Saturday, December 02, 2006

Oops; I'm an Orthodox Jew (How I Became Observant) -

I eventually realized that the views that I held could no longer be considered secular. The change was not so dramatic that I could say it occurred overnight, but rather was a growing set of changes that were occurring in the way I thought about things. At a certain point in time, and it’s possible that it could have occurred earlier or later, they culminated into a coherent set of ideas that were not accurately representative of what you would normally call a secular person. At the point in time of that culmination I looked at myself, and although I saw the same person that I had always been, I had realized a new facet to my being, that I was not a secular Jew and could not associate with that identity. That was more or less the realization that I was an Orthodox Jew and that the Orthodox world was the world in which I belonged. It was as if the sum of my parts came together and I understood a more complete picture of whom I actually was. This was in no way a replacement of who I was but rather a certain coming to fruition of my personality and my thoughts; you could definitely consider it a type of maturation. It was a rounding off of the edges, a placing together of disparate pieces of my being into a more coherent picture.

Previous to this, the external manifestation I was going through was expressed as a level of discomfort with certain things around me and often times came with a feeling of not belonging. The discomfort generally applied to social situations, and in this I open up my experience to the criticism of a person who wants to pin my change on social awkwardness. However, it would be more accurate to say that I was frustrated with the nature of the interaction of many of my friends and peers, behaviours that I considered superficial, negative, and to a degree, resembling a power struggle between those very friends. This was not something I felt I wanted to or could be a part of, and so I was always a bit on the outskirts of my relationship with those people.

There are reasons other than philosophical retaliation, if you want to call it that, for my feeling separated from my friends to the degree that I did; the way they thought and behaved was not the only factor. It was clear that my Jewish identity was a part of me, and although it was an obscured identity that often confused me more than it shed light, it was as if it was infused onto my bones and into my blood, and I could not shed it. My ability to realize that I was different in this sense from my friends, all of whom came from Christian families, played a serious role in putting certain obstacles between them and me. The culture in which my parents raised me, although generally not observant, had fostered a deep awareness of our Jewishness. It was only when I was only able to figure out how that piece of myself fit into the whole that I was able to feel comfortable with it and to love it. Until then my Jewishness was a bittersweet concoction of identity that both blessed me and cursed me. In retrospect I can understand how Jews have chosen to assimilate, Jews who were in much more miserable situations than was I (such as those of the Inquisition). I should thank G-d every day that I chose to assimilate in rather than out. My friends were not to blame for my feeling of alienation from them, it was a symptom of my inability to recover from my Jewishness and for the most part they tried to be as accommodating as possible.

During this time, usually on my own, I would read whatever Jewish material I could get my hands on, completely unaware at that point of the existence of differing paradigms of observance of the Torah. I build up a reserve of stories and partially developed understandings of what Judaism was, but for the most part I kept those away from my friends, and even my family. My interest was sparked from these things and I began to be a bit pushy with my family as to some of the Jewish traditions, such as lighting candles on Chanukah in a specific way, etc… For a few years we lit candles on Friday night, and since my knowledge of Jewish ritual didn’t far exceed that, I sought for my family to do whatever we did in the perfect way. During Passover, for example, I insisted that we read the entire Hagadah from front to back and was annoyed when we read through it quickly, as if just to get to the meal. I even recall expressing my anger to my aunt about how many Jews (in America) were almost totally unmotivated to really feel Judaism.

Another relevant factor was my being born in Israel and my family’s deep attachment to our family “back home,” my mom’s side. Our several trips to Israel over the summers provided me with several positive experiences, many of them occurring on the cusps between adolescence and maturity. Among that, the trips also did something deeper, they put me in touch with a sense of who or what I might have been had we not moved to America when I was six years old. My formative years in America were relatively tough; I developed a dual or hybrid identity forcing me to grapple with the question of who I was and Israel was often the potential key to that answer.

As I began college and slowly but surely saw less and less of my high school friends, I began to meet Jews. My Jewish education ended in sixth grade and during the last eight or so years, my only friends were Gentiles. Now that I was suddenly meeting other Jews, whom also loved Israel like I did, I felt that I could really connect with them. Those people are still my friends to this day. Eventually I joined a pro-active Israel action group on campus that two of them began; finally an outlet for my love of Israel and Judaism. As I became aware of the liberal hatred of the State of Israel on campus, I began to question my previously unquestioned politically liberal views, which to me were inseparable from idealism. Painfully, and after some period of time, I realized that I had to give up some, or many, of my liberal preconceptions on the nature of the universe, scrapping the notion that goodness was to be automatically equated with liberalness. Goodness, it seemed, was not fully formed simply in the liberal view of the world, and slowly, slowly I began to form more conservative views, at least with regards to Israel. My growingly conservative views on Israel, which were identified by not being afraid to state politically incorrect truths regarding the hatred towards Israel. I soon realized, after trying to see it in many ways, that this hatred was held together by one thing above all, that Israel was full of Jews.

Rather than shying away from standing up for our rights as Jews in Israel, as many Jews did, I reasoned that we should not feel guilty about stating what was ours. It was neither necessary nor acceptable to stand up for everybody else’s rights except our own; I did not see it as a violation of liberal thought, but rather as an accurate embodiment of it, to stand up for our own rights. Every year Jews got together on the campus mall to recollect the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust by reading their names from a list; why could we not speak out for the Jews dying today, the living Jews, with the same vigour with which we spoke for those who have already perished? I began to fear that had the Jews who did not speak out for their living brothers lived in the time of the Intifada, similarly they would have not spoken out for their brothers in the camps either. I had already begun to seriously question the resolve of many liberal-leaning Jews to actually bettering their situation. I feared that they were stuck in some continuously repeating time portal of guilt and paranoia that caused them to endlessly read the names of Jews murdered in the past. If their commitment to ending injustice towards Jews was so strong, then there were plenty of Jews dying today for whom they could speak, but more often they violated their “Never Again” ethos by remaining silent.

A while later, “by an accident of the universe,” I was sent on a Birthright trip by which I was initially rejected. Michelle Blumberg, executive director of the Hillel at the University of Arizona, put in a call to the Los Angeles-Israeli Consulate explaining to them that I had never been on an organized trip to Israel. After a moment of her being put on hold, they confirmed that I was accepted to the trip. A week and a half later I was on a plane to Israel, and later, in Jerusalem, standing at the Kotel (Western Wall), the culmination written about in the first paragraph occurred. I knew that I believed in G-d, which meant that G-d had designed a way to communicate with humanity, which had to be the Torah, and that Israel was of utmost importance to Judaism, and at that point in time I realized that I was an Orthodox Jew.

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