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I AM JEWISH ESSAY (Read October 2007 to a Congregation on Yom Kippur)
Just like Daniel Pearl in his last words, “I am Jewish,” My mother and father are both Jewish as well. Of course, when the rabbi asked me to share my journey and thoughts about my Jewish identity with Daniel Pearl’s last words in mind, I was worried as to how my story could compare to those before me…But here it goes…
I think we considered ourselves Reform Jews, but I am not sure exactly what that meant at the time. My parents were founders of our Temple, which met at the Ramada Inn before we had a building. Although I can’t remember those days at the Ramada, I always had a sense of how important it must have been to them to have a Jewish place.
Since I was little, I can remember the tastes, smells and sounds of the different holidays- that was really my “being Jewish”. I mostly remember my Nana’s foods…(now so vivid in my memory as it is the first year without her) yelling at the matzo balls for being sinkers, hocking the fresh pike for the gefilte fish in her wooden bowl and the lingering smell of potato latkes three days into Chanukah. I also remember how my mom changed over the kitchen for Passover with tin foil everywhere and how on Yom Kippur we couldn’t put lights on or watch TV. We had rules and structure and it made me feel safe.
Once I got involved in the Temple myself, it became a big part of my life. I was that kid who loved Hebrew school. I think a big part of that was that I didn’t go to the same school as all of my Jewish friends. Along with many other things like holiday customs and how to read Hebrew, it was at Temple that I learned how to sing. I don’t think I can adequately describe the impact of finding that talent but I’ll try.
I was not one of those kids who was great at school, or remotely coordinated enough to do sports. Basically, singing was really all I could do well. And the temple was the one place I could do it all the time. People would come up to me and compliment me on a solo or Torah reading and I always felt awkward saying thank you. After all, I felt it was my obligation to share and it also gave me such pleasure to do, that it seemed selfish to accept praise.
The best part was that the Cantor and the Education Director saw this fire inside me and taught me everything they could…the one about Jewish music through choir, chanting Torah and the other texts and the other by inviting me to become a student teacher. I can attribute my strong self esteem and passion for Judaism to being involved at my Temple because there I was able to be myself.
Throughout High school, college and young adulthood I carried these talents with me and used them anywhere I could- filling in for the Cantor when he was on sabbatical, during color war at Camp Harlam, in my sorority, and later as I began my part-time Jewish education career.
At this point, a new goal lay ahead of me: to find that older, handsome, smart, taller, nice- Jewish boy to share my life with. Only it didn’t happen. I looked everywhere. I was lonely and confused. No one “fit” at all into who I was not just as a Jew, but as a person and my mother will tell you!
So, for a while, I blamed myself. I threw myself into work in the retail business and was completely unfulfilled. And bored. You can imagine how hard it was to integrate my love for singing and teaching into retail. But I tried! And I continued to teach at Hebrew School part time, and joined a Jewish Choir.
At a turning point, I decided to change my life completely (back to where I belonged in the first place probably) and entered the Jewish Theological Seminary to study for my masters in Jewish Education. My singing came back. My sense of belonging came back. And, my sense of purpose came back as well. My friends at JTS called me “Batyah” instead of “Beth” and I loved it. I felt like I was reborn. With that, I knew that I needed to spend my life’s work as a Jewish role model and educator. I thrived at JTS just as I had at the Temple where I grew up. Yet something was still missing.
So, I tried different denominations: from conservadox to reconstructionist, which was more difficult for my family than it was for me. For me I needed to try to things before I decided I didn’t like it. All of this exploration had one great perk, I became the “Jew” of the family…the ultimate resource. Still alone, I was getting older, more discouraged and further away from having my own family as a result.
Finally, I went onto JDate and dated everyone I could within a 30 mile radius. Oh the stories I could tell about the men I met through JDate! In a nutshell, I dated an orthodox guy who didn’t want me to read Torah, a conservative guy who used drugs on Shabbat because it made him relax, and a reform guy who thought that being kosher was too much of a burden. Because of my varied experiences I had created by own guidelines for meaningful Jewish practice and none of these men were a “good fit.” Though I was losing hope, I still made it a priority to keep looking.
3 ½ years ago on my first (believe it or not) trip to Israel, I prayed at the WALL to find that person. During the trip, I found myself as happy as ever, sharing the real me with the people on my trip and soaking in all I could about Israel and ways to be Jewish. Israel was so new and different. I prayed and prayed on my own…somewhat celebrating my independence and my choices along with my birthdays (on both the Jewish and Gregorian calendars). Even Israel didn’t distract me from the sense that I was getting older, still missing that one person.
That summer I met Dave. Yea, not the “picture” I had painted for myself at twelve. He was younger and Christian, not to mention that when we met he was in school and between jobs! You can imagine how my parents were thrilled! Oy!
But, he made me feel perfect. He easily went along with my Shabbat schedule…not being able to “go out” Friday nights till sundown on Saturday night, keeping kosher with my different dishes, and all the holidays. I didn’t have to be anything else for him. I could be my kind of Jewish. Once I knew I was in love with him, I struggled with the questions and obstacles. Over time, they were all answered and overcome. And I found that “being with my own kind” did not necessarily mean with another Jew. Sure, I was in a state of disbelief at first, but ultimately knew he was my soul mate even though he was not Jewish.
Now, we live a Jewish life together and as you can imagine he is getting a fabulous Jewish education. My family, who were tearful thinking “the grandchildren” would not be Jewish, have come to know him and love him as I do. (In fact, sometimes I think they prefer him to me). Dave understands how important it is for me to express myself Jewishly and how important being Jewish is to my family. He understands how important it is for me to raise our Jewish child in a Jewish home. He has made all my dreams come true. I prayed all my life and even at “the wall” for this life. Having found such a loving and supportive life partner is how I know God exists.