How Judaism Unraveled My Secular Security Blanket
Growing up, my parents often called me Aimelah, and I knew every song from “Fiddler on the Roof” by heart. Matzah was a staple carb in our house, and I stayed home from school on the High Holidays.
I didn’t have much of a religious upbringing, but I’ve always felt Jewish.
A few months ago, I tucked these Jewish pieces of myself, however small and insignificant, neatly into my purse and headed to my first-ever Friday night Shabbat service. I took a seat near the back in an empty pew and looked around the sanctuary – and that’s when it happened. I was suddenly and overwhelmingly struck by emotion.
Vulnerability hit me like a tidal wave, my curiosity transforming into embarrassment at not knowing any of the prayers or songs; I felt an unexpected anger toward my parents for not giving me the opportunity to learn them when I was a child. More than anything, though, I was terrified of the possibility of transcendence.
You see, for the last 20 years I’ve associated the word “God” with irrelevance. I read books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and I’d tell myself that God is just a concept people cling to because they need to make themselves feel better about living in an unjust world. For me, being Jewish was never about God. I thought I was too rational for that.
To find myself sitting in a place of worship, overcome with and overwhelmed by emotion, was shocking, to say the least.
The easiest solution would have been to intellectualize the moment and move on – except that these feelings have stayed with me. In fact, they flood me at surprising and often inopportune times. It’s as if my head and my heart are suddenly at war.
Determined to follow my heart, I’ve continued attending Shabbat services, awkwardly stumbling through transliterations but slowly recognizing and grasping more each week. I’ve also started an Intro to Judaism class, and I attend Torah study every Saturday morning.
Up until now, my whole life revolved around secularism. My husband isn’t religious; my family isn’t religious; my closest friends aren’t religious. As I take these initial steps forward on my journey, I often find myself caught in a spiritual limbo, feeling influenced on a moment-by-moment basis by both sides of my life. Some days, I feel more like the old me: I’ll find myself sitting in Torah study, silently rejecting anything that sounds even remotely irrational. Other days, I let it all in, feeling a deeper connection to the world around me and the beauty of the path forward.
As I begin to adopt more Jewish knowledge and rituals, I’m also mourning for the person I used to be. While I know Judaism is right for me, having faith requires a profound shift in my beliefs and an ability to let go and trust what I will never fully understand. That’s not an easy undertaking for someone with strong roots in atheism, and it’s not something I can do alone.
My biggest fear in walking this path is losing my connection with the people I love. How will Judaism change me? Will it drive a wedge between my loved ones and me? How do I explain my new beliefs and rituals in a way that’s relatable and understandable to those in my life who are not Jewish?
My husband has been my biggest supporter. While he doesn’t feel the same pull toward Judaism, he’s learning the major components with me, and in doing so, he’s developed a deep respect for the religion. Knowing that my partner is on my side gives me strength to keep learning and believing.
A few months ago, I set out on a journey to understand for myself what it means to be Jewish. I didn’t know what to expect at the time, but I certainly didn’t think the path would lead me here. And yet, here I am, compelled to follow it.
Like Alice down a rabbit hole, I am naïve and curious and admittedly a little bit scared. But mostly I’m open – open to the possibilities of wonder and awe and just maybe putting my rational self aside at times so that I can be free to imagine the unimaginable.