’re hanging out with your friends eating grub and dancing on branches and living a whole hakuna matata life. I would kind of have more respect for Mufasa if he also loved and supported his son during that vagabond period.
I mean, my father would be supportive of me, too, if I became King of something. Isn’t that what parents want for their kids? To have a great title and status and like a million Twitter followers?
True story: When I ran for Knesset last year with our new Kol Hanashim Women’s Party , my father told me that he would be proud to say that he has a daughter in the Knesset. Which was of course a coup because my father has been waiting “for your life to work out”, he has told me many times, even as I get degrees and publish books and speak at conferences etc etc. So for him to say that I had a chance to get his approval should have been a victory in itself. But I was like, what I need is for you to be proud of me right now, for daring to try and get into Knesset. I mean, we tried and we lost, but it would be nice if thateffort counted for something. Never mind. I should have known better than to share with him to begin with. I won’t make that mistake again.
Although I wonder if Mufasa’s love was also the conditional kind. Would he have loved Simba had Simba said no to the King job? And if so, does that even count as love? If love is conditional on the child being king, is that even worth anything?
Anyhoo, getting back to the important point about Simba and Mufasa, I had a very strong reaction when I saw that scene. Because it was both familiar and so confusing. I heard that line so often and never understood it. And yet Simba totally got it, and it meant he should go and become king.
The answer was both familiar and even more confusing and challenging for me. It was definitely a male version of the message. Nothing about controlling his sexuality. And also things working out for him.
And also, I personally related to the vagabond Simba. I didn’t understand what was wrong with his choice. But maybe that was the woman in me talking. I mean, how many of us make that choice on an everyday basis? We choose to stay far from the power and status because, well, maybe it’s a better life. Or maybe our kids need us. Or maybe we were socialized to avoid the limelight. Or maybe we’re afraid. Or maybe it’s all just too hard. Or too confusing.
So many women I know have this story. Of choosing hakuna matata, the life far from power. For most mothers, that choice hardly results in a mellow, chilling, live-in-the-moment lifestyle. It’s more likely to end in the mothers’ mental health crisis that the NY Times recently documented. But we do it anyway. We choose paths that we think we will do better in, that we will be able to manage better in, that will perhaps be less painful or onerous. Or so we think. I don’t know.
I do it, too. I choose the hakuna matata path often myself. Because aspiring to be king, or queen, or boss, or CEO, or any of that, is not only hard. It is also not necessarily a path that “works out”, as my father likes to remind me. My list of things I tried to do in life and failed at is long. And as one of my father’s friends told me during our campaign when I asked him for support, “You are doomed to failure, you will fall flat on your faces, and then you will be worse off than if you never tried.” Yeah, he really said that. And then said that maybe he would give a donation anyway, but I should call back next week. I didn’t call back.
One more story about Mufasa and my life. Back in 1999 when I was on a program for Jewish educational leadership, we had a session with one of these “celebrities” in the Jewish professional community, a guy who ran a big organization and made lots of money for his speeches. He was considered charismatic, even if everyone knew he was a bit of a sexist megalomaniac. (Back then, nobody questioned how these characteristics went together). He was giving us an active demonstration of how to engage young Jews in Jewish life. So he shut off the lights and put on a clip for us to watch.
What was the clip? It was a clip from The Lion King. Of Mufasa telling Simba, “Remember who you are.”
I kid you not. This was his idea of engaging Jewish education.
He opened the lights and smiled, like super-proud of himself. As if this was the most brilliant bit of educational practice we had ever encountered.
I had no idea why he showed this clip. It made no sense to me.
And also, my heart rate was like 1000 beats a minute.
I didn’t understand. I wanted him to explain. And also, I wanted to get the hell out of there before my head exploded.
For him, it was obvious. Something about kids getting Jewishly engaged because it’s about “remembering who they are”. Whatever that even means.
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
And also, what is the implication, that to be Jewish is to be King? Like we are all King Davids?
Is that helpful? Is that a message we want to impart?
And isn’t it fatalistic and perhaps a bit off-the-wall, even crazy messianic in a way, to teach kids that there is one correct “path” that they have never been on in their lives but they should adopt entirely as their destiny and it will be like they are “remembering” their lost selves? How many ways does that mess up a person’s self-concept? Like nothing about their lives and histories matters except this thing that they didn’t know, or “forgot”?
I mean, what does that even mean?
It means you are never good enough as you are. Never. You are always something else. They call it "potential". Which is just a fancy word for someone else's version of who you're supposed to be.
And also, what’s wrong with Jewish kids living hakuna matata? Isn’t that also a legitimate choice? Why does living Jewishly mean that you have to picture yourself as king?
But oh, that explains so much about our community.
Oh, the lecturer was not pleased with me. I was being so difficult. I was ruining his moment.
I was also shaking faster than a grogger. And sweating.
All those memories of “Remember who you are.” My mother’s warnings before camp to not touch boys. My father’s insistence that we are some kind of lineage and special and anything less is worthless. My constant reminder that I am not fulfilling my Potential as a Jewish Leader. Alongside the incessant messages that my role first and foremost is to be the Woman, the pretty, perky, skinny, motherly, happy, easy-going Woman. No thought about how all that goes together. All of those events swirling through my brain. No tools for understanding this, making sense of it or pushing back against any of it. All I had was this pompous lecturer telling me that everything I needed to know about myself and life and being a Jew or being a person was in those four words: “Remember who you are.”
The room was spinning.
I wish I could go back to my 29-year-old self and tell her that she was having a triggered post-traumatic episode. But who even knew anything about any of that back then? I had no idea.
The lecturer eventually reported me to the director of the program. They all agreed that I was unnecessarily difficult. And “not leadership material”. I was eventually kicked off the program, a deeply scarring and shaming event that I carried for many years. And which my mother used to prove that I will never be successful at anything.
“You’ll never hold down a job,” my mother told me, often, smugly, like it proved something important that she remembered about me and I didn’t.
“You are your own worst enemy,” my father loved to tell me.
Aren’t we all.
This morning, I woke up early, before 5AM, the winds howling against the window pane, for some reason remembering this story. Remembering who I am, perhaps.
Who am I? I’m not a king or a queen. I am not a descendent of a line that means something. I have no predetermined fate or destiny. I have no special potential that I’m meant to live up to. I don’t owe anyone anything. I am not my own worst enemy. I’m none of that. I’m just me. I’m just a person, a woman, navigating life, like everyone else, given the circumstances I was born in to.
I am also not a “problem” or “difficult”, or wild, or threatening to the Jewish people. It’s taken me a long time to learn to say that to myself, but now I know. What I can say about myself, twenty years later, is that maybe I’m a little gutsy. Perhaps reckless. Because I speak up when I have an idea. Most of us hold our tongues. Because we know that speaking up can cost us – if you say what you’re really thinking, you may get called “difficult” and lose your job. Or worse. But maybe that isn’t the truth about things.
I got up to make some tea, not ready to start my day even though my day had already made its way to me. I crawled back into bed and asked my husband to hold me for a bit. It was the most healing thing I could do for myself. To allow myself to be loved, exactly like this, exactly as I am right this second. I have value as a human being not because of what I owe anyone. I don’t owe my parents or my ancestors anything. Whether I choose to fight for a kingdom or eat slugs, I should be equally celebrated as a human being.
And maybe we should reconsider how we teach what it means to be Jewish. It’s not about some kind of “remember who you are” entry into an exclusive club. That elitism is what creates so much of the ugly arrogance we see in our community. Instead, we should define being Jewish the way Hillel did, as an invitation to bring love into the world. To just be. To be kind, caring, loving human beings. Maybe you don’t have to be King to be a good Jew, or a good person. Maybe you just have to love other human beings exactly as they are.
Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author and anthropologist, specializing in gender issues in culture, politics, religion, and Jewish life. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my life as a Jewish Woman, is her first personal look at these issues. Follow her at www.conversationswithmybody.com or on FB or IG. Buy the book at www.lionessbooks.com/shop