Now that I got The Dreaded First Post out of the way, I thought it would be appropriate to jump into some of the more juicy aspects of who I am. Sure, I told you a little bit about myself in my first post, specifically about how I love to write (poetry and prose) and how for the past three years, it’s been a huge challenge to sit down and get some of my thought out into tangible and real statements.
So – if you go to the About Me page you’ll see that I specified that I am not only Jewish, but that I’m an orthodox Jew. Because I’ve never really done this before on this kind of medium, and because every day I realize a little more about why I was drawn to this way of life, I’m going to try to divulge to the best of my ability my journey towards this rich and meaningful way of life.
I was raised happily in a reform temple by my incredible parents, who both had very interesting pathways when it came to their religiosity and spirituality. While I can’t speak for them, my understanding of their relationship with G-d and Judaism is that it came from a lot of inconsistency; meaning, they were often taught that the right way was very different than what the practiced way was in their home. For example, my mom once spoke about how when my orthodox Pop-Pop would daven at shul, she would be allowed to watch television with my Mom-Mom, and when they saw him shuffling up the driveway, they would have to turn off the television (which is a forbidden activity on the Shabbos) and pretend that they had done nothing of the sort. Similarly, my father’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to a reform Hebrew School, so he had to go to the Orthodox one, which would let him come for free. They were deaf, so when he learned the rules of kashrut, and how mixing meat and dairy is forbidden, he couldn’t ask them why they would send him to school with turkey and cheese. Surprisingly or not, this confusion is not uncommon, as many people continue to learn the “archaic” rules of Judaism through the institutionalized lens that what they are learning is no longer applicable to the world we live in while still learning that the Torah, the text that outlines all of these laws, is a divine and holy document.
No wonder people have such issues with religion, right?
Anyway, this upbringing led my parents to a reform synagogue in northeast Philadelphia that led prayers mostly in English, where they felt like they could actually understand what was going on, unlike in their parents’ rigid and cold shuls. I went to pre-school and kindergarten in this synagogue and then went on to public school, and when my sister was going to be entering kindergarten there, the school decided that they would start bringing in McDonald’s Happy Meals once a month for the students (see: not Kosher), my parents decided that this way a leap way too far left from their Jewish ideology and moved to another reform synagogue in the suburbs. Additionally, my parents would often send my sister and me to my Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop for Shabbos, where I would sit at the Shabbos table for hours asking him questions (such as, “Why aren’t dinosaurs in the Torah?), shmoozing about the week, and learning about Jewish concepts.
That’s how I grew up, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have the Jewish self-esteem to have made the leap into my spirituality without the help of this synagogue, my parents, and my grandparents. They made me proud to be Jewish, made me want to be more Jewish, made me want to marry Jewish, gave me a love of Israel, but most of all: they made me want to learn everything about this rich religion called Judaism.
That being said, my parents’ synagogue is very right wing for a reform synagogue; in fact, it’s the only reform synagogue in the greater Philadelphia area that has a kosher kitchen, and since I knew no other reform temple growing up, I thought that every reform synagogue was like theirs–
so you can imagine my surprise when, working for a caterer that has both a kosher and unkosher division, I was working at a Bar Mitzvah at a synagogue, serving pigs in blankets right next to mozzerella sticks.
Surprise, but also dismay. I think that in that moment, watching the mozzerella sticks go down right next to those greasy hotdogs, I understood exactly what my parents felt (or my understanding of what my parents felt) while they were growing up. That certain things that were supposed to be so clearly defined as right and wrong, just didn’t play out in the real world. Which made the whole thing moot.
I’d like to say that was my last catering stint, but it wasn’t, and it would be many years before I realized that while I owe much of my spirituality and ability to understand both Hebrew and Judaism to that reform temple, the ways in which they made me want to be more Jewish were both impractical and unproductive.
For example, the concept of tikun olam is integral in the Reform ideology; to become a better Jew, you must become a better person; in order to become a better person, you must do acts of love and kindness; i.e., tikun olam. While this idea is not only integral to the longevity of humankind and the world, they missed the mark by using this idea and this idea alone to create a familial relationship between fellow Jews. That doesn’t work, and it doesn’t portray the whole image of Judaism either. Joel Alperson’s recent op-ed on this idea hits the nail right on the head: while tikun olam is integral to Judaism, it is not the sum of Judaism as a whole, which I didn’t merit to learn about until a little later in my life.
Somewhere along the way, I met Jonathan, who grew up a little more traditionally than me. We joke that, when we met, he told me that he wanted to go to yeshiva, and I told him that if he came back with peyos and a beard, the relationship would be over. Now, I would never dream of suggesting that he cut his sideburns, and if he wanted to grow a beard, I might be able to get over it. Jonathan and I discussed Judaism often, with me stubbornly refusing to budge from my Reform pride and him stating with so much conviction that he could not stand the english droning of liturgy during a reform Shabbos service. So we agreed to do some research.
Four years into our relationship, I officially declared my major at Temple University to be Jewish Studies. I was so excited to critically analyze Jewish text, ask deep, probing questions about what messages we could take from the moral implications laden within these texts, and to share this information with the world. Now that I was going to be an expert in Judaism, I could do anything — even be a Rabbi, where I could share my message of tikun olam with everyone. Yes, the world was on my shoulders, and I felt strong enough to handle it!
Boy, was I wrong.
My Jewish Studies degree led me to study a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call most of them Jewish — the only class I had that introduced Jewish text (other than my internship teaching Hebrew School, where I got to choose the texts, and my capstone on Bereshis (Genesis), where I got to pick the topic) was taught by a pastor, and not given any Jewish background whatsoever! My classes were about Jewish history, Jewish anthropology, Jewish culture, but none of them had any Jewish substance! The people and religion was taught like it didn’t exist anymore, contained cultic traditions and rituals, and all of it had a self-hating undertone. Most of my teachers were Jewish, but they aligned more closely with Karl Marx and Woody Allen than they did with Moses Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov.
This was not what I signed up for! I wanted to learn about Judaism, not Jewish people! I wanted to live a more Jewish life! I wanted my studies to enrich my Jewish experience, not to make me depressed about the struggles and plight of the Jewish people! I wanted it to inspire me with the story of miraculous Jewish survival!
Somewhere around this time, I met who would become two of Jonathan’s and my closest friends, who are both Orthodox Jews. My friend’s husband was offering classes at Temple for any Jewish student which would enrich their Jewish education. So I went, every Wednesday night, to hear about an aspect of Judaism for half of the session, and then to hear from a speaker the second half about living a Torah life in the secular world, mostly with a secular job. We heard from soldiers, lawyers, investors, and scientists; all about how Judaism not only was integral in what they did; it made them do it better.
Everything suddenly started to fall into place for me. I’d been keeping somewhat kosher for a few years at this point, and decided that I wanted to keep Shabbos as well. So I did. I started dressing more modestly, first, pulling on a cardigan or sweater over my shirt, and then eventually wearing skirts instead of jeans or pants. Everything I’d thought about what it meant to be orthodox until now was totally backwards. I thought that women had to wear long skirts and long sleeves to cover up, to suppress their sexualities and personalities; that they were seen as objects instead of as women. I don’t know where this backwards thinking came from! The more I did, and the more I covered up, I realized people had to look at me for my intellect, not for my physicality! My voice suddenly began to matter more than my body, and my self-image issues associated with my body took a back seat to the confidence that came along with using my voice in this protected, modest way.
I started seeing the world through different eyes — I understood what it meant to be Jewish and enabled myself to continually evolve that understanding; meaning, I began to understand what it means to be me.
One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is the use of a parable, or in yiddish, a mashul, to describe something. One of my favorite mashuls has to do with the idea of a neshama. Every neshama, or human soul, contains a divine spark that can be likened to an eternal flame. A flame is very delicate: a lack of oxygen can smother it and a surplus of oxygen (like a gust of wind) can put it out. A flame that is eternal, though, cannot be weakened by either of these things, but it can be covered or closed away. This mashul is so powerful, because it conjures up images of people fighting very difficult battles; looking at them, you can see that their eyes used to sparkle, but their difficult pathway has dimmed, but not put out, that light. Similarly, a person who in the most dire of situations, retains hope and faith, or emuna, that they are not near the end, can shine, and that light can continue to get brighter and brighter for all to see with the right actions and frame of mind.
As I continued to learn and grow more in my emuna, I began to shine. I began to see inspiration, began to see divinity in everything. Wanted to enrich my relationships with the people I loved, wanted to create new relationships. Understood what it meant to be in a relationship that was holy.
And that brought me here today. Writing is about inspiration; something I didn’t realize until I was in Israel and visited the Kotel for the first time in five years in March 2010. When I went up to the wall, my heart was filled with a type inspiration I had never felt before. The wall turned into letters, and my mouth was filled with poetry, and I had been given the power to put them together into phrases filled with fire.
Obviously, this post doesn’t even come close to defining the essense of Judaism, but it is a start. It’s the beginning of a journey of love and growth, of growing relationships, and an evolving knowledge and understanding of self and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
It’s very fitting that I started this blog on a Friday, as tonight is Shabbos, and I will be entering this sanctuary (a time-warp, really) with the warmest of thoughts and tons of gratitude to everything that brought me to where I am now.
We should all merit to grow, love, and learn to our fullest potentials.