Knowing my Roots, and Finding my Wings:
How I Am Learning to Grow Without Leaving Any Part of Myself Behind
Growing up, I would always beam with excitement and pride upon being asked the very popular question of “What do you want to be?”. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a Rabbi, and give to others the inspiration given to me by so many Jewish leaders I have had be apart of my life, and who have given me the tools I have needed to sculpt my identity, and my place within the world. My identity has forever been shaped by my love and dedication to Judaism, and I have always tried to incorporate it into my life in whatever ways I have been able to. Later into my teenage years, later into my search for self and for what I want out of the world, I have struggled with knowing where to draw the line.
I grew up attending very liberal Jewish synagogues. I do not come from an immediate religious family, as my dads side is the Jewish one, and most of my family who practiced traditional Judaism died during the Holocaust. My father acknowledges his Judaism, and even has an arm decorated in beautiful tattoos of my family’s Hebrew birthdates, although he does not practice. I have always spent my free time reading books about the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and I have sat in coffee shops talking for hours with Rabbi’s, looking for any kind of knowledge I could be taught. Every project assigned to me in school was an opportunity for me to try and incorporate a Jewish teaching into, and to try and share with the world something I find so beautiful and full of a contagious love for all of life. My Judaism has always given me a reason to relentlessly look for ways to do good, a reason to love the people around me, and just a meaningful purpose in life.
When I was about fifteen, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I am very happily and gratefully living a healthy life now, but it was a very difficult chapter for me filled with unanswered questions, strained relationships, and a significant amount of pain. During my recovery, I was granted a Make-A-Wish. I knew from the moment I was told that I would be eligible for one, that I wanted to visit Israel. Returning for eleven days to the land my people came from thousands of years ago gave me hope and inspiration for following the path of this passion I have felt so strongly about. I believe Israel and I healed together, as I celebrated turning sixteen, and one year cancer free, at the Western Wall, the holiest site in all of Judaism. Leaving Israel elicited one feeling that consumed me constantly— the yearning to go back to what felt like home to me. I remember one day while traveling around Israel, my family and I were watching the sunset up on a hill, and I saw the sunlight illuminated silhouettes of students sitting in the grass and learning. I pointed them out to my mom, and told her with a heavy heart how badly I wished that could be me. It was a moment we both still talk about today, because those students eventually became me. Little did I know that in about another year, I would receive a scholarship to spend a semester of my junior year there, and have everything I ever thought I knew about who I am challenged.
I lived and breathed Judaism for four months of my junior year. I fell in love with the Hebrew language, studying Jewish History for hours in the early morning, being surrounded by so many opportunities to learn from teachers what I only could learn previously from books, and the way I did not have to repeat my name countless times when I would order coffee. I was understood. I was part of a whole family that shared the values I did. I spent shabbots with an Orthodox family who had a daughter my age. I loved the way they lived, sitting in a circle singing in ancient Hebrew together on Friday nights, and the way everybody within the community could come together in so much love and happiness. During my time with them, I visited a Carlebach Shul and completely fell in love with every aspect of the passionate prayer that would happen there. People would scream out their prayers, dance in circles with children on their shoulders, and all the singing was done in beautiful harmonies. It was a community unlike any I’d ever been exposed to before, and I just wanted to become apart of it.
Because I was not born to a Jewish mother, and Jewish law states that you must either be born to a Jewish mother or convert in order to be a Jew, most traditional Jews would not consider me to be Jewish. My Judaism has always been the biggest aspect of who am, and to hear people deny the biggest part of who I am to me, feels so hurtful I sometimes just break down in tears. There are plenty of Jewish communities that do accept somebody with a background such as mine, but I feel so connected to the spiritual liveliness and am in awe of the ancient ways of Jews who practice a more traditional Judaism. For some time, I believed the right thing for me to do would be undergo an Orthodox conversion, so that my Judaism could not be denied by anybody. However now, after being back in America for a few months and trying to organize the incredibly complicated ball of emotions and passions and everything in-between that compiles my life, I am unsure as to what it is I really want out of the future. The lines of my identity are a little blurred, and I refuse to accept that there is anything wrong with that.
I love to pray in passion belts of Hebrew, I love being physically reminded of who I am every time I look down at my covered knees, and each time I kiss the mezuzah on the door post of my room. But I also love to be around boys. I have a silver nose ring, I want to further study writing, and I want to live the years I have as a teenager to the fullest. I want to stay grounded and connected to my Jewish roots, as they have made me into the person I am today…but I can not live my life in a way predetermined for me, without really knowing who I am yet, and what exactly it is I want. I need to live in a way that lets me be free to have the experiences I feel are important to understanding myself, without feeling as though I am too restricted within a mold of myself that is not actually me.
I have recently been reading The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz, and I came across a line that really resonated with me. The story is about a group of various Jews from different denominations who travel to India in order to discuss religion with the Dalai Lama. Some of the Jews who partake on this journey identified themselves as having “Jewish roots and Buddhist wings”. I am proud to have roots in such a deep, beautiful, ancient culture whose traditions I want to remain alive in my life. I am just figuring out how to honor my roots and keep them a part of my everyday life, without letting them tie me down from finding my wings. Shlomo Gaisin of the band Zusha, explains how his band singing in worldless melodies known as niggunim, a traditional Chasidic practice, is rooted in ancient Judaism, but is also universal in its absence of a language category. He explains that when you have something so special and profound, it is not fair to keep it to yourself, and how you need to find a way to share it with the world. I am also trying to understand how I can express my Jewish identity in a universal way, and in a way that can inspire and touch all people. Maybe one day I will wake up and decide that I want to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Or maybe I will remain where I am right now, not give myself a label, and continue doing what feels right for who I am.
There is a great amount of pressure placed upon our shoulders as teenagers to know who we are, what we want to be, and how we are supposed to get there. In my life I have seen it to be a beautiful thing when young people can crack open their hearts to the world, and be willing to let anything act as an inspiration to finding themselves. Living your life by what you feel pressured to be, by a label of any kind, may not be the way to figuring out who you really are. Just do what feels right for you, and do not allow any kind of title to restrict your search for whatever it is in this world that you may be finding. I am a Jew, but above all, I am a human being whose heart is open to the world.