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Finding My Jewish Identity

Emily Adler on Monday, May 23, 2016

The morning of my confirmation, I sat in my mom’s office and cried about my frustration with Judaism. I took great issue with standing in front of a congregation of people explaining my personal connection to a religion I felt I knew nothing about.

Here were the things I knew: I knew my parents were Jewish, I knew my paternal grandfather survived the Holocaust, I knew mandel bread, challah, matzah ball soup, and latkes; and I knew my Mom hung Jewish decor around the house. But as a young girl, I had absolutely no understanding of how it connected to me. I had so many questions. Why did I have to go to Hebrew School? Why did I recite prayers in a language I couldn’t speak or understand? Why did I have to attend services every week? Why did I have a bat mitzvah? And WHY did I have to give this speech when I didn’t know how to answer a simple question like “What is Judaism to you?”

After a long talk with my mother, I was, in the end, reassured that it would all make sense when it came time to share the religion with my children, I reluctantly agreed to go through with my confirmation and gave my speech feeling like a liar. Any moment I knew the rabbi would stand and walk me off the stage sensing that my speech was half-hearted. He didn’t. The years following, I was everyone’s Jewish friend who didn’t feel very Jewish. That’s not to say that I didn’t try and find a connection! I reached out to rabbis for book suggestions and read The Jew and His Duties and Harold Kushner’s To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. I attended JCC Maccabi ArtsFest, worked as a camp counselor at the JCC, and tried to help the local rabbis bring together Jewish kids my age for hip events like movie nights and field trips to local DC theaters. I tried to feel connected but there was always a piece of me that felt like I was playing the part of a Jew because I had been told that it was who I was and who I would always be.

And then there was Birthright. Finally, I had an excuse to take 10 days to face my feelings about Judaism head on. I figured that everyone else on the trip was grappling with the same question of how Judaism fit into our lives as “Jew-ish” Americans. Of course, everyone had different ideas of how to connect to the religion on this trip. Some people felt a spiritual connection to the land while others aimed for a romantic connection with fellow participants on the trip. I already had a cute boy at home for smooching, so I wasn’t going to find Judaism that way. I marveled at the sites, breathed a little deeper to take them in and took a lot of photographs, but I couldn’t connect religion to the land. Instead, I found Judaism the way everyone always said I would—by asking questions.

My Birthright group worked through an exercise where we arranged a variety of Jewish customs based on how Jewish it made a person. Some customs included: has read the Torah, had a bat mitzvah, married a Jew, believes in Zionism, made aliyah, and believes in G-d, to name a few. It was this exercise that opened my mind to the wide definition of a Jew. That looming question, what is Judaism to me, became what makes me Jewish? And I realized that for me it had less to do with keeping kosher and lighting candles every Friday. I wasn’t Jewish for having read a Haftorah or for attending Hebrew School for 15 years. No, Judaism is something much different.

Judaism to me is red lipstick on each cheek. It’s handwritten thank-you notes and adding one more chair to the table. Judaism is speaking out and speaking up. Judaism is moving away from home only to find a community waiting with open arms.

After all the times I felt like a Jewish imposter, I had finally put together the pieces that connected me to being Jewish. Nothing had clicked for me as a child but my mother was right in the sense that my connection deepened with time. I have a community of loved ones who share the same values as I do and together create a family that I can rely on regardless of where I am or what I’m doing.  I may not have realized it at the time, but my Judaism helped get me to where I am today and I look forward to seeing where it brings me in the future.

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