I am a Jew by choice.
And before you ask - both my parents are Jewish. One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandfather, sheltered by his tallit, as he gave the benediction to his congregation on Rosh HaShanah. We celebrated the major Jewish holidays – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach, anything else being an esoteric holdover of a bygone age – mainly with a meal. Occasionally, we even made it to synagogue.
I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Sunday and Hebrew school, bat mitzvah and confirmation class. I was dropped off and sent inside while my parents had a quiet Sunday morning, or a free hour or two on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late afternoon. I sat, every Saturday morning for almost a year, reading ancient Hebrew and what seemed like even more ancient English, littered with “thees” and “thous” and flowery beyond belief, alone among a handful of old men, as required by the dictates of my upcoming bat mitzvah. Alone, because my parents had other things to do.
I devoured religious school. I felt as if I had found the place where I belonged, had always belonged, a familiar and sheltering home, as we navigated through Jewish history and holidays. I ran through all the primers for Hebrew that our rabbi could throw at me, such that by the time my family switched synagogues, I was a year ahead of the rest of the kids in my secular school grade. And it wasn’t just schooling: There was youth group and music, too. Debbie Friedman’s (z”l) songs were fresh and new and grabbed something inside us, got our hands clapping and hearts soaring. We sang a new song to God, and we did it with joy.
When I became a bat mitzvah (although, when I became a bat mitzvah, we still had a bat mitzvah; there was none of this “becoming” stuff), – from the bima I gave a bat mitzvah speech that I declared my parents to be “Lox and Bagel Jews,” people who ate their way through Jewish culture, but who, when push came to shove, really felt more comfortable on the golf course than the sanctuary floor on a Saturday morning. I further declared that I would never be like them (remember, I was a teenager). Most importantly, I declared my intention and desire to become a rabbi.
All of my fervent declarations were met with a hearty chuckle, most especially from my parents. Although they were willing to play along with my more participatory adventures in Judaism, they drew the line at the rabbinate. “That’s really not a job for a nice Jewish girl,” they told me. Funny thing, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a girl – after all, we were living in the modern world of 1974, and women could do anything (sort of). No, they didn’t think the calling appropriate because they figured I’d never make enough money by praying professionally.
Like most teenagers, I was adamant, intractable, supercilious and superior. At 13, I knew the answers to life, the universe and everything.
By 15, though, I knew there was no God and that religion – specifically Judaism – was nonsense. I refused to participate because I refused to be a hypocrite. Of course, I still took off from school, and later, work, for all the major Jewish holidays, and I ate all the major Jewish meals at their appointed times, each in its season. A girl has to eat, right?
From then until my early forties, I was a Jew by birth, and that was about it. I did not disavow my Judaism and I did not seek other religious option, though I flirted with alcohol as an emergency spiritual plan and then with a kind of universal (not to be confused with Universalist) just-be-a-good-person, peace-and-love kind of amorphous spirituality that had no form – and certainly no God. It was easier for me to be disconnected and contemptuous, and so I was.
Somewhere along my way, something happened, something changed. Getting sober helped. Getting married certainly didn’t hurt. Having a child pushed me over the edge, turned my contempt into something quite like hope. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon a grace note of faith.
And now? Now I am a Jew by choice. Every day – let me repeat that: every day – I choose to be a Jew. I choose to engage and connect and participate and act and worship and pray as a Jew. It is a conscious act, like the King who says to Scheherazade: “Good story. I guess I won’t kill you today. Maybe tomorrow.” Some days, I am the King; some, Scheherazade. I must both act and choose. With that, I find a measure of peace, a sense of wonder, the joy of obligation and the freedom of service.
I still like riotous, raucous, chaotic family meals to celebrate the holidays, but there is so much more, for me, to being Jewish: It is family tradition and ritual, faith and intent. It is cultural and religious and social. It is how I live my life as an individual and as a member of a community. It is family meals and silent prayer. It is difficult and simple and resonates within me and fills me with light.
I am a Jew because I act. I am a Jew because I choose.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. This post originally appeared on her blog, Stumbling towards meaning: Stacey’s Blog.
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