I am Jewish by birth, but growing up I wasn't raised with a great emphasis on my Jewishness. I knew it was there, and occasionally we celebrated holidays (Chanukah and Passover, mostly), and I know many of the stories and parables of our ancestors. I love my Jewishness. But I don't feel a spiritual connection with God or with the Jewish community. I didn't go to Hebrew school growing up, I don't have many Jewish friends, and despite my mother being Israeli and most of my family living there, I don't know any Hebrew.
I'm starting college in a few months and I know I'll have opportunities to make connections there. But I always feel like I don't belong with the other Jewish kids due to my lack of knowledge, a Hebrew/Jewish sounding name, and the fact that I'm multi-racial. I don't know where to start to get a better grasp on the more religious part of Judaism, and where to insert myself in the community. What should I do?
Lauren Roth's Answer
Let me start with the last part of your question, in which, basically, you say, “I don’t feel I belong with other Jewish kids because I’m not perfectly like them.” Do you know how many experiences and relationships we humans miss out on because we’re nervous: “I won’t be able to do it perfectly, so I’d rather not try”?
I read an interview with Karl Lagerfeld (of Chanel and Fendi). He said the most extraordinary statement:
“I like antique lace, antique sheets, beautiful quilted covers, but everything is white. In white you can hide nothing. I have everything – sheets and nightshirt and robes – changed every day. It’s such a pleasure to go to bed in the evening in a beautiful bed with beautiful sheets and beautiful pillows, everything flawless, in a freshly pressed, long white smock. It’s perfect.”
Everything white? Everything “flawless?” A freshly-pressed nightshirt? “Perfect?” Those words doesn’t describe Real Life. You can’t live an authentic life in a white house with white sheets and white clothes and white furniture. Real Life is never perfect or flawless or clean or white. It’s messy and dirty and complicated and full of imperfect fits and stubborn stains that won’t come out – and even more stains yet to come.
Just because you’re not perfectly like the other Jewish people you see doesn’t mean you don’t belong.
Also, I think that most people these days (at least the people I decide to associate myself with) are open-minded, and even actively looking for diversity in their lives. Personally, I love the fact that my friends are all very different from each other. I would find it extremely boring to have a bunch of Stepford wives in my social sphere. Variety is definitely the spice of my life.
I am so impressed that you have the desire to know what your heritage is all about. Self-knowledge is an extremely empowering path to personal peace. You are avoiding the fate of so many Jews today whose Judaism is a mere relic in the attic of their lives.
I just attended a 25th reunion for a Jewish summer program I attended in high school. I was talking with three other men who had attended the program the same year I had, and we were discussing work, and children, and quality time with our families, and work-life balance…. After an hour and a half, one of the men made a statement which revealed to me that his wife was not Jewish. He said, “My wife doesn’t mind if I raise our kids Jewish.” And then the second man of the three said, “Mine doesn’t mind either.” And then the third lamented, “Mine does. She minds very much.”
I was stunned! Out of three nice, Jewish boys, all three had married non-Jews! According to Jewish law, Judaism flows through the mother, not the father; for all three of those men, their Jewish heritage ended with them. I am so happy for you that you – through your desire to connect to your roots – are avoiding that sad ending, and, instead, embarking on an exciting, invigorating journey.
I am certain that in your area, wherever you live, there are Torah classes and Torah-observant Jews. In some cities and communities there are more Jewish educational programs than in others. And in different locales the classes will be given by either more or less knowledgeable teachers and rabbis than in others. Wherever you live, you can find a mentor online through TorahMates or through Partners in Torah; they will connect you to a mentor/teacher at a time and venue which works for you. You can also find host families for an entire Shabbat, or just for a Shabbat meal, at Shabbat.com. Also, Artscroll has thousands of books about authentic Judaism in English, and of course don’t forget Aish.com, where you can learn oodles about your roots!
My dear, your heritage awaits; the entire Jewish world is open to you. How exciting!