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How My Hunger for History Helped Me Reclaim My Judaism

I'm craving ice cream for the first time in my life. Normally, I'm more of a starchy carbohydrate kind of person, preferring home fries or toasted sourdough bread with olive oil. But today, knowing I can't have dessert, I really want it. My stomach's not even hungry, but my mind wants food. For the first time ever, I am fasting. It's Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Throughout my childhood, I ignored the traditions of my religion. I wasn't interested in Hebrew school and never had a Bat Mitzvah. I went to synagogue only when my dad and step-mom made me go; it was an obligation. The services and rituals didn't mean anything to me. I went once on my own in college, to a Conservative temple and found the rituals even more foreign to me than the Reform temple I had visited. Though I always enjoyed Passover seders, Rosh Hashanah dinners, and other holidays that involved food, I never embraced the fact that I was a Jew. In fact, even through my early adulthood, though I appreciated learning about Holocaust history, I was more interested in the history of other cultures than in my own. Growing up, my mother never forced Jewish education on me; I remember her simply saying, "Someday, when you're older, maybe you'll want to know more about your religion."

My interest started at age thirty-two while reading The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. I became fascinated with the story of Abraham and his children, which, I am embarrassed to admit, I never knew. I was transported to another time, enveloped in their lifestyle, their traditions, their beliefs. Reading the book filled me with questions about how and where monotheism and Judaism really began, who exactly was considered Jewish back in those times and who wasn't, how some Jews morphed into Christians, and what caused close geographic neighbors and historically connected lineages to become three distinct religions so opposed to one another's existence.

My desire for answers and information seemed endless. Asking people who I thought would know, such as my synagogue-going relatives and Bat and Bar Mitvahed friends, yielded nothing.

To quench my thirst for historical knowledge, I read the beginning of Genesis to try to distinguish which parts of The Red Tent were "fiction" and "nonfiction." I read children's books on the heroes of Jewish history, which I had just happened to snatch from my childhood bookshelf last time I visited home. I read a book of Jewish short stories given to me by a high school teacher, re-read my dog-eared copy of What Is a Jew? (by Rabbi Morris Kertzer), usually only referred to on holidays. I noticed and immediately purchased the book Abraham (by Bruce Feiler) at a college town bookstore and devoured it in a week while on vacation. I skimmed through my college textbooks on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ with an academic eye. When visiting the Caribbean island of St. Thomas for an afternoon, en route to St. John, I insisted we visit a synagogue in Charlotte--Amalie--the second oldest in the Western hemisphere, its floors covered with sand as a testament to the days when Jews had to muffle the sound of their praying during the Crusades.

Really, I concluded, the history of my people is just as interesting as the history of many other groups of Americans to whom I have always been drawn--the colonists, African-Americans who were brought over as slaves, people of the Civil War and reconstruction eras, and mountain people of the Southern Appalachians, though their histories all fit into a complex puzzle that helps piece together various aspects of life today. Always intrigued by how history shapes current society and events, I now recognize how essential it is to understand the origins of monotheism and the three major religions to understanding this post-September 11 world.

Maybe it's because I live in one of the epicenters of terrorism (the Washington, DC area); maybe it's the fact that I'm now in my thirties and I've finally broken free of the familial obligations associated with my religion; maybe it's because I have never stopped asking questions about what came before me. I don't know, but I have finally realized the importance of embracing my Judaism. I am awed knowing I am part of an ancient tribe that has been practicing and worshipping the same way for thousands of years, and that, despite all odds, we have survived and flourished and passed on certain key values from generation to generation, such as love of family, the respectability of hard work and education, and the importance of charity and philanthropy. I realize that our fulfillment of traditions and outward expressions of our unique culture is the only way to propagate what sometimes feels like a sinking ship in this mostly Christian nation and mostly Christian and Islamic world.

So this year, in solidarity with other Jews around the world and throughout history, I decided that the least I could do--even though I am not a member of a synagogue, I married a non-Jew, and we don't plan to have children--was to fast on Yom Kippur. With my husband's support (he is also shunning the gallon of Edy's vanilla ice cream in our freezer until sunset and eating meals clandestinely in an upstairs room), I am taking one small step to keep the flame--and history--alive.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld's essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013. She is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. Her first book will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014. www.sueeisenfeld.com.

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