Guest Post by Kosher Academic
Growing up, my mom would light our menorah—it was a tree-shaped menorah, similar to a Christmas tree, not the usual Jewish “tree of life” symbol. It was metal and painted green, and the candles were staggered on different levels leading up to the top candle, which was on the top of the tree, like one might place a Christmas angel on their Christmas tree. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with this.
You see, my mother was born a Jew but left Judaism and converted to Christianity when she was 18. When I was 18 I left Christianity and returned to my Jewish heritage. I grew up knowing next to nothing about Judaism—Chanukah, jarred gefilte fish, and one zemer, song, that my mom would periodically sing. I vaguely recall my grandmother wishing us a happy new year sometimes in September, which I found confusing since the new year was in January, and I knew nothing of Passover or Yom Kippur, let alone less well-known holidays (in the secular world) like Sukkot or Purim.
Once I was in college I began to explore Judaism. I knew already, however, that if I was going to claim the moniker of Jew for myself, I was not going to do it the way I had as a Christian—that is, the option of being an unobservant or secular Jew did not appeal to me. Why change what I call myself if my actions remained the same, after all? So in my search then, and still to this day, my actions, how I do things, remains of primary importance to me.
Eventually, after quite a bit of trial and error, I became observant. Shabbat was the easiest thing to observe, and even now I don’t know how I would make it through the week without knowing that I had Shabbat to look forward to. My observance of the holidays came fairly quickly as well, while other mitzvot, like kashrut, took a bit more time.
I still struggle, even now, with certain mitzvot. After I married I covered my hair for 9.5 years before I stopped. Covering was very difficult and miserable, and it took most of that 9.5 years before I learned enough and matured enough to realize that, at least for me, this was not a good representation of who I was as a Jew or what it meant to be observant. I thought I would experience a great backlash from the Orthodox community, but hardly a word (if not lots of looks and whispers) was said. I also resent the way women are discouraged from taking too visual a role in many organizations and public positions. I thank G-d that I am Modern Orthodox, as I could never accept the limitations that the more right-wing Orthodox women take on: I struggle with it enough where I am.
Still, with all the challenges and difficulties, I find that the experience of leading an observant life, of living my life as a Jewish woman, outweighs the life I led as a secular woman. I choose to strive against what I consider biases based not on halakhah but on centuries of patriarchy from an insider position, as a woman who does observe. I have journeyed far, from a secular Christian child to an Orthodox Jewish woman, and I have found my home here, within Modern Orthodoxy.
Tonight I will light all eight Chanukah candles with my family. I feel blessed to have moved from the little girl, lighting the Christmas-tree menorah with my mother, to the observant Jewish woman surrounded by my husband and three children, conscientiously participating in the mitzvah of Chanukah. Nothing gives me such joy as to see my children lighting their own Chanukiot and making the brachot, even my three-year old (who “assists” me in lighting). Each Chanukah, I am enthralled by the dancing lights, remembering that there is a pintele yid, a Jewish spark in each Jewish soul. And that even those who, like me, had nearly no exposure to Judaism growing up, has a connection to Judaism, a connection that should be cherished and nurtured.
KosherAcademic began her return to Judaism when she was 18. Now married with 3 children at 32, she lives as an expat in Quebec and is working on her PhD in Jewish Studies.
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