"I always thought that I would learn more about Judaism when I had children, but," the young mother told me with a pained shoulder-shrug, "my husband isn't Jewish. My kids are not going to learn about being Jewish in our home."
If an outside observer would have witnessed this conversation that took place in Baltimore last month between my parents' new neighbor and me, the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, he would have thought that this woman and I have nothing in common.
But I know the truth. I know that up until quite recently, this woman was my Ghost of Chanukah Future. I know that if my life had not taken a 180 degree turn 15 years ago, I would have been the intermarried mother clinging by her fingertips to the crumbling edge of the cliff, assimilation littered with the remains of hundreds of thousands of American Jews lying half-a-mile straight down.
IS THAT A GERMAN NAME?
In 1991, I was a student at Bowdoin College, a small college in Maine with a Jewish student organization so small that the only activities it sponsored were High Holiday services, and a weekly Shabbat candle lighting ceremony that I attended two or three times until I tired of sitting in a classroom by myself with a pair of candlesticks while I waited for somebody else to show up.
My years at Bowdoin were jam-packed, spent in a never-ending mad dash from classes to track-and-field practice to orchestra to chamber choir to the college library and finally to bed in the small hours of the morning.
Looking back, I understand that all this rushing around was not a reflection of my enthusiasm for the legendary "Bowdoin experience," but rather of my desperate search for something to fill up the emptiness that I felt during those years. The meaninglessness and lack of connection that I felt at Bowdoin ached, the emotional version of the phantom pain of an amputee.
As my junior year abroad grew closer, I had high hopes that the sense of meaning that I was seeking was lying in wait in foreign lands.
I kicked off my junior year abroad by volunteering at a Soviet Pioneer summer camp outside of Moscow. My first day there, the camp director asked me about my last name. "What kind of name is Freedman, is that German?"
"No, it's a Jewish name."
She nodded with a blank expression.
That summer, as the only American that the young campers had ever seen, I learned what it must feel like to be a movie star hounded by paparazzi. Everywhere I went around the camp, children pointed and screamed, "Look, the American!"
That summer I learned what it means to spend time in a country that is profoundly anti-Semitic.
At the same time, I learned that summer what it means to spend time in a country that is profoundly anti-Semitic. Even though I had not told anyone I was Jewish aside from the camp director, word about my background spread around the staff like wildfire.
At one point, a coworker invited me to her room for tea. In the middle of a conversation about camp life, she got up, shut the door to her room, and said in a hushed voice, "My mother's maiden name was Gross," and then she re-opened the door, and went back to speaking about the upcoming swimming tournament.
Another time, the camp's musical director invited me to her room to meet her friend, Seryozha. The next day, she told me in a whisper, "Seryozha is your relative," as though we shared a deep, dark, and terrible secret.
Halfway through the summer, two new male counselors arrived who were born-again Christians. They wore large crosses around their necks, had long hair, and rumor had it that they would soon start training to become Russian Orthodox monks.
One night, when I joined some counselors who were sitting in a room smoking and drinking tea and vodka, one of the Christians starting asking me questions.
"Are you a Protestant?"
"Are you a Catholic?"
"Then what are you?"
Embarrassed, I confessed, "I'm Jewish."
"Jewish? Judaism?" he said with a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. "Do you mean to tell me that you don't accept Jesus as your savior? Do you know that the blood of the Lord is on your hands? Do you know that you will go to Hell for this?"
At that moment, the world stood still -- the cigarette smoke, the darkened room, and the uncomfortable eyes of every single counselor either on me or on the floor.
"But, it's true," he finally continued with a bitter edge to his voice, "the Jews are the Chosen people. Out of all the nations in the world, the Jews were the first to realize that there is one God." And with that, he gave me one last look of deep resentment, and got up to pour himself another cup of tea.
At that point, someone started complaining about the camp director, and before I knew it, everyone had relaxed. Before I knew it, I was forgotten.
Although, I, of course, had not forgotten.
A month later, I was traveling to spend my fall semester as a participant in a study-abroad program in Indonesia. While most of the program participants spent their free time shopping and beach hopping, I was interested, above all else, in spending every free moment with the Muslim students from the nearby university, the first deeply religious people I had ever met.
The Indonesian students I met were extremely charming and friendly. I would spend my evenings with them, joking around and talking about their studies or the beauty of Islam.
At the same time, though, once again, I learned what it means to live in a deeply anti-Semitic country.
On several occasions, the students mentioned in passing that Jews controlled the American government and media like master puppeteers. If I would protest, they would shake their heads at my naivete.
But most prevalent, were the constant attacks against Israel. Before long, I was actually surprised when I managed to get through a whole day without hearing comments that implied that the Zionist Entity was the most evil country that had ever existed.
What did Israel -- that war-ridden Middle Eastern country that had caused me nothing but embarrassment -- have to do with me anyway?
But this anti-Israel sentiment did not bother me so much. I was apologetic and obsequious when it came to the Jewish State. I had never even been to Israel, and what did that war-ridden Middle Eastern country that had caused me nothing but embarrassment have to do with me anyway?
Despite the anti-Semitic atmosphere, my experience in Indonesia had been overwhelmingly positive. I loved the Indonesian students' idealism, sense of humor, warmth, and spirituality.
My last night in Indonesia, however, I had an encounter that made me rethink my impressions. As I was packing my bags, one of my new friends stopped by. "I have come to speak with you, because I want you to understand something." She skipped all niceties, and got straight to the point. "Everybody here is very nice to you. But the truth is that in our hearts, we all hate Jews as deeply as it is possible to hate anyone."
Even though her attack shouldn't have surprised me, it did. Up until that point, I had heard the Indonesian students express hostility towards Jews and Israel constantly, but I had felt a nearly total division between "the Jews" and me. It was too bad that they hated Jews, but that didn't mean that they hated me! What did I ever do to them?
And then, out of the blue, my new friend stopped short. "But, nobody can deny," she said, as her face contorted as though she had bitten into a lemon, "that the Jews are the Chosen people, because you were the first nation to recognize that there is one God." And with that, she left, closing the door firmly behind her.
The next morning, a few of my Indonesian friends showed up at the bus station to send me off. The student who had visited me the night before gave me a big hug, as though everything was forgotten.
But I, of course, had not forgotten.
ROSH HASHANA IN ISRAEL
A few days later I was back home in Baltimore. I was supposed to leave two weeks later to study in Moscow for the coming semester, but my mother suggested that the situation in Russia was unstable and possibly dangerous.
It occurred to me that if I could not travel to Russia, at least I could travel to Israel to volunteer with Russian immigrants. I also realized that, ironically, the volcanic fury that the Indonesian students felt towards Israel had made me curious. Their hatred had made me want to check out what the big deal was all about.
Soon after I arrived in Israel, my housing arrangements fell through, and I decided to move into a women's yeshiva that had offered me free housing. For the first time in my life, I felt the thrill and satisfaction of studying Judaism, in a community of young idealistic Jewish women who were also in hot pursuit of a meaningful life.
I was moved so deeply that I locked myself in the bathroom, and could not stop crying.
The first Shabbat I spent with a religious family, as I saw the mother surrounded by her children and husband, their home filled with singing and the warmth of the primordial light of Shabbat, I was moved so deeply that I locked myself in the bathroom, and could not stop crying.
And how could I not be moved to tears, to realize that the phantom pain that had ached for so many years was finally gone? How could I not be moved to my core to realize that I was a wandering Jew who had finally come home?
After several months of study, when the rabbi at my yeshiva was finishing up a class on Rosh Hashana, he looked at us with a sudden smile, as though he had just thought of something that had made him very happy.
He said, "This Rosh Hashana when you hear the shofar, remember that you are the daughters of Abraham, members of the first nation in the history of humanity to recognize that there is one God. This is the reason why people of all faiths from all over the world still call us the Chosen People"
"And ladies," he said, as he closed the book lying in front of him and looking straight at me, "don't you ever forget it."
And I, of course, have not forgotten.