Jessica’s Story – I’ve Always Been Jewish

My life has always been so Jewish that I find it funny that I really am a baalat teshuva. Isn’t that reserved for those dear friends of mine who grew up never setting foot inside a synagogue?

One of my first baby pictures attests to the fact that my family always went to synagogue. My dad, with a satin kippah given to him by my grandfather perched on his head, holding me after my naming ceremony at our synagogue. Granted, the ceremony took place in a Progressive synagogue in South Africa, but still. They took me to have the ceremony.

My dad grew up Methodist, and my mom says that she found the only non-Jewish guy in the room when they met. My dad, a student at the local medical school, proposed to my mom in a letter while he was on a rotation in London, miserable from missing her. My mother’s parents, Orthodox themselves although my mother had become Reform a few years before, were only concerned that he would convert, which he did.

Throughout our time in South Africa, we were active in the Jewish community. I went to a Jewish preschool, and my mom ran the religious school. However, things in South Africa were precarious, and when I was seven years old, my parents made the decision to immigrate to a small town in Canada. The only problem was the total lack of Jewish community. We did the best we could, and managed pretty well. My mom came to my class at school to talk about the Jewish holidays. In fact, she was legendary for bringing matzah with chocolate frosting to school the first year we were there. I have no idea where she got the matzah from, nor the Hebrew books she taught me with for those three years. We made a diorama sukkah, since it was already snowing and freezing by the time Sukkot came around, and we have a videotape of me reading the four questions in preparation for Passover. By the time we left, we had a family that we would always invite to celebrate with us.

After three years in Canada, we moved to a small town in Illinois so that my dad could get his American medical license. At the time, with a Reform synagogue of 60 families, it seemed like a veritable Jewish metropolis. Once we lived there, however, I faced the reality of being one of only two Jewish kids in my school until I graduated high school.

Synagogue was my lifeline. I went to services, taught religious school, had a Bat Mitzvah and was Confirmed. Then, at the beginning of my junior year, I tried out NFTY, and it was like drinking water for the first time in years. Almost all my Jewish friends in high school were through NFTY, and I learned so much about being Jewish. My friends and I wept at the last NFTY event we would attend as participants. Needless to say, my experience with NFTY and my experience with my synagogue pushed me to want to be involved in the on campus Jewish community, but what I found there was nothing like I expected.

Coming on Monday: Why do I feel like a stranger in a strange religion?

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4 thoughts on “Jessica’s Story – I’ve Always Been Jewish

    • Thanks Brooke! We are so glad to be sharing our love of Judaism! I think there are a lot of really rich religious cultures out there – maybe it’s time to look into yours. We’re happy to share ours with you though!

  1. ” … that I find it funny that I really am a baalat teshuva. Isn’t that reserved for those dear friends of mine who …”

    I’ve wondered what to call myself. I grew up non-observant by Orthodox standards, but my family still had a lot of Jewish practice and culture in it, and my mother definitely instilled Jewish belief in me. When I started reading the works of Rabbis S. R. Hirsch (19th-century Germany) and J. H. Hertz (20th-century Britain), I felt like I was rereading everything my mother had already taught me. When I read about historic Judeo-Spanish communities in Holland or Italy or Turkey or Greece, I feel like I’m reading about home. (Sigh … if G-d had to have me be born in America, couldn’t it at least have been before the WWII, back when all the Orthodox rabbis in America were German?)

    (Come to think of it, when I read 16th-18th-century works of Scottish or British or Dutch federal political theory – basically, anything Thomas Jefferson would have read – I also feel like I’m home. Being a colonial-era Spanish-Portuguese Jew would be awesome – best of both worlds!!! Seriously, if I weren’t Jewish, I’d probably want to be a Calvinist Puritan or Congregationalist. But that’s another story.)

    My mother grew up as an Evangelical Christian, and she converted to Judaism via Reform and Conservative. So when I became Orthodox, I believe I merely finished what she started. She taught me what it means to be Jewish, and I merely started looking for hekhsherim on my food. My mom did all the work converting to Judaism; I cannot claim any credit.

    So I cannot call myself a BT (since I grew up relatively Jewishly-conscious), but I also cannot call myself a convert (since my mother did all the work, even though, technically, I did convert too since her conversion wasn’t Orthodox), and I’m not an FFB either. So what on earth am I? I just like to call myself a liberal fundamentalist (or libertarian) Maimonidean Neo-Sephardi. 😛

    • Welcome! The issues of identity are really complex! I haven’t really thought about what I would be if I weren’t Jewish or what time period, but it’s a good thought experiment. And sometimes labels just don’t fit – and so you just embrace the gray area!!

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