What My Judaism Means To Me
About a week ago on my Tumblr, I was asked a question: “What does Judaism mean to you?” I spent a lot of time thinking about this question and writing my response, and the people there seemed to like what I had to say. I thought I’d share that response here as well.I think the best way to respond to this question is to share a bit of my life story in the hope that perhaps this sheds some light on this question for you. Growing up, I was never really engaged at all in Judaism; in fact, from roughly the age of 12 until I turned, oh, 20, I identified as irreligious and atheist, though, of course, I would also respond to questions with, “I’m also Jewish” — which got me my fair share of confused looks from people who weren’t aware that Judaism is an ethnicity and a religion.
This is not to say I had no ties to my heritage: I went to preschool at the local reform synagogue, we lit a menorah and made latkes every year on Hanukkah, and when I was younger we would travel to Maryland every spring to do Passover at (Great) Uncle Sy’s. But, well, that was largely it. That and the odd story about our family from my mother.
You see, the story as I know it is this: my mother’s mother was the child of Orthodox Jews who immigrated to America shortly before WWII, and they more or less disowned her when she married an Episcopalian of Pennsylvania Dutch (that is to say, German) heritage. Her family eventually came around about the time she had my mother: as a friend from shul once said when I told him this story, “grandchildren often have that effect”. However, at this time, Grandma Sara had more or less drifted away from her upbringing, and so my mother and aunt were raised in a very secular manner: they celebrated Hanukkah and Passover, but also Christmas and Easter. They didn’t really go to synagogue, except possibly on high holy days (mom has been unclear on this — I must try asking again sometime). I think they also sometimes went to a Unitarian church.
My mother eventually married a lapsed Catholic from Chicago, and that’s where my sister and I come in. So you can see that growing up, Judaism was very much in the background much of the time. I never celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, I never learned Hebrew, past preschool I never went to synagogue, and we slowly stopped getting together with family for Passover, especially after Uncle Sy passed.
Fast forward a few years to Passover — not this past year’s, the year before’s. Now, for a number of reasons, at this point in my life I had begun to question my long-held lack of belief in a deity. I must confess that, after over a full year of questioning, I have nothing even approaching a concrete idea of what I believe in regard to G-d: only a few vague ideas based on my own thoughts and some philosophy, but that is neither here nor there.
The point is, I was already beginning to slide away from atheism, towards what I knew not. I had considered, briefly, the movement which seeks to revive traditional Roman religion, on the basis that, as a Classics major, I know a thing or two about how that worked already, but ultimately decided that, as appealing as the ritual life involved might be, I simply couldn’t believe myself to believe in the Roman gods. I have no qualms with those few who do, but they haven’t touched me the way that I think my G-d has.
Now, this is the part of the story where you’re probably going to laugh at me, but I’ll tell it anyway. One of my traditions every year on Passover is to watch The Prince of Egypt. I’ve been watching it since I was a very tiny child, and I know it well. It’s a good film. Now, for those of you who don’t know me, I don’t really cry during movies. This isn’t out of some macho “men don’t cry” complex — I just don’t. The tears don’t happen, no matter how sad I get. Well, I got to the end of the movie that year — Pharaoh has allowed Moses to lead the Hebrews from Egypt, and they’ve begun to sing “When You Believe” — and I foundnd tears pouring down my face.
I still can’t fully describe the way I felt — sort of a deep heartache for something, and a feeling like… I don’t know, but I was seeing this animated representation of the Exodus and suddenly I was homesick for something I’d never really known.
That night I looked up synagogues in Greensboro because one thing I decided was that I needed to talk to a rabbi. The first rabbi I emailed was the one with the local Chabad: he very kindly invited me to second seder, but I chickened out at the last minute. You see, I’d looked up Chabad in the time before he responded and decided that I knew basically nothing about the local community or what practices might be acceptable among Orthodoxy and had no idea how I might or might not be accepted by them as an out gay man.
I was also anxious for lots of little reasons too — I had no idea what appropriate dress for seder was among the Orthodox, I didn’t have my own yarmulke, and I was worried that they’d judge me for not having peyot. These were extremely silly concerns, but nonetheless, at the time I thought it prudent to play it safe. So I looked up the local Conservative and Reform synagogues.
You may recall that I mentioned I had gone to preschool at a Reform synagogue, but for whatever reason, the rabbi I emailed was Rabbi Eli at the Conservative shul — I don’t fully remember why I emailed him and not Rabbi Gutman. It might have been that Beth David is closer to school, it might have been that from the pictures on the website, their rabbi reminded me of my own grandfather. I don’t know, maybe it was fate. At any rate, it ended up being a good decision. I emailed him and explained that I had no idea what I was doing or what I was feeling but could I meet with him and talk to him and see where it went.
He responded very kindly — he invited me to Saturday morning services that week and said he’d be happy to talk with me. I distinctly remember that he also remarked upon what a fortunate coincidence it was that this should happen over Passover: after all, it’s customary that Elijah pays a visit. Well, a few days later, I was waking up at the crack of dawn and taking the bus down the road, and sheepishly entering the building half an hour before services and calling out timidly, “Hello?”
The rabbi hadn’t arrived yet, but one of the community members who was already present asked me about what I was doing. I told him essentially what I’d told the rabbi over email, and he showed me how to pin a yarmulke onto the top of my head properly while we waited for the rabbi to arrive.
When the rabbi did arrive, I introduced myself and talked with him briefly, expanding on my email. I was immediately struck by what a warm and kind person he was. After that, he found me a tallis, he got me a pamphlet with transliterations for the service, and pointed me to a place to sit in the sanctuary. There’s an older couple who sits in the area that he sent my way when they arrived. I got to talking to them and explaining my little story, and they were also wonderful and kind and helpful people who made very sure that I didn’t feel lost or overwhelmed throughout the service.
The service itself was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was the shabbat over Passover, so there was a packed house, and the feeling in that room was incredible. I understood some of what was going on through the translations and through the very kind help of the people around me, but mostly I just took everything in. The thing that sticks with me is the singing.
There is nothing quite like a hundred voices raised in song. Very few of the voices were what you might call “good singing voices”, but the sound was beautiful nonetheless, and I felt an extraordinary warmth in the depths of my soul. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the Shema since preschool. Every voice in the room knew the melody and the words and sang out with full hearts. Hear, O Israel. Throughout the service, I felt right. I felt good.
Afterward, I sat down with the rabbi again and talked at length about my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t get out anywhere near as much as I wanted to, but I got out that I had enjoyed myself, and that Iknew I wanted to come back the next week. And so I did, and the week after that, and after that, until school let out for the year and I went home for the summer.
At school, I started getting involved with Hillel, particularly when the new year started up in the fall. I’ve started learning to, at the least, read Hebrew. I have my own yarmulke now, so I don’t have to keep using the synagogue’s yarmulkes. I’ve stopped going to synagogue every single week — being an upperclassman and waking up every Saturday morning is difficult. I still go, though, and I think that’s the important part.
When I do go, I don’t just go home after services anymore. I stay for kiddush, I stay for torah study, I eat and laugh with friends and share in the community and I feel very Jewish indeed when the four of us who are still left after all that are still standing there in the parking lot at 5 in the afternoon — or somewhere around there, we don’t bother checking the time — talking about the folk tales that inspired Fiddler on the Roof, or whether it’s Esther or Vashti who’s the better feminist icon, or just anything in the world.
There’s a good reason, it seems, that the Yiddish word for synagogue shares its etymology with the English word “school”, because I learn new things every time I go.
In many ways, I’m not very good at being Jewish yet — I do a lot of things on the sabbath that are probably frowned upon. I don’t, as a rule, keep kosher, and there’s a number of other little things where I’m just not there yet. But there’s a quote I saw once about how Judaism is like a road full of stones, and we pick up the ones we can when we can, and we carry them as well as we can manage. Well, I’m working every day on picking up more stones, and I’m working every day on getting better at carrying the ones I already have, because that’s what we do.
I love my faith — every time I learn more about it, I love it more, because it’s just so wonderful and bright and complicated, and because Judaism is the faith of asking and questioning and challenging and making the world a better place a bit at a time. It’s as natural and wonderful as breathing. To return to The Prince of Egypt: there can be miracles when you believe.