wrestling with judaism

I have a very complicated relationship with Judaism. Much of it has to do with the religious and spiritual experiences of my parents, both before and after I was born. Much of it has to do with the continuous feeling that I never was “Jewish enough.”

I did have a Bat Mitzvah. I loved my Bat Mitzvah. It was spiritual and communal and I felt powerful singing Torah and reading Hebrew and interpreting Torah and reading my own poetry aloud to loved ones.

But my home soon became one of Hindu practice, travels to India, and ashram ritual. By high school I was actively pushing Judaism away, much because by junior year I was so busy trying to fight racism. Claiming my Jewish identity did not feel relevant. It felt somehow selfish. I had heard so many of my white peers say they had no responsibility to engage in combating racism because they were Jews and their ancestors had been brutally oppressed and they didn’t have slaves and so it wasn’t their problem. I associated my generation of Jews with denial of other injustices (of course this is not true of all Jews of my generation, but this was my experience. I am also well aware that not all Jews are white, and this is a gross generalization made that renders invisible so many Jews across the world. However, the Jews I encountered going to public school in Western Massachusetts were of European ancestry).

When I arrived at college I felt lonely and lost. I craved community, and I craved the spiritual life that I had experienced at home with my parents. But I wanted to explore something that wasn’t theirs. In my strange case, that meant exploring where I actually came from.

So I approached one of the rabbis at my school. Who, thank goddess, turned out to be none other than Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She eased me into the process of getting over my terror of all things Jewish, and allowing myself to dip my toes in. She shared poetry with me. I began attending Shabbat services, and she helped me understand the flow of the service. When I was outraged by the male-pronoun-filled prayers, we talked it through over tea. Rabbi Ruttenberg was the first person to  make me feel okay about being Jewish since my Bat Mitzvah. To make  me want to be Jewish. To make me feel deeply rooted in being a woman and being Jewish.

That school wasn’t a good fit and I left. Rabbi Ruttenberg moved away soon after. My connection to Judaism lost it’s priority in my life, and I spent a while exploring Buddhism. I attended a five-day mediation retreat at one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries and began meditating in that practice. When that didn’t feel quite right, I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and A New Earth and I felt deep truth there. I started following his exercises in my daily practice. But as always life crept in and that didn’t stick either.

This past summer I moved to a new town, near where I grew up but far enough away to feel fresh. And like other times since leaving for college, I yet again felt drawn to exploring my Jewish roots. It felt like the worst time to be claiming my Jewish identity. It was August 2014, violence was terrible in Israel and Palestine, and many of my activist friends were posting on facebook “viva palestina.” I was very aware that the Hebrew language is one that elicits fear for many people throughout the world. I was very aware of the timing. On August 19th I wrote in my journal, “I can’t believe how many times I have felt pushed away by Judaism, and yet I keep trying. Something keeps calling me back. Is it my ancestors? Wanting to connect to them? Is it my deep-down belief in God and spirit and desire to live a life of prayer and depth? I couldn’t believe I arrived at a Shabbat service last Friday that felt so much like home, that made me tear up with beauty and resonance. I need my ancestors to heal. I need prayer to heal. But what a strange time to embrace Judaism, with the terror that Israel is inflicting on Palestine. Or is it the best time? Because I was always Jewish, whether I wanted to be or not. whether I acknowledged it or not. And by embracing it and seeing what it really means, maybe I am getting closer to my truth.”

The next day, on August 20th, I wrote, “When I saw the Rabbi I felt this rush of joy all through my body. She began singing and I knew the words. I guess I remember more Hebrew than I had thought I did. I felt safe to be in my body. I felt safe to cry and sing at the same time. I felt safe to believe in God even though I have no idea what that means. Many survivors of sexual assault abandon their faith because how could there be a God that would let such a thing happen? I guess I never saw God as controlling or “making things happen.” And I still don’t. So that hasn’t exactly been my experience. What I do know is that something about connecting to my ancestors and to my lineage and exploring what believing in God might mean feels very central to my healing process. I don’t know why. This feels like the worst of times to be embracing Judaism with the terrible escalated violence in Israel and Palestine. And yet, judging other Jews for denying their white privilege—isn’t that the same as me denying my own Judaism, which often now, and certainly in the context of a Jewish State, is a privilege?”

That wonderful Rabbi who brought me such joy was none other than Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, who of course turns out to know Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Sometimes miracles do seem real?? I began attending services regularly at this local reform synagogue, and connecting deeply with Rabbi Riqi.

I still struggle with what it means to be connecting so strongly to Judaism now, while still being fiercely committed to justice for Palestinians and so strongly against what the government of Israel is doing. I will continue to wrestle with this.

But I am also wrestling with Judaism itself. Last week I had a very difficult time studying the Torah portion about the rape of Dinah. I needed a way to understand the story that didn’t make me feel so small. I met with Rabbi Riqi and she introduced me to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Since then I have been reading this version of the Torah at home and finding joy in women discussing the women of the Torah.

Back on August 19th I also wrote “Suddenly I want to write about God. I want to read Torah. I want to talk to my grandmother so badly I pretend my cat is my grandmother and ask the silent room all of my questions. I want to re-learn Hebrew. I want to feel a mystical element in as many moments of my day as possible.” I am feeling more mysticism in my days. I am feeling more connected to my grandmother. I wish she was here with us, but I still talk to her. I still don’t know what all of this means. What I do know is that I feel guided by something inside me, not what my brain tells me is right and wrong. I am being conscious, but I am also feeling pulled in a good way.

The search for home and justice is very confusing.

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