January 20, 2019

What It's Like to Be Not Jewish Enough

““You are a Jew, Sashinka. V soyuze, (in the Soviet Union) they made us feel dirty and ashamed of this. But you, you will be proud of it.”

I don’t quite remember the first time I heard this. Over the course of my childhood, I must have heard it hundreds of times from my parents in New Jersey and from my Babushka in Israel. I wasn’t sure what ‘Jew’ meant, but I knew two things: That it carried great importance for my family and that it was the reason why Ded Moroz gave me a present but Santa did not. Second only to ‘Jew’ was ‘Israel.’ Here! In the desert! Our people showed them that Jews are not cowards. That Jews could fight. That Jews have a home of their own. Why did people think Jews were cowards? And who were we fighting anyway? I had no idea. But my parents beamed with pride and, at special meals like Novi God, did elaborate toasts to the Jewish state and their family members who served in the Jewish army.

In college, fresh off of Birthright with Rutgers Hillel, I found myself walking on a Friday night through the bitter cold across the bridge separating New Brunswick and Highland Park, on my way to a Shabbat meal, unknowingly trying to answer the questions raised all those years before. It was my first encounter with Orthodox Jews who were not Russian-speaking Lubavitchers. For reasons then unknown to me, a woman who greeted me at the door refused to shake my hand. Fearing I had offended her I quickly came in, took off my shoes, and sat down at the table. There was food on the table but it was unlike any Zakuski I had ever seen. Why was the bread covered? Why did they start singing? Why did they stop? Why is the father putting his hand on his children’s heads and muttering?

In time, and after many shabbatons, the warmth brought to the table melted away what first felt like cold and strange rituals. I formed strong friendships with observant Jews and experienced a growing admiration for this weekly ritual—Shabbat—and the families and communities that come together for it. By the next summer, I had read Pirkei Avot, vigorously studied and debated Jewish laws of property, business transactions, and war at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and had grown to hold Maimonides with the same high regard as I did Tolstoy. Between Birthright, shabbatons, and a trip to Jerusalem, I began keeping my own kosher kitchen, observing chagim, and hosting Shabbat meals for observant and secular Jews alike. Though a lot of things have fallen by the wayside since college, these rituals have not.”

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