Seeking middle ground

Given that I moved to the “Holy City” in the “Holy Land”, it should come as no surprise that I have been thinking (and talking) a lot about religion here in Israel. While Judaism has always been important to me, my level of observance and connection to the Jewish community changed quite a bit throughout my 23 years. I come from an “Observant Conservative” home where Shabbat, Jewish holidays and halacha (law) were observed, talked about, taught and valued; nevertheless, I think because I was always in public school and mainly had non-Jewish friends, my summers at Camp Ramah felt like the only times where I was really living a 24/7 “Jewish Life”.

Once I moved out of my parents home, first to college and then to Washington DC, how I lived as a Jew was entirely up to me. My level of observance and connection to the Jewish community ebbed and flowed. Throughout this tumult, I continuously made the decision to forgo finding a summer internship or embarking on some seemingly worthwhile summer travel experience to return to Ramah, because I kept feeling the need to spend a few months living a full-time Jewish life.

Last year in DC, I found myself facing a constant mental block against going to services or being involved in Judaism as I had lived it for the past 22 years. No place and no practice felt quite right, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing nothing, either. I knew my Ramah career was over (boo, full-time job), which meant that I felt like I was looking in to an abyss devoid of connection to a religion and religious community that I love. My life felt empty without Judaism, my weeks felt rhythmless without Shabbat, and my year felt interminable without camp to look forward to in the summer; I knew I needed to make a change and find a way to reincorporate Judaism in my life. I want to find how to live Jewishly, 24/7, 365 days a year, until I make it to 120. What better place to learn than the center, both literally and figuratively, of the Jewish world?

Operation Jewify is, I am pleased to report, so far a success. Keeping Shabbat feels natural and peaceful, I have found a place and a community where I love to pray, and everywhere I turn I see something or someone that makes me think about and question being Jewish and living Jewish. And as those who know me can attest, I love asking questions.

One of the questions that has been occupying the forefront of my mind so far is the question of signaling yourself as a Jew in a Jewish country. In the US, especially amongst my mainly non-Jewish friends, I am considered a pretty observant Jew. But here in Israel, I often feel like people take one look at me and put me on one side of a secular-religious dichotomy that seems to exist, and they do it solely based on what I am wearing.

One day, I happened to wear a floor length black dress and a cardigan to work; when I went to buy a sandwich for lunch, the man at the sandwich shop handed me my change and said “Netilat Yadaim (hand washing) is over there.” I stared at him blankly for about 20 seconds to figure out why this man was trying to telling me about where to ritually wash my hands, before realizing that my dress and sweater made me look like someone who would be concerned about where to do my ritual wash before eating my sandwich. I thanked him and walked straight to a table to start eating, feeling kind of badass.

Most of the time, though, I walk around in jeans. And that seems to automatically make people read me as “secular”, which in Israel I feel often comes with a connotation of actively disengaging from Judaism or feeling resentful of the public observance of Jewish laws and customs (eg. no bus service on Shabbat, grocery stores closing early Friday afternoon, etc). I don’t do netilat yadaim nor do I even say HaMotzi (the blessing over bread) before every meal, but I also definitely do not consider myself secular, jeans or no jeans. As I explained above, I love being Jewish and doing Jewish, I think Jewish laws and holidays are important and I find great significance in observing them, and I actively try to learn more about religion every day. My decision about how to dress myself in a way that I deem modest (and, in fact, the decision to attempt to dress in a way I consider modest) stems from an intense personal debate I have had with myself over the course of many years. I find it fascinating, therefore, to live in a society where often I feel that if I wear a skirt people assume I “am religious” and if I wear pants, I “am secular”.

This initial level of religious determination does not even scratch the surface of religion, in my mind. As I discuss my current project of living more Jewishly with my friends, I have had essentially the same conversation with several different people, regarding what I consider to be my theology.

What the conversations are missing, to me, is any question of theology or belief. Sure, on the surface I do things that might make me seem Modern Orthodox or secular, depending on the day. But what I believe about big questions like the Torah and the Temple and divinity align with what I have learned about the opinions of the Conservative movement. Additionally, my beliefs about the role and importance of Judaism and a Jewish way of living in the 21st century, in a largely secular world, fit the things I have been taught in the Conservative movement. I feel thoroughly immersed in Jewish life in Israel, but where are the questions about what people believe, and why they do what they do? Are we really experiencing such a high level of polarization and dichotomization that questions, and in particular questions of belief, are no longer relevant?

I am so happy to have found my way back to religious practice, and I do feel like I am finally living a fulfilling, full-time Jewish life even though it’s not summer and I’m not in Conover, Wisconsin! I find it so interesting, therefore, that everything I feel like I am fighting for and thinking about all the time is wiped to one side or another depending on what I decide to put on in the morning. Luckily, I have no shortage of interesting, thoughtful people with opinions all over the religious spectrum around me with whom to question, debate and learn. Which, to me, is the beauty of Judaism: for every question, you can find at least three answers!

Shavua tov!


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