I'm a 15-year-old Jewish girl, and my parents are not observant, I don't leave near any Jewish community, and I attend a non-Jewish high school. My classmates and people around me are so different from me. I feel like I don't belong here. Though I am (or at least try to be) observant, I don't know what it's like to have a family Shabbat meal, I've never gone to synagogue before, nor I don't know what a typical Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Sukkot is like. I'm the only observant member of my family, and they're usually questioning most of the mitzvot I try to observe. It hurts to be away from other Jews, it hurts to feel like I don't belong here and it hurts to feel like I'm alone. Why did God put me where I am?
Lauren Roth's Answer
Did you ever notice the one kid on the playground eating carrot and celery sticks when everyone else has cool, nacho-flavored corn chips? Those would be all six of my kids!
Yes, we eat healthfully in our family – and for years and years and in the many cities we’ve lived, my kids were the only ones. Now it’s changing a little bit – people in general are a little bit more cognizant of healthful eating, so my children are perhaps not the only ones with the cherry tomatoes instead of cherry sour candy balls, but my children all still feel and know: we are different.
And guess what? The eldest ones have recently told me the following comments:
“Mom, I am so grateful we always ate healthfully. The kids who used to make fun of my apples are older now, and they say things like, ‘You’re so lucky your mom cooks healthfully – I try to eat that way but I don’t know how!’ And they’re asking me what to eat and how to make it!”
“Mom, you won’t believe it! The girls all crowded around my salad today and said it looked so delicious – and they’re planning on bringing one tomorrow for their lunch!”
“Mom, do you know what I just realized? All those years of eating fruits and vegetables and nuts and whole grains when everyone else just ate whatever their taste buds desired really developed my ability to do the right thing, and not just to follow my cravings. I think it helped me accomplish that in a lot of other areas of my life, too – the self-discipline to do what’s right, instead of what just tastes good.”
You, dear reader, are doing what’s right. And although it might be lonely to eat your blueberries on the playground while everyone else has blueberry Jelly Bellies, you’ll be healthy, fit, and strong while they develop jelly bellies. And you’ll have a healthy, strong self-discipline and resolve while they have not (yet) developed that. Doing the right thing might be lonely, but it is so much more noble and better for you in the long run, instead of being a mindless part of the masses.
Did you ever see “The Wave?” It’s an excellent short trigger film, commonly shown in high schools, which demonstrates the power of thinking for yourself and doing the right thing, and not just being part of whatever wave happens to be sweeping through your peers at the time. (I encourage every teenager to watch it.)
Doing the right thing can be tough and lonely, but you have the tremendous satisfaction of knowing you’re doing what’s good, what’s proper, what’s best for you and for the world.
I have a story, to illustrate. This story happened to a person I really respect. We’ll call him Bob. Bob travels a lot, and he was visiting City X. When Bob returned to his hometown, Joe asked him, “So, did anyone say ‘Hello’ to you in City X?” Bob replied, “Well…I got an aliyah (called to the Torah during the prayer service).” Joe persisted, “Yes, but, did anyone say ‘Hello’ to you?” To which Bob answered, “Um…no.”
When Bob told me that story, I was extremely disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed in the people of City X; I was disappointed in Bob. I already told you Bob is a person I respect greatly. I was disappointed that Bob didn’t do the right thing: if he wanted people to say “Hello” to him, all he had to do was say “Hello!” to each of them! He would have been doing the right thing, and changing his own reality.
Here’s how that story applies to you: you say people question your observance. I have a solution for you: just you go about observing mitzvot, happily and confidently. Be friendly towards everyone around you. Eventually they’ll stop questioning you, because they’ll see that whatever you’re doing is making you into a nice, happy, confident, friendly person who lives her life with grace and aplomb. People will wonder what secret you have that makes you such a pleasant addition to their social circle. Tell yourself daily – or hourly! – “I am doing the right thing, and that is worth a lot.”
I remember growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and being the only observant teenager in many of my social circles. Yes, I often felt alone because of it, but because I practiced my religious beliefs with happiness, confidence, and friendliness towards others, usually other kids were interested in hearing more about mitzvot from me.
Also, being the only observant one helped me understand exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and why. Because my peers would ask me. They wanted to know: “Why can’t you go to McDonald’s with us?” “Why can’t you go to the movies with us on Friday nights?” “Why don’t you touch boys?” “What is this Sabbath thing all about?” I had to know the answers so I could explain my actions to them. That helped me deepen my own understanding of my observance.
The truth is, what you are experiencing now exactly mirrors the extremely painful summer I spent at A Summer Camp I Won’t Name when I was 12. I had just had my bat mitzvah, and I had become more observant than I was before – and more observant than my family and friends were at the time. My parents checked out this Jewish summer camp, found out that it had great facilities and activities (which it actually did), found out that it was kosher (which it actually was not), so I went.
You have to understand – back in the 1980s, before the advent of the internet, if you were a newly observant 12-year-old in Memphis, you would not know much about the wider Jewish world, and neither would your parents. I found out that the camp wasn’t really kosher when I was on an overnight canoeing trip (by the way, my canoe tipped over and my sleeping bag and all my clothes got soaked in the river – so I had to sleep all night in a wet sleeping bag, and awoke with ants crawling all over me – YUUK!!). I randomly glanced at the ingredients of the hot dog rolls and saw the word “LARD.” FYI – lard is pig fat. Not kosher.
In addition, the kids in my bunk consistently made fun of my observance. When they ordered in pepperoni pizza (another clue that the camp was not kosher!) and I told them “No thanks – I can’t eat milk with meat,” they made a mockery of it. When they didn’t want to clean the cabin, they’d stare straight at me and say, “I can’t clean the cabin – it’s against my religion!” then dissolve into laughter. It was so bad that when our bunk had its turn on the ropes course and one of the activities was for each of us to stand on a high ledge, with our back to the rest of the bunk, and, as the ropes course instructor said, “TRUST your bunkmates that they will catch you, and fall backwards into their waiting arms!” I said, “NO WAY!” And skipped my turn. Murder avoided!
But something wonderful happened to me that summer. I had brought along with me a life – preserver: my siddur. And I would go down to the lake every day and cry and pray and pour out my heart to God. I think it ended up being the most spiritual summer I ever had.
Keep doing the right thing, and all other good things will follow.