I was raised in an extreme religious environment that stressed fear and punishment over love and joy. Anti-Semitism was taught as a rebuke from a vengeful God. And it’s followed me everywhere. Because of this negative messaging, my relationship with Judaism was fraught from a young age. By early adulthood, I found myself drifting away. Then one day, I left completely. Trying to find one’s place in today’s confusing world is challenging for anyone. Trying to do so as a young Jewish woman who left her community of origin and entered a secular society filled with hate and anti-Semitism is even more difficult.
I try to hide my Jewish identity by dressing and blending in with the secular lifestyle as much as I can. Somehow, due to a connection to the Holocaust, that I admittedly don’t quite understand myself, I internalized the idea that it’s not safe to be a Jew. So I try to find security in crowds, being as inconspicuous as possible. I falsely convince myself that the less Jewish I look, the better off I’ll be.
I hide behind a façade and reject feelings of belonging or pride that I see other Jews claim. I envy those who are able to wear their Judaism on their sleeves without shame or fear. I wish and long for the ability to own my heritage with the positivity I witness in others. They seem to possess a gratification of the life I crave, yet have been unable to access. My soul yearns to shine its beauty on full display while my heart fears the consequences.
As I go about my daily routine, with my true identity safely tucked away, I receive glimpses, from strangers – Orthodox Jews -who live lives filled with beauty and joy. Through Jew in the City and Makom, I have had many opportunities now to encounter so many of these strangers. Makom lifted the veil of negavitiy I had been carrying around and let me witness a world where true meaning triumphs hate and fear. An existence where people are not dictated by the chaos that surrounds them. I find people who publicly celebrate their Judaism. These strangers kindle a spark of longing and desire in me. They give me hope that I too can access the beauty and joy I possess deep within me, to live as the proud Jew I know I am.
My newfound openness allowed me to experience something extraordinary on a typical fall morning as I was minding my business, riding the subway to work. As the doors swooshed open, a young woman scurried in along with the rest of us battling the morning rush, trying to get to work on time. She was wearing scrubs, like so many others, and dashed through the closing doors, clinging to a pole, iPhone in hand. As my eyes traveled up to her face and I noticed her covered hair, it became clear to me that she was an Orthodox Jewish woman. Her lips were moving to the rhythm of her eyes pacing the page on her phone and I realized she was reciting the morning prayers. I was mesmerized, frozen in the beauty of her presence.
After a couple of seconds, it occurred to me that I was staring, but I could not take my eyes off her. She was just like everyone else, rushing to work on a typical morning. But unlike most of us she possessed something special, something unique and scarce. She was connected to something larger and bigger than the ordinary day to day life. A deep longing tugged at the strings of my heart, filling me with a desire for something deep and meaningful. I was surprised and confused by the intensity of my response. My entire body was riveted to the light and energy this woman was emoting. I soon recognized this emotion of my soul yearning, connecting to its essence, longing to be relieved of its barriers and live the rich life this woman owns. The subway reached my stop and I reluctantly got up to leave. I couldn’t help but glance back at this woman as the train pulled away. I stood still for a moment and let the feelings sink in, satiating my entire body. A smile slowly graced my face as I turn to leave to tackle my day. This woman reignited my Jewish flame, reminding me the beauty of being Jewish.
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