The emerging Jew in me

(This was originally posted on the blog section of The Jerusalem Post.)

Despite years of being a Jew in a Jewish family, Jewish tradition and, more specifically, Jewish practice often feel very alien to me. Shabbat meals, Shabbat services, Jewish prayers and rituals.  And despite being a bat mitzvah and many years a student in Hebrew school, there is little that I feel confident practicing, and there’s lots that I don’t.

In the past, this ignorance would sometimes surface as fear and loathing when, for instance, I was a teenager at USY events and I didn’t know how to do the Birkat HaMazon (“Grace after Meals”), let alone joyfully pound on the tables at just the right moments, like my friends did (the ones who had been doing it for years at Camp Ramah or Hebrew day school). Or when my college boyfriend took me to a Shabbat lunch at his friend’s apartment at the Jewish Theological Seminary and I was wearing jeans and a tank top, and all the other women covered their shoulders and knees. Or even in recent years, when I found myself in synagogue, standing next to my mother who was saying Kaddish for her father or when we chose a reform Mohel for my son’s Brit Milah, and accidentally offended my in-laws.

What surfaced as fear and loathing back then was likely fear and shame, as I understand it now. Feeling all the time that I was an impostor…stupid…uninformed. That there was something I should have learned along the way, but didn’t. As someone who thrives on information and knowledge (and who shrinks at feeling ignorant), I rejected Judaism. Flat out. I wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t until I got married in a Jewish ceremony that I started considering, even for a second, that there was beauty in Jewish practice and that certain elements of the practice might be accessible and available to me.  It wasn’t until I sent my kids to Jewish preschool that I once again found delight in singing Jewish songs and chanting Jewish prayers, a joy that was familiar to me from childhood, but so distant.  It wasn’t until I moved to Israel a year ago that I started understanding and accepted that it was safe for me to open my heart to Judaism, even though I still had lots of questions and found few answers.

Last week, I traveled back to my home town in New Jersey for my grandmother’s funeral. And for the first time ever, that I can remember, felt comforted by Jewish practice.

In the past, when I found myself in uncomfortable or anxious situations, whether it was a painful experience like childbirth or an emotionally challenging experience like public speaking, I would soothe myself by humming a chant or a mantra I learned in yoga class 12 years ago.

Shri ram, jai ram, jai jai ram

I learned this chant in 1999 at a yoga studio in Manhattan. It stuck and I’ve been humming it for over a decade — I’ve even taught it to my kids and encourage us all to use it when things get a little…hairy…around the house.

But in New Jersey recently, on the way to my Bubbi’s funeral, I found myself humming something different. A nigun we often sing as we enter into prayer on Hannaton for Kabbalat Shabbat.

Laiiiii lai lai lai lai lai

And humming the nigun soothed my nerves and eased me into the Jewish practices yet to come. Mourning and remembrance.

Over the next few days, as I participated in the rituals that followed — Shiva, prayer, Mourner’s Kaddish — I hummed the tune. I taught it to my brother who figured the melody out on his guitar. I’d even say we bonded over this nigun, something we haven’t done for years.

Over five days, I realized that I actually knew so much more “Judaism” than I thought I had. And even more impactful, I understood that it was okay that there were practices and rituals I didn’t know. That I could take from the ones that served and supported me; and refrain from those that didn’t. That there is a time for learning and a time for engaging. That, in fact, I could know absolutely nothing about Jewish practice and ritual…and still benefit from participating in it.

That practicing a ritual you do not fully understand is not hypocritical or stupid or insincere.  It’s okay.

I also realized that once your heart is open, even a little, it may be easily filled by the power of those rituals — the ones you’ve chosen; the ones that fit your needs at that moment.

It’s easy for me to say that living here in Israel is opening my heart to Judaism. That living on a Masorti kibbutz in Israel and participating in its activities have acclimated me more to Judaism. I imagine that’s what it looks like to my friends and family observing the process. That, suddenly, I have “found” religion.
 
But, it could also be that I’ve entered that time of life when we need the comfort of prayer and ritual more often. Or that my heart has softened after years of marriage and raising children, of losing friends to illness, of losing grandparents to age, of watching my parents age and lose their parents. That my awareness is growing day by day that life is fragile and community is comforting and ritual is soothing.

It may be that my path of spiritual seeking has become more refined or less judgmental.

It may be a mix of all the above.

But, for certain, the key is my opening heart.  And my willingess to let strangers –or strangeness–in.

Finding My Religion

On the one hand, it’s easy to forget you’re a Jew when you live in Israel.

Your name no longer stands out in a roll call. All the dads at drop off, not just your husband, are either bald, Jew-froed, or wear trendy glasses. And Jewish Geography is so common place it’s no longer a game, but part of proper dinner party etiquette.

In the States, whether or not you keep Shabbat is a label. It outs you as an “observant” Jew. Not so here, where by default, most Israelis observe Shabbat on some level, as most stores and restaurants are closed and nothing official can be executed between 1 pm on Friday and Sunday morning. 

On the other hand, living in Israel requires you to contemplate and even commit to what kind of Jew you are. Moreso than in the States where you simply have to decide Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Or figure out who’s hosting the Passover seder or whether or not to buy High Holiday tickets.

In Israel, where living as a Jew among Jews should be easy (and often is), figuring out who you are as a Jew is a prerequisite for almost everything — from where you will live to who you will be friends with to where you will send your children to school.

For instance, when we were researching where we would live in Northern Israel, in addition to taking into consideration how large or small the community was, how close or far it was from a major city, or how many English speakers lived there, we were also advised to consider how observant the community was. Typically, yishuvim* are either secular or religious…not “undecided.”

While this is slowly changing (and Kibbutz Hannaton, where we live, is at the forefront of this movement), figuring out how comfortable you are with folks driving on Shabbat is a strong indicator of whether or not you will fit in as part of a particular community.

The same goes for school. In Israel, you have a choice as to where you send your child to public school.  You may choose the local secular school or the Orthodox school. The secular schools, from what I understand, have no Jewish studies within their curriculum whatsoever. So, your kids live in the “Jewish State,” but save for history lessons, religion is left out of the classroom.

Whereas in Orthodox schools, students are not only learning about Jewish religion, they are expected to keep Orthodox Jewish practices. Which, if you are Conservative, Reform or Undecided, makes for an unusual dichotomy between school and home.

There are only a handful of public elementary schools in the country that “support the development, promotion, and enrichment of Jewish studies within the general Israeli educational system.” (These are called Tali schools, and the local municipal-run school where we send our oldest child is one.)

So, where do we fit in? What box did we check on the form before we moved here?

I’m just kidding. There’s no form. But moving to Israel certainly forces you to consider where the practice of Judaism fits into your life.

Despite the chuppah at my wedding; despite raising my children in a Jewish home; despite sending them to Jewish preschool and religious school; despite being members of a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey; despite the two brit milah; and despite the glowing recommendation from our Rabbi on our Nefesh B’Nefesh application…it’s been a long time since I’ve considered who I am as a Jew.

And living here is certainly bringing it to the surface.

By here I mean Israel, but mostly I mean Hannaton, where the community is pluralistic — a word I never really considered much before living here. So far, I’ve met three rabbis who live here (one is Conservative and two are Reform). There are community members who drive on Shabbat, but keep Kosher. And there are community members who don’t drive on Shabbat, but don’t wear kippot. There are community members here who send their kids to the Tali school and there are others who send them to the Orthodox one; while still others schlep them far away to private schools practicing democratic or anthroposophic or other alternative educational philosophies.

We’re a mixed breed here at Hannaton. Furthermore, how we practice Judaism as a community is a conversation that seems to be taking place on a regular basis.

Which is just perfect for me. Because, frankly, if I had to choose a religious yishuv or a secular one, I wouldn’t feel 100 % comfortable on either. If I had to know in advance how observant I was going to be once I moved to Israel, I would have shrugged my shoulders with a big, accompanying, “I dunno.”

What I do know today is that there is a place for me in Israel, and a place for me on Kibbutz Hannaton. Which is quite a relief.

As I’m still very much a Jew in progress.

GLOSSARY
Yishuvim = Literally “settlements,” but moreso large communities or neighborhoods outside of a major city
Brit milah = Hebrew and plural of “bris”