When my 17-year-old boyfriend asks me if I want to go to church on a Sunday morning, I don’t bat an eyelash. I am thrilled to go wherever he is going, even if his mother is coming along.

I go to church two or three times. The tall, suited men look at my naïve face with hope, and grin at my six-foot-two boyfriend whose Mohawk is combed down so you almost can’t tell. I sit quietly next to my boyfriend and his mother, and afterward we go to brunch.

A couple of months later, he asks me if I want to go to bible study. Again, I shrug. We go to a meeting room someplace where a few of those same smiling men from church gather around a conference table.

They joke with me, pass me a cup of soda, and point to their bibles. They cite passages I’ve never heard of, and say, “So you see, you just need to believe.” If I do, great. If not, my boyfriend promises the next world will be a bit of an uncomfortable experience for me.

Although I never go back, I am confused. I want so badly to believe in something.

I barely know anything about my own religion. I knew how to chant my entire bat mitzvah portion, went to Jewish camp, and had Passover Seder and Shabbat dinners at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother made chicken soup, matzo balls and tongue, and put a lace doily on her head when she lit the candles. My grandfather recited the “long” kiddush, and my family, plus my aunt, uncle and cousins all stood up, holding our own little cups filled with Manischevitz wine. In their house I could feel Judaism, even though it wasn’t taught or articulated.

But at my parents’ house, we don’t say the traditional prayers on Friday night. My parents call themselves “humanistic” Jews. Over the Shabbat candles, we all say together, “Blessed is the light of the world, blessed is the light of the person, blessed is the light of Shabbat.” We’d go to retreats in the mountains, where we’d do art projects while our parents attended “ethical culture” meetings.

We light menorahs every Hanukkah beside our fireplace where my parents hang Hanukkah stockings filled with tzotchkes.

As a searching teen, I acquire a fascination with the Greek gods. With a non-Jewish friend, I pore over books about them, learn who was who and what they control. I even have conversations with Zeus on my solitary walk home from school.

I imagine being consumed by a gaping black hole of nothingness. The thought terrifies me.

At our house, God is nowhere to be found. I remember asking my mother where God was, what God was. She doesn’t know what to say.

I realize that death will be the end of all things. My parents will die, I will die, and all will be over. I imagine being consumed by a gaping black hole of nothingness.

The thought terrifies me. I don’t know what to do with it. Usually, I just push it as far back into my consciousness as possible.

Exploring Judaism

Fast forward five years. I have long since dropped my punk rock boyfriend and graduated college. My best friend from Jewish summer camp and I take our long-awaited adventure to Europe and Israel. In Israel, we volunteer on a Haifa army base for three weeks, have a blast, and reluctantly travel to Europe, promising each other that we’ll return to Israel right after.

Six weeks later, we do. But this time, we head to Jerusalem. We get “picked up” at the Wall by Rabbi Meir Shuster and go to a family for our first Shabbos dinner experience. For real, with all the rules we never knew, but also with all the joy and serenity we never knew.

We start taking classes at an introductory Torah learning program in the Old City. We learn about things we’ve never heard. I’m discussing with rabbis and teachers about the purpose of the world, the meaning of existence, what God is. We have deep discussions into the night at our dorm. I’m slowly getting some answers to the questions I never even knew how to articulate – but in my own religion.

I’m surprised by how much Judaism is resonating with me. And then the phone calls start.

I find out Judaism believes in reincarnation, in the eternality of the soul. There is so much I never imagined was any part of Judaism. There is no more gaping black hole of nothingness. I’m surprised by how much Judaism is resonating with me.

And then the phone calls start.

Brainwashed

Dad calmly confides that he and mom are a little worried about me. “There are lots of fanatics in Jerusalem.” My parents’ rabbi suggests I attend a non-Orthodox institution since all the other seminaries and yeshivas brainwash innocent American kids.

I tell them that we’re just learning about Judaism, that we are still the same. No one has taken over our brains and we’re still thinking and asking questions. Tons of questions. And we’re even learning Hebrew! Isn’t that great?

Then Mom gets on the phone. She insists that I check out this other learning program. She tells me that I have to keep an open mind.

I tell her, gently, that maybe they should also keep an open mind.

Mom informs me that she and Dad are coming to visit, which isn’t surprising, given our two-month trip has now turned into six with no return tickets. They’ll be there in a couple weeks. I ask my mother to bring me warmer clothes. And long skirts.

Collision

It’s good to see my parents, but somewhat strange. Suddenly my two worlds collide in a big way. My newfound world of Orthodox Judaism and my “real life” that I’d left back in the States. My parents attend some classes, dutifully go to Shabbos meals with me. They watch it all warily, looking at me and my friends with suspicion. And they don’t trust the rabbis, either. After all, these are the folks whom my father called meshuganas back home we’d see them walking on a Saturday when we’d venture into the Orthodox enclave in our city.

For the first time in my life I feel I am getting thought-provoking answers to my questions that my parents could not provide me.

I wonder why my parents did not say one word to me when I was seriously dating a Christian and attending church and bible study. Yet here, in Jerusalem, surrounded by people who are observing the same commandments my great-grandparents had kept, my parents were so concerned, panicked.

I don’t have the courage to ask.

I believe my parents, like so many Jews of their generation, are happy to be free of what they felt was the burden of Judaism. And I understand where they’re coming from since they view the Torah laws as antiquated and irrelevant, as I did growing up. But the more I learn about Torah Judaism, the more relevant and exciting it becomes.

For the first time in my life I feel I am getting thought-provoking answers to my questions that my parents could not provide me.

My parents return home and I stay in Israel for a year, learning, experiencing Shabbat with families, finding role models and discovering who I want to be.

And even now, many years later, the more Torah I learn and integrate into my life – and teach to my own children – the more meaningful my life becomes.