November 18, 2019

What’s So Jewish About Leaving Your Parents’ House? I Had to Find Out for Myself

This image is shot using a drone. Photo by Getty Images

Lech Lecha, God says. Go. Me’artzecha, from your land. Mi’moladetcha, from where you were born. U’mi beit avicha. From your father’s house.

This is how Abraham finds out he’s going to be Jewish. He is commanded by God in a voice any of us with a job is familiar with — he is volun-told to do it. Pack your stuff, this situation is not working. Get off your parents’ couch. Where you’re going, we’ll figure out later. Just go, and go now. It’s the biggest day of his life.

Many of the biggest days of my life, too, have involved decisions to go. For example, the decision to leave Los Angeles to attend college in the Midwest (although my mom may have guided me toward that decision), or the decision to quit my job in consulting and leave the Midwest to pursue journalism back in my hometown (which she certainly endorsed). If I have a flight instinct, what can I say? Blame Avraham Avinu — as many people as there are stars in the sky are dealing with the same thing. 

Sometimes, though, you can’t always leave when you want to. When I moved in with my parents after quitting that consulting job, I swore it would be but a short layover. Yet, because of the vagaries of a nascent career in freelance writing, it took a few years to be stable enough (or desperate enough) to make the leap. Maybe I was waiting for God to boom in my ear, “Go now,” but really, that wouldn’t have been necessary. All parties — not just me, but also Mom, Dad, Avraham Avinu, and of course Avinu Shebashamayim — were very much on the same page. 

Conscious of the old wives’ tale about the guy who prays every day of his life to win the lottery, eventually goes to heaven and gets scolded for never buying a ticket, I scoured Craigslist for months to find a place to live. Finally, I found one. A dream one. Close to home, but not too close that my parents would, like, visit me; rent I could stomach; a shared parking space; and — when I walked in the front door, my goodness — spacious. With wood floors and crown molding.

The roommates-to-be, both non-Jewish, were warm and worldly, with unique careers and no pretenses. I had decided beforehand that it was not essential that my roommate(s) be observant, or even Jewish. It’s kind of a long story, but the short of it is I wanted to be able to eat pork and watch TV on Shabbat. Kidding. Ideally, I could find someone from beyond the bubble who, at the same time, would be willing to leave on the bathroom light (if not ovens, too). I understood that would be a difficult needle to thread, in an affordable housing crisis, no less.

I could hear myself hesitating to self-identify as Jewish and observant. It wasn’t shame, and I didn’t think of it as a big deal when it came to shared living spaces. But I didn’t want her to think it was a big deal. Or was it a big deal? 

Evidently, I was not the only person viewing this apartment; though we seemed to be hitting it off, the tenant showing me the place was also checking the time. Meanwhile, I found myself trying to strike a balance between a winning impression and an honest one. But I was having trouble introducing kashrut and Shabbat, and the compromises I’d ask my roommates to make so I could observe them. There was a midrash in the back of my head, about a man who passes up a business opportunity to perform a mitzvah. That’s the whole story. He misses out. I did not want to miss out. 

I could hear myself hesitating to self-identify as Jewish and observant. It wasn’t shame, and I didn’t think of it as a big deal when it came to shared living spaces. But I didn’t want her to think it was a big deal. Or was it a big deal? There was only one way to find out. When she was showing me the kitchen, I interjected hopefully: “Would it be all right if I had separate pots and pans?” To my relief, she said sure — they kept their pots and pans separate already, not that they ever really cooked. Not wanting to avalanche her with halachah, I bided my time to bring up Shabbat.

Here’s one takeaway: There is no good time or way to introduce Shabbat to a prospective roommate mid-conversation. Instead, we talked about her job, her travels, my familiarity with the area because of my, cough, “old roommates” living in Pico-Robertson, writing, cleanliness, quitting my first job (not sure if I’ve mentioned this before), laundry … the well was running dry. She got a text, and it was time for me to go.

A revelation was suddenly booming in my head. When you leave your father’s house, to the apartment that I will show you, that I have promised you: This is not when you find out that you’re Jewish. It’s when you determine it for yourself.

A revelation boomed in my head. When you leave your father’s house, to the apartment that I will show you, that I have promised you: This is not when you find out that you’re Jewish. It’s when you determine it for yourself.

“Oh yeah, one more thing,” I said at last, saying those ominous words as casually as possible. “I’m Jewish, and so on Saturdays, that’s our day of rest and so I don’t, like, use electricity or watch TV or cook and stuff like that.”

She blanched, alarmed. My heart sank. She said, “Um, do we also have to do that?”

“Oh, God, no,” I said, steamrolling the third commandment as I risked it all for the fifth.

“Oh, alright,” she said. “OK. We’ll be in touch.”


Louis Keene is a writer based in Los Angeles. He tweets at @thislouis.