I grew up in western Michigan, which was largely populated by Dutch immigrants who all seemed to have perfectly shiny, straight, white blonde hair. It was the total opposite of my frizzy, brown “Jewish” looking hair. Our town had very few Jews living in it, so my family was always in the minority. This was painful for me. I felt different than the other kids, not just because of my hair, but because of my cultural and religious differences. I didn’t eat pork or shellfish. I didn’t celebrate Christian holidays. Even at a young age I somehow sensed that being Jewish in a gentile world was problematic, perhaps, even dangerous.
When I started college, I began to feel a need for a spiritual connection to something Bigger than myself. I tried to find it through studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Philosophy, Yoga, and even nutrition. It was all very interesting and at times touched my heart, but there was still a longing within me for a more meaningful life. I wanted a greater connection to God. The last place I ever thought of turning to was my own religion. Like many non-observant Jews, I thought that being Orthodox was really extreme and quite strange. Judaism was the last place I expected to bring about spiritual enlightenment, but life does not always turn out as we plan.
The path to teshuva was literally shown to me in my own backyard! After college, I moved to an apartment in Queens. Two weeks after I arrived, my upstairs neighbor who was also my landlord, invited me to join his family for lunch in their Sukkah. I was intrigued, so I said yes. As I sat in this beautiful and crowded hut, it was as if I was once again a little girl attending Kindergarten in Israel. My father took a sabbatical year when I was five, and we lived in a small village outside of Tel Aviv. This year in Israel was the happiest time of my childhood. It was carefree, filled with friends from all over the world, a Jewish community, Jewish holidays that were actually national holidays, kosher food, Hebrew, and the invisible magic of Israel. We were proudly and openly Jewish that year.
In the Sukkah, for the first time, I felt that God was not just a man in the sky, but existed within me and my traditions. My family was Zionistic, but never observant. I was experiencing an aspect of Judaism that touched my soul. Being Jewish was more than a prayer book or a visit to a Synagogue a few times a year. It had the power to imbue my everyday life with spirituality, and I wanted more of it.
During that meal, one of the guests stood up and gave a blessing that those of us who had not yet found a soulmate should receive assistance from Hashem to find one. A week later, I had my first date with my now husband. He and I would regularly have Shabbat dinner with my landlord, so he too experienced a rich and beautiful taste of Orthodox Judaism. (We also got a taste of Persian food which helped make it that much more memorable.) Though I lost touch with this family, I often wish that I could let them know what an impact they made on me.
Today we are living an observant Jewish life. First, we pulled our kids out of public schools and I started driving hours each day for them to attended the closest Jewish school. Then we moved to a Jewish community where we are finally surrounded by fellow observant Jews. As we have grown in our commitment, I have grown to realize that being Jewish is something I feel proud of rather than ashamed of.
However, not even a week after the Pittsburgh shooting occurred, I began to doubt this decision. I was with my daughter getting my “Jewish” hair done at an upscale Manhattan hair salon. The woman who washed my hair commented how impressed she was by my daughter. She noted how my daughter was so gracious and polite for a teenager. The woman told me that she sees a lot of teenage girls in the salon, and they don’t act this way. I thanked her and explained that part of her exemplary conduct is due to attending a religious school where kindness is emphasized. She proceeded to ask me if the school was Catholic. At first I hesitated, but because of the shooting, I decided not to change the subject for fear of being judged by my religion. I told her it was not a Catholic school, but a Jewish one. She gave a strange look as she muttered, “Oh,” and promptly walked away.
I was so shaken by this incident, but held myself together for the remainder of the outing. When I got home, I called a friend and broke down crying. I questioned my decision to tell a non-Jew that I was a Jew for fear that revealing it would lead to being judged negatively or even getting attacked. As I talked it over with my friend, I realized that hiding my Jewish heritage only serves to strengthen anti-Semites. I decided not to let this encounter with anti-Semitism victimize me. Instead, I chose to take it as an opportunity to strengthen my commitment to my Faith, to Judaism, and to Israel.