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My Judaism

A Guest Post from Shuala Elisheva

One of my earliest memories, religiously speaking at least, is from kindergarten. We were all sitting at our lacquered tables, clumsily working dull, rusted scissors through bright sheets of construction paper.

It was December.

Around me, the other students were cutting out Magen Davids, dreidels, chanukiahs, candy canes, presents or Christmas trees. One or the other. Oh, but not I – I had roughly pasted a Magen David to the top of a jagged Christmas tree. I was puffily proud, in the way that only a 5 or 6 year old girl can be.

Though that didn’t last very long.

Maybe a little background: I come from an interfaith family. And, at least for a while, it was a true interfaith family: synagogue with my father’s reform family on Fridays, church on Sundays. Pesach followed closely by Easter. Chanukah and Christmas together.  I mean, why not eat latkes before Santa comes to visit? I bet a man of his girth loves carbohydrates and tubers as much as the next, especially on a night filled with such gift-giving exertion.

That’s how it started, at any rate. My parents, who love each other truly, decided that each child would be able to make his or her own decision about heaven, and G-d, and all the other really weighty spiritual matters upon which they did not agree.

Sounds like a winning formula for a modern religious upbringing.

Except not. At all.

Back to kindergarten: endless mockery. The other kids laughed at my Christmas tree, derisively snorted and said “you can only be one or the other, you can’t be both!” I went home and cried and cried and cried, because that couldn’t be true, I could be the spiritual daughter and religious heir to both of my parents…right?

Wrong.

After that episode, my mother clamped down. She’s forceful, when she wants to be, and my father is much more easy-going. So, it was church from then on – no services at synagogue, except for the high holy days.

I didn’t realize then what had been stolen from me. And I didn’t realize it until much, much later. In the meantime, I drifted aimlessly from spiritual paradigm to spiritual paradigm, from natural worship to atheism to philosophical resignation. Once I asked my mom about a bat mitzvah, because I had just attended my cousin’s.

I was baptized not a year later.

Still, I never felt quite right. I never felt really comfortable, or at peace.  Sometimes I would get an inkling of starry rightness – or, rather, of belonging. I read “Night” by Elie Wiesel and sobbed because it was about my people.  Maus left me numbed and broken. But it wasn’t until I was cast in a play in my high school called “This Savage Parade” that I put two and two together, so to speak. If you’ve not read this script, I highly suggest it. In any event, what was so important about my being cast in this show was that I was cast as a Jewess – one who had survived the Shoah and moved to Israel. I felt more completely WHOLE on that stage, playing a character, than I ever had in reality.

That was the beginning. I started reading voraciously – Torah, Tanakh, poetry, prose, fiction, and comics.  I could not yet speak out, not at home. There was no way to sit my parents down, while I was still living under their roof, and inform my mother that her religion was not “for me.”

I could not do that for myself until college, when I was no longer living there, no longer subject to her moods and whims. College provided other opportunities, too. I started to go to Hillel. I went alone, of course, because I had no Jewish community, no friends from BBYO or NFTY or shul. I tried the reform services first, but I found them to be bland, truthfully. Like Wonderbread, trying to be everything to everyone, with no real heft or fibrous substance.

I didn’t get up the nerve to try a conservative or orthodox service until I had enrolled in beginning Hebrew. It was there that I met my best friend; she led me gently through the conservative services, taught me all the melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat, and helped me to catch up with the other Jewish students in our Hebrew class insofar as minhag and culture were concerned.

I loved all of it. I absorbed as much as I could, though I always felt famished and frustrated. I spoke with the Hillel rabbi once about converting – he asked why? Why would I do such a thing if my father was Jewish and the reform movement already considered me a Jewess?

The simple answer is because I had to. That’s all there really is to say, isn’t there? We gerim can draw things out for our audiences, talk about spiritual thirst and hunger for those who listen with rapt attention, but the truest, cleanest answer is that we go to the mikvah because we have to, because our neshamas have no other choice. In the Mayim Chayim of the mikvah is our peace, the last piece of our journey back to Am Yisrael.

My friend from Hebrew class made it possible. Her family friend was a rabbi who was recently granted Orthodox smicha, and she put me into contact with him. He convened a Beit Din of other Orthodox rabbis; they questioned me, questioned my commitment, and then gave me the go-ahead.

The day of the mikvah, it rained. Torrents and torrents of rain, not just the spring drizzle that usually mists Texas during Adar. One of the rabbis joked that I could just run around outside in the rain, and it would probably be a halachically permissible immersion.

My friend served as balanit – she made sure I didn’t drown when I missed the stairs completely and almost toppled into the water headfirst. This is a problem you’re bound to encounter when you are almost blind without glasses or contacts. She listened to my recitation of the blessings, and watched each of my immersions, pronouncing them kosher.

When I emerged with wet, curly hair and a huge smile, I was pelted with kosher jolly ranchers and cries of “siman tov u’mazal tov!” to the rhythm of the rain outside.

I can say without hesitation that I have rarely, if ever, been as happy as I was in that moment.

The rabbis did not disregard my heritage. They allowed me to use my father’s name in my Hebrew appellation, instead of Avraham Avinu [though Sarah Imeinu is my mother, according to my Hebrew name]. One of the Beit Din members somberly remarked that I was a rarity, a child of an interfaith marriage who willingly rejoined the tribe. Then he smiled, brushed off his solemnity, and told me that he thought my nose had grown a little in the waters of the mikvah.

Since then, I have found that while my neshama is at peace, my heart still trips that careful seesawing path between parents – it was easier for the rabbis to acknowledge my family history than it is for me. My mother does not know that I visited a mikvah; why should she know? For her, it is betrayal enough that I chose Judaism over her faith. That was the action that mattered – that rejection.

Slowly I find myself incorporating parts of her life into my religious observance. I serve fried green tomatoes for Chanukah along with sufganiyot. I fry corn bread into patties to serve on Shabbat. Barbecue brisket will always trump stewed brisket in my heart of hearts.

The important thing is – I found my way home.

Shualah Elisheva is a fried tomato sort of Jew; a Texan geyoret, she is an attorney, a constant student, and a lover of autumn + lit candlesticks.

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My Judaism

A Guest Post from Leslie

My Judaism, much like your Judaism, is a work-in-progress.

As a young adult I was religiously certain of two things:  The first, that there was nobody up there.  Instead I was positive that somebody could be felt and found right here in the world, an ever-present light filtered through people like my parents, shiny puddles of oil-stained water in the driveway, and the faces of stray dogs.  The second was that the Methodist paradigm I’d been raised in was not at all cutting the mustard when it came to communicating with that light — at least not for me — which was something that I needed to come up with a solution for as quickly as was humanly possible for a high school freshman.

By the age of fifteen I honed in on the doctrine of salvation via belief in a savior – or else –  as being the primary “issue” I was having with my home church.  I found it unbearable to sit in the same room with a God who would be willing to banish people who did not believe the “right” thing to a place of endless suffering.  After much soul-searching (and practicing saying, “Mom and Dad, I’m not going to church with you anymore” in front of a mirror) I stepped off the Methodist derech once and for all.  I read a ton of women’s spiritual writing, everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to Iranian poet Farough Farrokzhad.  I lovingly dissected poems and chapters that spoke to me with a chunky yellow highlighter, underlining the bits and pieces that stirred my heart so that I could return to them later.  I did return to them – and to countless other books that began to form my own personal canon – with some pretty serious reverence.  My parents were disappointed at first, but amazingly tolerant, and I love the heck out of them.

It took me another four years or so to articulate this, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve never had any problem with God, per se.  I’m a big fan of his/her work, even though I don’t always agree with everything that’s made it into the Books and Writings and So On.  In the back of my heart I have always known that my disagreements (and, at times, all out hair-pulling, name-calling arguments) with God have somehow been productive.  In other words, I have always, always been wrestling, and that wrestling has been the source of much anguish and elation for me.  In college I did everything but major in religion, filling my schedule with courses on medieval women’s spiritual writing and embodiment theology.  My preferred form of worship utilized the Chicago Manual of Style, if you catch my drift.

After college I began working at a foster care home for teenage girls with some rather special emotional and therapeutic needs, and I’ve been there for almost three years now.  I case manage, hold hands, and break up fistfights.  I gently entreat police officers not to click the handcuffs too tight on the child I am having them escort to the ER for yet another psychological evaluation on yet another 3 AM court order.  I confiscate Lady Bic razors and put band-aids on forearms and thighs.  I invest my whole self into a kid only to come into work the next day and find out they’ve been returned to the custody of their abusers.  And I am not, for the record, always a very good person for this job – I get burned out, whimpery, and useless.  Sometimes I find myself utterly exhausted by our bipolar universe and its insistence upon buffeting us little people about between alternating waves of explicit meanness and inexplicable mercy.

Those two facts are extremely difficult to integrate.  In fact, it didn’t take me but a few months on the job to realize that the spiritual vocabulary I had worked so hard to build for myself was strong, but not quite capable of making sense of what I was seeing and doing.  And it certainly was nowhere near comprehensive enough to carry me into the hospital chaplaincy work I hoped (and still hope) to do in the future.

(This is where Judaism finally peeks in, quiet and barely insinuating at first – like, hey, word on the street is you’re starting to grow out of your amorphous, wandering spirituality.  Do you want to try this Monotheism thing again?  This is some really good stuff.  You liked it before, but it got uncomfortable, and I respect that.  But you and I both know something is missing.  You have all these prayers and thank yous and longings, but nowhere tangible to send them.  Sometimes you got to go old school, you know?  Get back to basics.  And you say you like studying?  Well damn, girl, have I got something for you … )

I’m sorry.  I know, I just made Judaism sound like a pusher.  But it was so seductive.  I got pains in my heart every time I drove past the synagogue in town … I missed God.  I don’t know how else to explain this to you.  It was like wanting a cigarette plus missing a lover times grieving after the death of my grandfather to the nth degree.  Judaism’s allowance for argument and discussion, the insistence upon an ongoing intellectual life that questions and interacts directly with the divine – these are not things that I was able to find as a Methodist, or as a woman floating in her own suspension of nebulous universalism.  Universalist sensibilities are in my blood, no doubt, but I personally needed a more concrete language, one that resonates naturally and directly with my spirit.  To that end I’ve been drawn to the living Hebrew language, recently resurrected and yet old as dust, stretched across the intricate canvas of the alef-bet.  Before, I was struggling to get along in a spiritual tongue something more along the lines of Esperanto: loving, idealistic, but terminally nomadic.  Now I am building a home for myself in which I can grow, into which I can invite others.

All of that said, I am still a convert-in-progress.  This is not a finished house, shall we say, but I’m pretty sure where the furniture is going to go when everything’s said and done.  I was slogging through some “incident reports” at work a few months ago, and I thought to myself, totally off the cuff:  I wonder what my Hebrew name will be when it comes time to think about those kinds of things?  I felt bad for even thinking about it, as it seemed like a presumptuous thing to consider.  I stared at my computer screen, at whatever recent tragedy I was trying to explain to my superiors via a Word document.

And although I risk sounding like a total whackjob, I will be honest with you about what happened next:  I heard, or thought, or whatever, the syllables A, Hu, Vah, as matter-of-factly as if I was hearing someone say A, Cheese, Sandwich.  I perked up.  Suddenly the dutiful stenographer, I spelled it back in my head.  Ahuvah.

Promptly, I sought out the wisdom of Google.  The internets assured me that Ahuva(h), a feminine Hebrew name, means “beloved.”  Further exploration, however, suggested that the name more accurately translates to she has been loved.  The face of the one who has always been loving me has not been particularly clear until now.  But the harder I look, the clearer that face becomes.

I’ll take it.

Leslie is a writer and youth care worker originally from Texas, now residing in the mountains of Virginia.  She is (almost) a Jew By Choice, the adult advisor for her shul’s youth group, and a part time theological student.  She talks in her sleep. Leslie’s a blogger too – read it here)

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My Judaism

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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My Judaism

Guest Post by Lily

I am a Jew-by-choice.  My husband says that that all Jews who take their Judaism seriously are really Jews-by-choice.  My story is a little bit different that the usual conversion story.

I grew up in Kentucky, in a city that is a suburb of Cincinnati.  I didn’t know any Jews growing up or, if I did, I didn’t know that they were Jewish.  But I was always fascinated by anything Jewish that I heard about, movies about Jewish subjects, Jewish holidays and so on.  As a kid, I read Isaac Bashevis Singer books and books about Eastern European Jews and the Holocaust.  When I was a teenager, I thought about going to Israel and working on a kibbutz.  I even spoke to the local JCC about it.  Once, I went to an Israeli festival at the JCC in Cincinnati, where I bought a lovely gold Star of David, made in Israel.  It was beautiful, but afterwards I wondered why I bought something like that since I couldn’t really wear it.   It was a symbol that didn’t belong to me and so I put it in my jewelry box, without a chain, and left it there.

Many converts will tell you that they tried many different paths before finding their way to Judaism.   I guess that’s true for me as well.  I was a seeker.  That I didn’t explore eastern religions or even Judaism as a teenager was due more to the fact that such places of worship were unknown to me where I grew up.  In northern Kentucky, people were Baptists or Catholic with a sprinkling of other denominations.  But nothing “exotic.”

Fast forward 30 years.  I was Episcopalian, married to a non-practicing Catholic and had 2 daughters.  I had changed careers, starting out as a nurse and ending up an attorney.  My family and I decided to move from Cincinnati to Portland, Maine, a place that was beautiful and a great place to raise a family.  Life felt pretty good, but I realized that I had been ignoring my spiritual life for some time and wanted to get back to finding a connection to G-d.

We found a nice Episcopalian church and became members.  I tried to feel involved and joined some committees.  I went to services whenever they were held.  But it felt empty.  Once, around Passover, the church had a seder, and the organizers did their best to explain what all the symbols surrounding Passover meant.  I was struck by the fact that everything on the seder plate had a special meaning and that every year, the story is told and retold.

Christianity doesn’t have that kind of symbolism.  Christianity has Easter egg hunts and the Easter bunny and, of course, there’s Santa and his elves.  But mostly, Christmas was an exhausting whirl of time spent at the mall buying presents for people that got put under trees that are glorified for about two weeks, then tossed to the curb like trash.

That church seder started me on a journey to understand Judaism better.  I started reading book after book about it and my lawyer brain decided the best thing to do would be to start from zero and let each religion make its case to me.  So I read books about Christian theology side by side with Jewish thought.  At the end of the day, Judaism just made more sense—to my heart and to my head.  I finally met with a Rabbi, who invited me to come and study and embrace what Judaism had to say to me and see if I felt it was where I belonged.

After a year of “living Jewishly,” I went before the beit din and into the mikveh.  My husband didn’t join me in converting.  He had no interest in religion, but he tried to be supportive in his own way.  My children were a little too old to “make” them convert just because I did.  That didn’t feel right.  My Rabbi, thankfully, understood this.  I taught my children about Judaism but I knew that they had to want this for themselves.  I asked my then-husband if he would take charge of Christmas and Easter-related stuff and he said yes but wouldn’t do it.  While my girls enjoyed celebrating Jewish holidays with me and lighting Shabbat candles, they still had the Christmas expectations they grew up with and were confronted by at school and on TV.

So I helped the kids make Christmas and Hanukkah and they went to seders with me and learned a lot about being sensitive to people’s differences.  When they got older, their father and I parted ways because there were just too many differences between us, religion being just one.

Today, I am living in Chicago with my wonderful Jewish husband, my bashert.  I really don’t think of myself as a “convert” any more.  My husband says I didn’t convert, I came home.  It has been a long journey  and while I couldn’t have predicted how my life would turn out, I’m not really surprised that I got here.

Oh, and that lovely Star of David was finally put on a chain to be worn around my neck, some 25 years after I bought it.  Now it is my symbol and I belong to all that it stands for.

Lily is a lifelong seeker who found her way home to Judaism and her bashert.  An attorney by training, now in nonprofit work. She loves NYC, being with good friends, writing, reading nonfiction, laughing until she cries, and watching geese flying in formation.

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My Judaism

A Guest Post  by Vicki Boykis

I had close to zero of my own Judaism until I was 17.  This was for two reasons. First,  I was born in Russia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, meaning my family’s Jewish identity had been stripped away by years of state-mandated atheism and  fear of discovery of any religious practices, combined with the fact that just being ethnically Jewish (with “Jewish” written into your passport on line 5 under “Nationality”) meant that you were constantly denied any of the same rights as Russians.  The second reason is that my mom had married my dad, a Russian non-Jew, meaning that I’ve been between the two identities my whole life.

When I was growing up, we never went to synagogues, never celebrated any holidays except for maybe just gathering for a dinner party for Hanukkah sometimes and my grandpa giving me gelt.  My grandpa was brought up in the 1930s in Russia, speaks Yiddish, and is a complete atheist. In Russia, people are called by their first and middle name, their otchestvo, which comes from their father’s name.  When my aunt wanted to teach kindergarten, her otchestvo would have been Zalmanova, from my grandpa’s name, Zalman.  She begged him to change it so that she wouldn’t be embarassed, and  everyone still calls him Zhenya, the diminutive of Evgeniy (Eugene), his new legal name.  I didn’t even know he had another name until I was about 10.

The shame and stigma of being Jewish is still, to some extent prevalent in ex-Soviet Jews, and definitely had not yet worn off when I was little.  I remember being in second grade and telling my friend that I was Jewish, not really understanding what it meant.  When we were talking in class about different religions, my teacher asked if we knew anyone who was Jewish, and my friend said, “Vicki is Jewish.”  I will never forget the fear, mortification, and embarrassment I felt when she said that and the whole class looked over at me.

All the while we weren’t celebrating anything and not really part of any Jewish religious community, my mom was constantly telling me I was Jewish, and that I needed to remember that I was part of an important people.  Throughout my childhood she impressed this constantly and effectively on me. She sighed whenever my dad put the New Year’s tree up and didn’t let him wear a cross for at least 10 years after we came to America because of what it symbolized to her-oppression.

My dad didn’t care much about his own religious background, even when I became interested in Christian Orthodoxy.  He had been secretly baptized when he was little, but never expressed interest in going to church.  The only thing we did regularly after my grandma in Russia died was to seek out Orthodox churches and light candles for her there.  I still do this as much as possible, and recently wrote about this experience on my blog.

When I was 17, I was suffering from a miserable breakup with my boyfriend and couldn’t concentrate on my last semester of high school at all. My mom heard about March of the Living and suggested I go to take my mind off things, and to see Israel.  She had been the year before and had come back glowing, amazed.  I went, and  the trip changed my life and how I viewed myself as a Jew.  Whereas before I had been ambivalent, rejecting both Russian religion and Jewish religion, as well as a Jewish ethnic identity, the concentration camps instilled in me the belief that, had I been born at that time, I would have died as well, which made it an imperative for me to embrace my Jewish identity.  Israel was also amazing, and was the beginning of my love affair with that country.

In college, I immediately started taking modern Hebrew classes because I decided it was embarrassing to be Jewish and not to understand what Israelis were saying and also became extremely active in Hillel, eventually rising to position of Israel chair and planning more pro-Israel events than I could shake a stick at.  During this time I was also introduced to aspects of Jewish religion I had never known about before:Shabbat, hand-washing, davening, the Jewish High Holidays. At first, I was extremely angry about having to go to Shabbat services as a Hillel board member because they made me uncomfortable; I didn’t know any of the songs, didn’t agree with the principles, and they took away from my Friday night.  Then, I grew to embrace them as a place to meet with friends, and, most importantly, to have a free dinner.

Now, two years out of college,  I am married to a fellow Russian Jew who grew up in much the same way I did-areligious but very strongly identifying with Jewish ethnicity.  I don’t have a strict sense of religious Judaism and don’t feel comfortable delving into religion because I don’t even know if I believe in God.  But I believe in the Jewish people and being part of a community, knowing that when I’m lighting Hanukkah candles, everyone else is, too, is important to me.  For this reason I fast on Tisha B’Av, usually considered a religious holiday-for nationalism.  I have a very strong connection to Israel and Hebrew and try to go back as much as possible. We don’t have kids yet (and won’t for another 10 million years, no matter how much certain bloggers inquire), but when we do, I hope to raise them as fully culturally Jewish and aware of their identity.

vickybVicki Boykis is a consultant in Washington DC and lives in the DC metro area with her husband.  She blogs about Russian/Jewish and other issues on her blog, vickiboykis.com.

 

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My Judaism

A Guest Post from FrumGoth

I grew up in a secular Jewish home, going to the synagogue with my family on the high holidays, lighting a menorah on chanukah, and attending “hebrew school” for several hours a week after public school got out.  One of my hebrew school teachers invited myself and a few other girls for a shabbos.  I remember the beautiful, warm atmosphere that filled her home, and the feeling of peace that descended on all of us that shabbos. I knew that this was something special, but unfortunately I did not continue with hebrew school, or any involvement in the synogogue, during my teenage years. The pull of peer pressure was too strong, and my friends and I became involved in a somewhat reckless lifestyle, hanging out and partying, devoid of anything constructive or positive. We would buy kegs of beer, bottles of liquor and wine, and go to a friend’s house whose parents were away. If no house was available, we would set up the party in an abandoned field or a deserted camp site up in the mountains. I remember piling into cars afterwards and practically flying back down to town. I have no idea how we survived.

I also started dating someone who was very different from me, yet in some ways so similar. He was not Jewish, lived in the “projects” and he was black. He was a talented artist, intelligent, a good person, but he was wrapped up in a world in which he had to sell drugs and steal to survive. We were similar in that we felt that love could overcome differences, and the divisions between race and class. We both felt that we didn’t quite fit in to the worlds that we came from.  I loved him very much, but it was heart breaking to see him fall into trouble again and again, trouble that I could not help him out of, no matter how much I tried.

Somehow, amidst this chaos, I became involved in NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) and attended Shabbatons. Again, the spirit of Shabbos had an effect on me, and some of the counselors saw that I was very interested. They told me about a college in New York City called Touro, which had a mechina (beginners) program for people like me, who have a limited background in Orthodox Judaism.  I was already a senior in high school, and applying to various SUNY colleges for the following year.  However, I decided that I wanted to go to Touro and become more religious.  My parents accepted this decision, although it seemed a little crazy. We called up and made the arrangements, I got accepted, and went off to Touro and NYC that fall, without ever having so much as visited it. I basically just jumped in. Somehow I knew that it was the right thing to do.  A good friend of mine who had also become involved in NCSY went to Touro as well, and we were roommates for many of our years there.  The hardest part of this was having to break up with my boyfriend. He understood somehow, and he went on to become involved in religion himself (a different religion, although I prayed for a long time that he would find Judaism), which helped him to break away from the destructive lifestyle that he had been enmeshed in.

Touro’s program was amazing. I learned halacha (Jewish law), chumash (the five books of Moses), nuvi (prophets), Hebrew, etc., in addition to the secular subjects.  My suitemates showed me the ropes in terms of getting around the city, details of keeping a kosher kitchen, and basic Orthodox lifestyle.  I made so many new friends, wonderful people, and with varying levels of Orthodox Judaism.  I grew in so many ways, spiritually, religiously, and socially.  I maintained a close relationship with my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. At times the adjustment to my new lifestyle was difficult for my parents, but they supported me every step of the way.

I got married in 1990 and have three wonderful children. Sadly the marriage ended in divorce, but I maintain an Orthodox lifestyle, and my ex-husband and I are trying our best to successfully “co-parent”.  I am so happy to be able to raise my children as Orthodox Jews.  It is a lifestyle that fosters kindness, a love for learning and continual growth, and helping others. I feel that G-d led me down a certain path, and enabled me to find the right place for myself, and for my children.

*** I think it is important to add that years later I ran into my boyfriend from high school and we had a nice time catching up and talking about our respective children.  He also married, divorced, and has a beautiful daughter.  I know it sounds somewhat cruel, that I sacrificed my relationship with him in order to take on my religion, but I believe in my heart that it was not meant for us to be together, and I am glad that he is in a much better place than he was back in high school.

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FrumGoth lives in NYC and has been working as an occupational therapist for the past 16 years. She gets much enjoyment from watching her children grow up. FrumGoth has a zest for life and is devoted to her friends, family, and two cats.

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My Judaism

Guest Post from Shorty.

(This article originally appeared here and has been updated for today’s post.)

I can’t remember exactly when I decided to become more religious. I didn’t grow up in a very religious household. My parents kept kosher at home, although treif foods were “allowed” on paper plates in our basement in front of the television.

The fact is, I never learned to integrate my Jewish high school learning into everyday adult living, and the lessons from home left me feeling confused and detached from my religion.

Two years ago, I was rushed into emergency surgery for a ruptured ulcer. Being faced with my own mortality, I realized that life was short and should be lived entirely with meaning. Self-help books didn’t have the answer I was looking for and neither did Oprah or Dr. Phil. In time, my spirituality evolved from The Secret to the Torah.

My husband of almost five years, who isn’t Jewish, and certainly not religious (When I was curious about midnight Mass a couple of years ago, I had to beg him to take me and he fell asleep!), didn’t think this would eventually be part of the marriage deal. Our wedding was a non-denominational, G-d-is-mentioned type of ceremony, and he broke a glass for a little bit of Jewish tradition just for me. We light Hanukkah candles together (on the menorah my mother-in-law gave us as a wedding gift), and have gone to a few Rosh Hashanah dinners. This was the extent of any sense of Jewishness in this household. It is safe to say that I lived a more assimilated type of Jewish life, which isn’t shocking considering my upbringing.

As I don’t have any family in Canada, this mixed-married life felt very one-sided. I felt that I “had to” celebrate the non-Jewish holidays with my in-laws. I use the term celebrate loosely, as it was more about family getting together. But we do acknowledge the holiday itself. I never celebrated my own holidays. Eventually, I suppose, I rebelled. I needed to be able to express myself as the Jewish woman that I am.

My journey to becoming Shabbat-observant started at Sukkot last year. I found out about a local Jewish organization, whose mission is to get Jewish people to do something Jewish, even if it is only a little bit. My husband and were invited to their couples sukkah party. I signed up for their class on prayer and started to daven every morning.

We also started attending the Shabbat dinners. There was something so very holy about the weekly event. I wanted in. It started with lighting some candles and turning off the phone and the computer for the day. I wanted to see if I would go through withdrawal symptoms from the lack of email and Facebook. I managed to survive. Eventually my Shabbat turned into a ritual of preparing the slow cooker, taping the fridge light, storing hot water in a thermos and refraining from using the lights or the car. In other words, my Shabbat became–Shabbat.

Every Friday night, I read the kiddush and break the hallah to share with my husband. As he stands by me, I am thankful to Hashem to have been blessed to be married to such a patient and understanding man.

My husband is amazingly supportive during Shabbat (and all Jewish rituals for that matter). Since I can’t use the electrical appliances during Shabbat, he likes to ensure my comfort by cooking for me and turning on lights. I am pretty sure Jewish law doesn’t allow this and I could choose not to eat what he prepares or to walk out of the room he so graciously illuminated for me. There is however, Shalom Bayit–the Jewish concept of “peace in the home”–to maintain in this mixed marriage, and I certainly can’t ignore his way of showing his love and support for me.

Shabbat has become pretty special for us. We play backgammon together. I read and he plays on the laptop.

We were living out in the countryside, away from a Jewish community, so Shabbat got a little lonely when my husband does decide to go out. We are often invited to spend Shabbat with Jewish friends in the city. We compromise on spending the night, and in the morning he can leave, and he comes and picks me up after Shabbat is over after sunset. We share a beautiful Shabbat dinner with friends, and he gets some “boy time” on Saturday. We have also agreed to do these sleepovers only once a month.

A mixed marriage is a lot about compromise and communication. There has to be a little bit of give and take, understanding, and of course talking about how we feel about things.

We recently sold our home to move closer to the Jewish community.  When all we did was bike and race it made sense to live near the trails.  When we started on this journey, it became clear that living in the city makes much more sense. With the help of Hashem, we sold our house and found a new place to live.

For some reason, I’m not stressed out about our decision to move as I thought I would be.  I have no idea what we got ourselves into and somehow it feels…alright.  I feel my husband’s hand in min and Hashem’s arms around us both.

hannahdayan250Shorty has been married to  her husband for five years. She is learning to integrate her Jewish faith into her daily living in a mixed marriage. Since there are no real rules, Shorty and her husband are learning as they go. Shorty also writes a blog – check it out – Shorty’s Adventures.

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My Judaism

Guest Post from Elianah Sharon.

Where I live I can guarantee you 100% that I am the only Jewish woman in the county who covers her hair.  I am the only person in my synagogue who does…as well, I think, as the only one who maintains a kosher kitchen and buys kosher meat.  I am also the only one who goes to the mikveh every month and has a sheitl hanging off the side of her bedroom mirror.

My therapist once asked me if I liked to create controversy.  And to be quite honest, I don’t!  I’d rather NOT be the “token Jew”, rather NOT be looked upon as weird when I insist on vegetarian options at office luncheons and NOT have people stare at me when I go into WalMart.  I can also tell you that driving 45 minutes each way to the mikveh, especially in the summer, well, that can be a chore.

The thing is though that I AM a Jewish woman.  It didn’t FEEL right not to have a kosher kitchen.  Likewise, it didn’t FEEL right that I didn’t use the mikveh every month.  And once I started using the mikveh every month, it felt weird to just cover my hair on the trip to and from and not during the time in between.

I felt weird at first, covering my hair.  I also didn’t know what to cover WITH.  My friend Wendy uses snoods but in the greater Pittsburgh community, I would think the most common covering is a sheitl and at that time, I just wasn’t ready for it; it’s one thing to cover your hair with a bandanna and quite another to obviously be wearing a wig. It made me feel awkward. But something inside was pulling me.  I started covering at home when I’d arrive from work in the afternoon.  I had gotten a pre-tied tiechel from www.coveryourhair.com and LOVED it.  My online friends (especially Hadassah) were writing blogs about hair coverings and how important it was to them and their families.  I decided to take the plunge.  Just like when I started using the mikveh , I found I felt at peace.  I felt it was a mitzvah I could do and so therefore I should do it.  There are so many we can’t do…we should always do those which we can.

So, after having surgery on June 24, I started covering my hair.  I did it in the hospital.  I did it when I went out.  I did it when I came back to work.  Initially, I was given some grief but my wonderful Rabbi consulted an attorney who sent back information so that my hair covering at work became a non-issue.  I have covered every day ever since.  Normally I wear pre-tied bandannas and some snoods.  I have a sheitl but I only wear that on Shabbat.

My husband asked me last night why I still insist on coloring my hair.  I guess he has a point that since my hair is covered, it IS a waste of money.  Still, I like to know I have pretty hair under my hair covering, I mean…what would be the point if I didn’t?  What would there be to save just FOR my husband to see if I just used a hair covering to hide behind?

I will admit I love my hair coverings.  I have pre-tied bandannas in an array of colors and patterns now and several hats I love to wear. I can match any outfit I choose!  I also talked to Hadassah about banded falls and thought that would work for me so I have a pair of those as well.  Two wigs I got earlier that just didn’t do it for me went in a box to a little girl in Alaska who has alopecia.  I really enjoy covering.  I can’t imagine NOT doing it now.

Finally…my hairdresser told me last night I should stop covering as it may be damaging hair that is already in a fragile state since I have some serious vitamin issues right now because of my surgery.  The thinking was that letting my hair just “be” would be healthier than covering.  I couldn’t even consider it this morning as I picked a snood to wear.  I am still a newbie to this whole observant lifestyle but I do know that now covering to me is as natural as putting on shoes.  It’s like my kosher kitchen…I can’t even imagine NOT doing the 45 minute-each-way-round-trip to buy kosher meat or visit the mikveh. It’s just what we do now.  To do anything else would 1) throw away a lot of hard work and commitment and 2) just not be the Jewish way to live our lives. It may sound weird, but I feel holier when I cover my hair because I know I am doing a mitzvah that I am commanded to do.  I don’t feel that it makes me any less of a woman or degrades me.  It’s just a mitzvah I am asked to do, I CAN do and so I do. With pleasure.

I really believe deep down in my heart of hearts that my increased observance this year has led directly to wonderful blessings for my family.  I started going to the mikveh in March and my husband received his heart transplant at the end of that month.  How can I not do what G-d asks of me when it is so little compared to all that He has given to me?

sharonElianah Sharon is a 40-something mom to a very, special 16 year old boy and wife to her bashert who just received the blessing of a heart transplant in March 2009.  She loves to read, write, knit, Facebook and she texts like a fiend. She writes a blog tooIrresistably Me. She is Jewish to the bone, loves her faith, her heritage and her life! Her feelings are her own as is the unique way she sees her life. She thinks it is ALL bashert. The rest? It’s commentary.

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