Taking the First Step: Getting into a Groove with Our Intro. to Judaism Class

By Julie Slotnik Sturm


In her monthly column, “Taking the First Step,” Julie Slotnik, a Jewish woman, writes about her experiences in the Introduction to Judaism class she is taking with her Lutheran boyfriend.

The third class of Introduction to Judaism was last night and we’re getting into a groove. There is a lot of reading required between sessions and we manage to do most of it. We take turns reading out loud to each other, but usually I end up doing most of it. Even though Marc, who is French, is fluent in English, after a long day at work, ten pages in Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures doesn’t just roll off the tip of his tongue. It’s got to be hard, a lot of the words he’s reading and learning are so far from his native French. Figuring out expressions and complicated words in English is one thing, but Yiddish and Hebrew are a whole other ballgame.

I’ve noticed a change in Marc after just a couple of classes. He has simultaneously removed himself from and immersed himself in the course, resulting in a more positive, involved attitude. How does that equation work? Well, he’s removed himself from getting overly concerned about other people’s situations and hung up on whether he agrees with their opinions or not. Instead, he’s looking more inward and focusing on what he and we can get out of the class. Now, he’s more at ease, engaged and open to learning, which is a relief because a small part of me was worried that I would feel like the Jewish girlfriend “dragging” my non-Jewish boyfriend to this class. But I don’t, and I’m free to have my own experience, not just be his “host.” I get to be a student, too.

Our teacher Robert is a fifth year rabbinical student and has introduced the concepts of mitzvah, or commandment, and minhag or Jewish custom. This was both a new and old concept for me and definitely a new one for Marc. I’d never heard of minhag, and I always thought mitzvah meant good deed or charity. Almost 20 years after my own Bat Mitzvah, I learn that it also means “commandment.” The way the teacher explains it makes sense: giving tzedakkah (charity) is a mitzvah, but wearing a yarmulke is a minhag.

Marc has latched onto these words and references them when we do our reading at home. He’ll say, “wait, lighting the candles on the Sabbath, that’s mitzvah or minhag?” It’s kind of a game for him. It’s funny to hear him say mitzvah in a sentence. I remember learning the word for the first time in Sunday School. I was young, maybe seven or eight, and I came home very proud to know this word. For awhile, everything in our house was, “mitzvah this and mitzvah that”. After dinner my father would say, “Julie, clear your plate, it’s a mitzvah.” Not quite a full-fledged good deed, and certainly not a commandment, but at least it was part of the dialogue.

I feel like taking this class is a mitzvah. We are doing a good deed to ourselves and our future.


About Julie Slotnik Sturm

Julie Slotnik Sturm is a freelance writer and producer in New York. She has been part of an interfaith relationship for over four years.