Thank you Shimshonit for this eloquent and meaningful contribution.
My Jewish father notwithstanding, I am not technically a Jew by birth (if you accept Jewish law, as I do). My father’s Judaism in some sense led me to water without letting me drink.
From the outside, it would seem that I had a luxury with regard to Judaism that born-Jews do not have: to choose to identify or not, to pursue it or not, to live it or to abandon it, with no feelings or baggage attached to those choices.
But the truth is that having a Jewish father, a warm, attentive extended Jewish family, and being told I was Jewish enabled Judaism to get its hooks in me. From the time I was a child, I yearned for some sense of community, of belonging, of spiritual connection to God and the world. I knew I would never find that in secular Americanism or Christianity (which appeared to me to have God uncomfortably confused with a hippy in a white dress), which left Judaism my most likely option.
It took me 30 years to convert under the auspices of the Orthodox world. In the years leading up to my conversion, I was asked by relatives and friends why I was taking this (to some, extreme) step. My answer then was that I wanted to continue the tradition of Judaism in my family. I knew I wanted to marry a Jew and have Jewish children. But for some those answers weren’t enough. I was already Jewish, some would say. Wasn’t Reform Judaism (i.e. THEIR Judaism) good enough for me? Weren’t there enough other people out there passing on their Judaism to their children? Why did I personally have to do this? The world can’t stand Jews; why would I want to become one of them? Those were good questions, and kept me thinking.
After many years of mulling over this question, I think I have come up with an answer. Daniel Gordis published a book in 1997 entitled, Does the World Need the Jews? I didn’t make it past the introduction (which was beautiful), but I knew then, as I do now, that the world needs the Jews. It needs us because of our moral and ethical code that places responsibility for our own actions on ourselves rather than some third party in a red lycra suit. It needs us because of our belief that everyone, not just the Jews, has a portion in the world to come (and hey, non-Jews only have to observe 7 laws, where Jews have 613). It needs us because we believe that the same justice applies to everyone, not just the rich or the poor, the favored or the unfavored, the loved or the unloved. It needs us because of our belief that everyone has a right to an education, a profession, a happy marriage, and meat and wine on the Sabbath table. (Our word for “charity” is tzedakah, the root of which means “justice.”) It needs us because in Judaism the worth of every single person is that of the entire universe. And it needs us because more than anyone else, we deliver hope through our belief that each of us has the power to become a better person by working on ourselves, to make this world a better world for everyone, and that Hashem is pleased with us when we do these things.
It is very difficult to be Jewish. We are a tiny minority in the world. We have never been popular. Whether one lives in Israel or in the Diaspora, to some extent our existence depends on our friends and what they think of us, and those friends are often fair-weather friends, willing to sacrifice us in their own interests. If we’re religious and observe the dietary and Sabbath laws, we’re likely not only to confuse our non-Jewish friends, but to alienate secular Jews as well. I grew up hearing that religious Jews were clannish and reclusive; now I know why they have this reputation. The more religious you are, the more different you feel in Diaspora society, and the more alone.
And yet, as easy as it would have been, I could not jettison my Judaism. It was the religion of my father’s family, but I had come to believe it was mine too. The more I learned about it, the truer it seemed to me, being founded on honesty, fairness, learning and good deeds rather than simple faith, fairy stories, and chauvinism. So what if the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts? To cop out of keeping this religion alive and flourishing would be to give up The Good Fight. It would mean accepting that what I believe to be right and good can be drowned out by numbers, even if those numbers are wrong.
So when all is said and done, for me to nurture my Judaism and pass it on to my children is to preserve hope—of connection with my father’s family, of a unique tradition and sense of justice, and of believe in myself and humankind.
By Shimshonit of shimshonit.wordpress.com
– Mesorah Project I
– Mesorah Project II
– Mesorah Project III