My mother married a Quaker and moved to a small Lutheran town, yet I grew up a Jew. How did I learn that nothing touches my Jewishness, my core? I come from a mixing, from my mother's yearning towards someone outside the tribe. All along my parents declared that I could choose my religion. At Christmas we hung paper snowflakes on the tree, and I played carols on my flute. I learned that Quakers helped to liberate the slaves, and I watched my father and mother sit in silence at monthly meetings for worship.
Still, I knew in flashes that my mother's Jewishness was primary, delicious, and defiant. Her chief pleasures, language and food, became enchanting when they were Jewish. "Bubbeleh," she called me, and she rhapsodized about lox, babka, whitefish, and kremslach, the tiny sugary pancakes I could eat all night. When we walked into my grandparents' house in Los Angeles, I heard my mother's voice get more plaintive and more passionate. There, Jewishness seemed imprinted on the ancient yellow carpet, the stacks of newspapers, and the way my grandfather announced "All out, Bronx, New York!" when he parked the car. I sat in on debates of politics, literature, and family gossip, absorbing the culture of intellectual New York Jews.
My mother sent me to Sunday school from third to eighth grade to learn Hebrew, biblical stories, Israeli history and "Jewish identity." As I read my mother's history of the Diaspora, The Romance of a People, I began to imagine Jews keeping faith through centuries in hostile nations. I consumed children's novels of the Holocaust, imagining myself crouched in a cupboard in the Warsaw ghetto. Poems by my great-grandmother eulogized cousins who had been killed, and I understood that we in America were alive to write the poems. This was my history: grief too immense to feel, and survival.
On Friday nights, my mother, sister and I held our own services. A family friend baked challah with fat yellow raisins. I ate almost a whole loaf of the soft, rich bread; this was home. My mother's voice was tight, almost too reverent, as she placed her hand on our heads and read, "God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah."
I am not a poster child Jew who can allay all fears about assimilation. I am still not bat mitzvahed, and from the time I started exploring spirituality I have visited meditation groups, black churches, and pagan gatherings. I still attend Quaker Meeting with my father once or twice a year. Yet over the last decade I have gone to shul (synagogue) more regularly than anyone in my family since my great-great-grandfather, the rabbi.
I sometimes felt like an outsider in my college Jewish community. At a lecture on "The Intermarriage Crisis," I had to raise my hand to protest, "I am not a crisis!" The coordinators offered me the paid job of cleaning up after the Friday meal, the age-old position of the Shabbos goy . Still, with the encouragement of one highly involved friend, I returned week after week for four years, lingering in the sanctuary with the candles after dinner. I learned to lead services, singing out the first haunting lines of the Kaddish and waiting for the group's response.
"What does it mean to be Jewish, and how Jewish are you?" The questions have an added urgency for me--I can't take Jewishness for granted. Yet don't all minorities feel both a pull to their roots and a pull to explore the larger culture? Should purity be a Jewish goal? The root of the word "Israel" means "to wrestle with God," and studying Torah means reveling in the arguments of midrash. To me, this is the beauty of Judaism: questioning itself becomes an act of devotion.
This year I have fallen in love with a synagogue. Joy rises like a cloud of bees as a hundred people sing "Lecha Dodi," welcoming the Sabbath bride. I squeeze out of my row to weave through the room, Israeli dance-stepping, clapping, and holding hands. Grandparents, hip youngsters, middle-aged professionals, and a few non-Jews--we have chosen with open hearts to be exactly here.
I hike up a dry streambed under redwoods with a friend from temple. We sit on a rock and begin to sing, "Eli, Eli she lo yigamer l'olam..." (Oh Lord, my God, I pray that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayers of the heart.) We are praising the universe, and yet the words come in this thick, ancient tongue that is somehow specifically mine. A Jewish, human longing runs in my veins.