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My Personal Brand of Judaism

This week's blog post is written by Hannah, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.

On the chagim, I tend to yearn for a belonging that only arises when someone who understands my particular brand of Judaism. My parents both have very different relationships with Judaism. My mom was raised observing a more conservative strain than my father, who didn’t realize that he was of Jewish descent until he was around ten years old. My mother, descending from the truest blend of Eastern European Jewry—Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia—and experienced anti-semitism every day growing up in her WASP-y Long Island town. The youngest of four, she went to Hebrew school every week but was not offered a chance to have a Bat Mitzvah; only her brother was allowed the opportunity to become an adult under Jewish tradition. My father differs in almost every aspect of his religious upbringing. He attended a Quaker Friend's school from the age of five until he graduated and went to college (a college whose mascot just so happened to be the Quaker). Every year his family would celebrate Christmas and Passover, the Jewish link to which my father would not understand fully until he was ten years old. He was raised in a religion that celebrated the individual connection to God and encouraged however one sought to pursue such a connection. He eventually turned out agnostic, and he remains so to this day; so it goes.

When it came to my parent’s union, they arranged for a prenup with a lawyer with only one condition—their future children could not be forced into any religious schooling of any kind. Thus, my exposure to Judaism proved somewhat limited. We celebrated Hanukkah when we remembered and chose to create our own holiday (Jewmis, which originally fell on December 21st but ended up being moved to the 25th for social convenience). I attempted to keep Passover every year until I inevitably forgot on the second or third day and remembered after the first bite of a sandwich. In second grade, I remember my mom started sending my brother and me to Hebrew school as a test run. We lasted maybe one month. The limited knowledge I had of this God was through the stories my mom read to us from a children’s Jewish Bible. I did not understand how such a benevolent god could treat his subjects so poorly (looking at Job and Abraham, especially). It didn’t make sense to me.

Ours was the kind of dinner table that encouraged lively debate, spurring each other on, my father usually playing devil’s advocate and chuckling to himself when he found something you’d say particularly intelligent. My mother would support us in our thoughts, though it was always clear she wished we felt more of a tie to our Jewish roots. I remember in fifth grade announcing to my family over dinner my newly attained status of “atheist”. My parents responded accordingly:

“And what makes you say that?” My dad said through a mouthful of pasta.

“I just don’t like this God, guy. I don’t think any of it makes sense.”

Mom took a pause. “Ok, if that’s how you feel!”

And that was that. My religious affiliation had been determined for my childhood self—unaffiliated. When I was teased for being Jewish in middle school, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t escape my Jewish status. I resented the status because it tied me to a God I didn’t believe in; I felt it misrepresented what I stood for.

I started feeling more connected to Judaism in high school. AJ had left for college and found at his particular college a large Jewish presence. This didn’t manifest in any religious awakening as one might expect, but in retrospect, I do think he started to identify more as a Jew. It came as no coincidence that I started to feel similarly. I’ve always looked up to my big brother, and still do. It also didn’t hurt that I visited Israel with my mom freshman year. By senior year of high school, I strongly believed in Jew as an ethnic identity.

College only deepened that link. I even ended up majoring in Religion, though I studied mostly Christianity. But here and there I took Judaism classes, more so about its history and culture than its ideology. I was proud to be a Jew, even if only in culture and ethnicity. I still would proudly proclaim to feel areligious most days, but I would still proclaim to be Jewish to anyone who asked, or give a hyphenated “Jewish-Atheist” answer.

My second time in Israel was with my brother on Taglit. We went six months after I had graduated and after his first semester of medical school had concluded. I felt the same way I did when I came with my mom—connected to my Jewish roots in a way that no place in the US had ever made me feel. I cried at the Kotel and even attempted to sing along with the prayers I vaguely remembered my mom singing occasionally. But what made Taglit special was being with AJ.

We grew up in a unique household with one parent who wished for religious freedom and another who wished we wouldn’t stray so far from tradition. We were given liberty at a young age, too young to know what to do with it and how to wrestle properly with large questions such as what religion we wished to belong to. Only AJ understands my relationship to Judaism.

This past Yom Kippur, I felt alone. I was with an Israeli friend I met on Birthright and her family. Outside them almost entirely speaking Hebrew, I felt more alone when I witnessed how they celebrate Yom Kippur. And I felt a deep longing to be with AJ.

It freaked me out for many reasons, the main one being that we realistically haven’t been in the same physical place on Yom Kippur for at least seven years. And yet.

Yet it felt wrong to be in such a meaningful place without him. It felt as if no one could even begin to understand my relationship with Judaism if I attempted to explain it. While AJ and I don’t have the exact same relationship to Judaism—how could anyone have the exact same relationship to something so complex?—he has the most basis for understanding how I feel. Our most formative years were spent in the same environment.

I still feel connected to Judaism when in Eretz-Israel, but oddly enough what I’ve found is that connection does not come alone. With it comes my connection to my brother; I am tethered to him biologically and apparently spiritually, whether I like it or not. Fortunately for me, he’s my best friend—not the worst person to share such bonds with.

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