My Choice, My Journey

By Arlene Sarah Chernow


As I get up to speak about choosing Judaism, I can see the puzzled look across the sanctuary. Is she Jewish? She looks Jewish. Brown curly hair, large brown eyes, that sort of Eastern European look. Then, I speak, and it is evident that I know the journey of the stranger well, too well for someone who was born Jewish. I know what it feels like to be the one at High Holy Days who does not know when to stand. I know what it feels like to need a tape at the Shabbat, or Sabbath, table so that my children will not be aware that I do not know the blessings. I know what it feels like to be in the sanctuary asking myself, “When will it be mine? When will I no longer feel like a stranger?” I know what it feels like for the family of the man I love to consider me an outsider, and to feel a profound disappointment that they cannot hide. Most importantly, I remember every little step along the way as I began to feel more Jewish. I remember profoundly the moment when there was no longer a question in my mind–when I felt that I was really Jewish, once and for all. Back to the basic question, the whisper in the sanctuary: Is she Jewish? The answer is yes. The answer is no.

My parents were warm, loving people with strong values. They came from England and Germany in the 1930s. They were so far to the left politically that religion, any religion, was considered both a barrier to world peace and a personal crutch. Their experiences in the synagogues of their childhood were almost entirely negative, due partly to the relative poverty of their families, the rigidity of the old men who were their teachers, and the fact that while in primary school they were sent out of the room while the other students received religious instruction. My mother grieved her entire life for aunts, uncles and cousins lost in the Holocaust. So, was it any wonder that they chose to express their values through marches for racial equality and against the nuclear arms race? There was always the question of Christmas: “Wasn’t it an American holiday?” our neighbors asked. No, if we weren’t going to celebrate our own holiday, we certainly weren’t going to do anybody else’s either. There were occasional attempts to create a Workman’s Circle Kinder Shul, or children’s school, but we lived in a neighborhood that was never large enough to support a branch.

College Years
I went off to college to change the world and fell in love with a man I met through political activities. He shared all of my values, and it seemed so odd, because he was Jewish. Positively Jewish. That was not a barrier because, after all, I was Jewish too, or was I? There was no question, we would have the wedding of my dreams, beautiful wedding dress, family, friends, dinner, music, and oh yes, it would be Jewish. We picked a temple because it had our chosen wedding date available. The only awkward moment came when the rabbi asked me about my Jewish name, and I told him that I did not have one. We used my middle name, which was my grandmother’s name, Sarah, during the ceremony.

The differences between my husband and me became apparent as our parents tried to become friends. My mother-in-law, recently widowed, kept kosher. My parents loved bacon. She invited them to a concert by Mickey Katz, but they preferred music on the Pacifica (extremely liberal) radio station. She loved to talk about her life in Poland, and they tried to put their past memories behind them.

In 1968, as a young, sensitive bride, I could not understand why my mother-in-law was so disappointed with my Jewishness. I was Jewish enough for Eli and I was Jewish enough for the rabbi. An attack on my family seemed like an attack on me. In retrospect, her frustrations were based on the fact that at that time I was Jewish only biologically, certainly not spiritually.

As a Family
In 1976, our daughter Mari attended a Jewish nursery school, which was the best nursery school in the neighborhood. I remember watching Mari sing Ha-Motzi, the blessing before eating, and wondering if the school would be too religious for our family. Soon, I was the Shabbat Mom. (Each Friday morning, one parent brought challah and flowers, and participated with the class in the blessings before lunch.) Mari came home from nursery school imbued with Jewish stories and songs, making me wonder if maybe there was more to this being Jewish than I had realized. The next time I was Shabbat Mom, I invited my husband to join me. He was charmed and said the fateful sentence that set our family life on its current path: “If they are doing this in her school, we should do it at home to support Mari.” The next Friday we had a tablecloth, Shabbat candles, muddled blessings, chicken, and flowers.

This blissful state remained as long as Shabbat and Family Services were contained within our Reform temple and our house. But soon I realized that I would have to share with my parents our new, profoundly Jewish, lifestyle. Although being Jewish reflected all of the values they had taught me, and observing Shabbat provided a closeness and ritual that my family wanted, I also knew that sharing these changes would hurt my parents deeply. It did.

I knew that it would also hurt me to face the triumph and vindication that I would encounter from my mother-in-law when she learned that we were becoming more observant. Therefore, I realized that I needed to hide my choice from her until it was comfortably mine. I always put the Shabbat candlesticks away early on Saturday morning, to avoid discovery during a surprise visit. If I ever forgot to put the candlesticks away on Saturday before I left the house, I would find a pay phone, call Eli, and tell him to hide them. He thought that this was strange, but I knew that if the Judaism was not truly mine, then it could be contaminated by her sense of victory. I wanted the Judaism in my life so much that I could not take this risk. We lit Shabbat candles for close to two years before I “came out” to my mother-in-law.

As we began to celebrate Shabbat, much of the Shabbat Service was new and confusing to me, and I was jealous of the people who were familiar with the ritual. Would I ever feel as if it had always been a part of my life? Instinctively, I understood the music, and it became a comfortable transition vehicle in the service. And yet for a long time, part of me felt like a fraud, an imposter.

One by one, I learned the blessings, and Shabbat observance grew in importance within our family. I also learned about the Jewish holidays. Soon our life revolved around the Jewish calendar. I agreed to teach others about Jewish holidays because it forced me to learn. And yet that nagging feeling of being a visitor remained.

Would I ever have Jewish memories? The melodies helped. Within two or three years of celebrating Hanukkah and Passover, the melodies began to create a sense of nostalgia. Each time I became more comfortable with a new prayer, I felt a sense of growing comfort in the temple.

While 99 percent of my Jewish experiences are positive, it took a war for my choice to be crystallized. I remember the moment that I no longer had to wonder if I was Jewish. It was during the scud missile attack on Israel in the Gulf War. For me, it was as if the missiles were aimed at my block. It was a moment of total identification. It was me, it was my house, my children that were being bombed. There were no longer any questions. Now I know it: I am Jewish.


About Arlene Sarah Chernow

Arlene Sarah Chernow is the Regional Director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism (the Reform Movement), based in Los Angeles, Calif.