News & Op-Ed

I Lived the PEW Report

December 19, 2013

DreidelsSome people are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), others experience “winter blues” — both characteristically marked by feelings of melancholy and restlessness from the cold temperatures and lack of sun.  Although I am not diagnosed with S.A.D, I do find myself “seasonally affected” in the days leading up to Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, also popularly known as the “holiday season.”

I am the daughter of two loving parents, a Roman Catholic mother and a Jewish father, raised within the Reform Jewish movement. I didn’t have to read the Pew report, I grew up as the Pew report.

I used to joke that I grew up as a “Jew raised in captivity.” My parents would insist that my brothers and I are Jewish, yet beyond attending Sunday Hebrew school (where I felt I couldn’t connect well with the other kids who went to school and summer camp together), lighting a Chanukah menorah and celebrating a Passover seder, I had no clue what made me a Jew.  Sometimes my father would take us to Friday night services, if it was a holiday or his turn to read announcements from the bimah; I enjoyed singing along but didn’t understand what was being said. I could barely read Hebrew; the few verses I chanted from the Torah as a bat mitzvah were prepared as if memorizing a song.

We didn’t live in a Jewish community (in fact, in our town I grew up as the fourth generation of my mother’s family); we didn’t discuss anything Jewish in our home (let alone Israel); I didn’t have close friends who were Jewish or attend public school with any other students who identified as Jewish; I didn’t understand what Shabbat meant (let alone do anything to observe it); we certainly didn’t keep kosher.

My paternal grandparents passed away before I was a year old, and my father’s family didn’t live nearby, so naturally I grew up significantly closer to members of my mother’s family. My maternal grandmother moved in with our family when I was very young, and my grandmother became a beautiful influence and confidant. She taught me life skills such as crocheting, ironing, sewing and cooking. She taught me how to play the piano and various card games. She taught me her family recipes and shared stories of her life and her family’s genealogy from Poland. A devout Catholic, she imbued me with knowledge of God and a relationship with our Creator.

Christmas was never of religious significance to me, but the weeks leading up to this day were filled with respect for the traditions of my mother and warmth of complacency.

Thanksgiving was always a big deal for my parents, who loved to open our home to friends and family. And the Friday after Thanksgiving, my mother’s older sister would join the three of us to prepare homemade pierogis — small pockets of boiled dough we would fill with mashed potatoes, farmer’s cheese, or sauerkraut and mushrooms.  We would make dozens of these, then freeze them to be fried and eaten on Christmas Eve, when my extended family would come to our home for a traditional Polish meatless supper.

Over the next few weeks, our home would transform into a winter wonderland. Candles in the windows with garland and bows, snowmen and snowflakes, wooden caroling dolls decorated the fireplace mantel with our stockings, and the pièce de résistance — my mother’s tree, lit-up in our front picture window, complete with angel on top. We’d all participate in decorating the tree, hanging ornaments ranging from my mother’s expensive glass-and-crystal keepsakes, to holiday Barbie and homemade decorations. And in our home, yes, dreidel lights lined the bottom of the tree.

I was always well-liked by my peers and friendly with everyone in high school. Musically inclined, I often had leading roles in the musicals and solos in the choir concert. In the desire to create a Boston Pops holiday-style concert, the band director chose me as soloist one year for “White Christmas.” As the only Jewish student, the audience laughed heartily as I introduced the piece, noting how one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time was written by a Jew.  Another performance found me skipping down the aisle followed by the spotlight, with my hair in pigtails and a Victorian-style nightgown, singing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; it was all so much fun.

It wasn’t until a visit to Israel during winter break of my freshman year of college that I was informed — by a Jew who was not, herself, observant — that actual Jewish law only considers a child born to a Jewish mother to have the birthright status of a Jew.  My newly-discovered non-Jewish status propelled me into weeks, months and years of introspection and desire for truth. The information was stated so calmly, as if it were common knowledge, yet the words penetrated my heart and I simply could not walk away accepting that I was not Jewish.

I came to resent my parents. I felt they had denied me a real identity, subjecting me to be different — especially from the world of my mother’s family and my school peers, around whom I felt most comfortable. And although I knew so little about what it meant to be authentically Jewish, I found my questioning met with disapproval by my parents and brothers. They still had complacency, and I was rocking the boat. I didn’t know where I fit in or what I believed.

I understand that my parents raised me the best way they could, and they gave me a happy childhood, but I couldn’t stay protected by denying the truth forever; part of growing up is forming your own opinions and learning to think for yourself.

From my searching, I ultimately chose to undergo an authentic Orthodox conversion, of which I am extremely proud. Yet proceeding with an authentic conversion wasn’t an obvious choice to me at first, and I grappled with many of the newly-introduced Torah concepts.

I found knowledgeable individuals willing to genuinely address my questions, though at times it took me longer to process the answers. I read a lot. I asked many questions. I challenged philosophies, and eventually broke down my own stereotypes. I took baby steps.

And, I found a way of living that inspired me to maximize my potential by conscientiously striving to improve as a person. I became part of a larger purpose in the creation of the world. I found values I admired and intrinsically shared. I found truth, and I continue to be happy with my choice.

I also realized that if I did not address honestly what it meant to be a Jew, my own children would also struggle with their identities. It was humbling to realize that my non-Jewish status effectively meant I had never done a single mitzvah in my life; yes, I was a nice person doing nice things, but only a Jew receives a reward specifically for the act of performing a mitzvah.

I felt guilty that my grandmother’s traditions would become lost, as I knew her recipes and genealogy far better than any of my siblings or cousins; she passed away before I officially decided to proceed with my conversion. My mother cried to me that she felt she was losing her daughter and could no longer relate to me. She was taken aback when so-called friends at their temple would make hurtful comments to her when she shared that I was considering an Orthodox conversion; individuals she knew to be academically educated, kind, and open-minded filled her thoughts with stereotypes to which she hadn’t prior been exposed. My father barely acknowledged my struggle, except for “you have to live in the real world.”

It’s been almost nine years since I was first informed of my non-Jewish status. It’s been five-and-a-half years since I finished my conversion with a rabbinical court in Monsey, NY.

To my parent’s credit, they have accepted my decision to live as an Orthodox Jew; their actions speak louder than the emotional support that is lacking. I know they love me. To this day, my brothers tell me that they don’t accept me and hate the word “Orthodox.” I feel they resent that I have security in my identity as they struggle, lacking any belief system amid the shallow values of secular society. They are jealous that I am happy.

I have worked so hard over the years to make a kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name, striving to be a mentsch, and to remain proud and accepting of the life I have chosen. I continuously try to show my family that I am still authentically me (perhaps now an even more authentic version of myself) yet as this time of year reminds me the most that I chose to leave behind the customs and familiarity of my childhood, I feel lonely.

I so miss the concept of family. And no matter how close I feel to mentors and friends, no matter how many families invite us for a Shabbat meal, there is a void. My husband and I purposely plan fun activities for December 24 and 25 to distract me.

I’m no longer a Jew living in captivity. I wake up every morning and fall asleep every night striving to live an authentic Jewish life, and to build an authentic Jewish home with my husband. And we are now expecting our first baby. And this child will be passed the traditions of a grandmother — her name is Sara Imeinu.

As I’ve found with time, my seasonal winter blues will pass. It’s the return that haunts me. I’ve been told a baby can bring the blessing of joy to dissolve family tensions.  I can’t expect this small person to fill the void in my life left by the lack of emotional support from my family, or deny that these few weeks of the year will someday never have any emotional effect on me whatsoever — but I can write this with peace in my heart, knowing that my baby is worth every step of my Jewish journey.