Otherness and Authenticity: A Jew by Choice

One late summer afternoon, sitting at my computer, I googled a number of words and phrases: “synagogue,” “Jewish services,” and “rabbi near me.” I was nineteen years old and a recent high school graduate. I wanted to talk to a rabbi. Alone in my bedroom, I started dialing. I thought to myself, “What should I say? How do I explain my interest in conversion? How does one actually become Jewish?” The phone rang and rang—no answer.

Flash forward to the fall of my sophomore year at Linfield College. I was delighted to hear that a rabbi was coming to campus for the first time to meet with students. I walked upstairs to find familiar faces and an older man wearing a kippah.[1] After the meeting, I lingered. Rabbi Gary looked at me and could tell that I wanted to speak but could not find the words. One of those same questions from years ago overcame me: “How do I become Jewish?” I uttered the phrase with vulnerability and excitement. Rabbi Gary smiled.

Later that year, I sat in a Hebrew language class where I met Chaim. He was Jewish and a former Linfield student. While at Linfield, he attended Hebrew University for a summer. I was elated—I could finally find my way to Jerusalem. I had known Jews at Linfield, but no one I knew really had a love for Torah and tradition like Chaim. One day after class, as we walked and talked together, he asked, “What are you doing for Shabbos?”[2]

We arrived for Shabbat dinner with a local Orthodox family that Chaim was close with. A man with a long beard dressed in black and white opened the door. Yosef, a self-described ba’al teshuvah[3]welcomed us warmly. The house was magical: the smell of challah[4] and of Shabbos wafted through the house. We gathered around the table for a meal abundant with delicious food, spirited conversation, and laughter. After the meal, we sang the Birkat Hamazon[5], our fists hit the table rhythmically and our voices shook the room. This was paradise. All of us were different but bound together by God, Torah, and ritual celebration. I returned to that special family table for many a Friday night; I had finally found a home in the world.

In the summer of 2008, I was both excited and nervous to board a plane to Israel. I wanted to be accepted by my new community. Throughout the flight I wondered, “Where will I find my place in the Hoy Land?”

I began to find my place in the ancient and bustling streets of Jerusalem. Strangers became friends, which in turn became community. My community was composed of a group of American students whose geography was as diverse as their Jewish practice. It was in Jerusalem that I truly felt Jewish for the first time. This affirmation was sacred to me because as a Jew by choice my religious affiliation was an intentional and complicated decision filled with great hope and uncertainty. This is, of course, also true to a certain extent for people who are born Jewish. In our post-modern world, identity is enacted; self is cultivated. We work daily in the trenches of life to intentionally construct meaning, cultivating and enacting our Jewishness. However, Jews by choice find our way differently. For many of us, there is no roadmap, no given resources or tools, no personal or communal history. We must actively inject ourselves into Jewish history in order to become a part of it. We do so consciously, and in the process, become responsible for it.

Yet, I am not always affirmed. This was a realization I was forced to confront in Jerusalem and Oregon. Because I did not undergo an Orthodox conversion, my identity as a Jew is questioned in some Jewish quarters. In these spaces, my Jewishness is at best suspect and at worst illegitimate. This was especially painful in Israel, where religious policies are largely governed by the Orthodox rabbinate. Yet, paradoxically, to the non-Jewish world I am a Jew. My kippah, religious language, dietary choices and more mark me as Jewish. I am marked by difference just as any other Jew is in a Western world still dominated by Christianity. To be affirmed and at once to be denied my Jewishness is a strange and lonely space to dwell in. This marginality creates a distinct sense of otherness. In these contexts, I feel like the “other of the other.”

I spent a lot of mental calories trying to conceive of ways that my Jewishness would be affirmed more broadly among my new community. The gymnastics were exhausting. It is easy to gradually split into anger, anxiety, and frustration, to allow intentional and unintentional wounds to overwhelm and consume. Frankly, I allowed this for a time. In order to come to a place of personal healing, I found it necessary to exercise compassion and generosity. Compassion is the attempt to truly consider the world from the standpoint of someone else, to cultivate a critical sense of awareness of self, other, and world. This does not mean one must agree with or condone another’s views, but it does require one to exercise compassion and generosity. To be generous, in this sense, is to meet people where they are at, to assume the best of them, and not to expect or require their affirmation. To cultivate this kind of critical awareness—to make sacred my own sense of Jewishness in the face of the denial of my Jewishness—is very hard to do. However, doing so has given me the wherewithal to be uniquely myself, to define and live out my own Jewishness.

And, I still grapple with rejection or charges of inauthenticity–even now as a rabbinical student. I fear that this will be confirmed by my lack of knowledge or by making a ritual mistake. There have been times when I have backed away from Jewish learning opportunities or communal experiences because of this fear. Part of becoming a rabbi, however, is standing up to this fear and working to quiet it (even if it lingers). I found myself in Judaism and continue to find my place in it. Through the ebb and flow of its liturgical calendar, the language and symbolism of the siddur[6], the singing of niggunim[7], and the interpretation of Torah, I have begun to craft for myself a home in the world. Authenticity, I have learned, is not something that can be conferred or given, but is found in living consciously and purposefully. For me, this means living a Jewish life.

 

[1] A head covering; also known in Yiddish as a yarmulke.

[2] The Sabbath or Shabbat; commences Friday night at sundown and ends Saturday night.

[3] This is a term that is used, usually in Orthodox circles, for someone who becomes religious after living a secular lifestyle; i.e. a “religious returnee.”

[4] Challah is particular type of braided bread that is used ritually to begin meals during Shabbat and other holidays. It is quite addicting and delicious, and it particularly makes a mean French toast!

[5] The “Grace after Meals” is often sung out loud, with accompanying clapping, tapping or banging.

[6] The prayer book.

[7] Wordless melodies that are repeated and serve as musical prayers.

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