As a young girl growing up in New York, I was required to attend Hebrew School. My parents following in the tradition of their parents, their upbringing, felt that this was where I belonged every Sunday morning, and as I got older, every Wednesday evening as well. They must have imagined I’d miraculously absorb the sense of God somewhere within those walls. Had they known then that I would turn into such a doubting Thomas and forsake the idea of any God, I absolutely believe they would have put their time and money to much better use.
In those early years before I hit the age of twelve, I admit I was a believer in all things magical. My young mind hadn’t yet the wings to think for itself. So, I listened in awe to the telling of all those magnificent Bible stories. Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. Moses. Noah and his Ark (scratch that Russell Crowe version from the brain. K?). David and Goliath. Bathsheba. I loved them all because they were the seeds from which I sprang.
Holidays were celebrated with the appropriate pomp and ritual. Family and friends would gather around the table on Passover with my father at the head reading through the prayer book, and us kids at the other end wanting the whole shebang over with as quickly as possible so that we could run off in search of the afikoman (matzo) and the dollar bill to whoever found it first.
Nothing then made me want to challenge the universe in which I lived. A universe which as I transitioned from blissfully ignorant childhood to painfully awkward pre-teen hood, had me too distracted and grappling with the uncertainty of my place and who I was in this perky-nosed, skinny, straight-haired world where you were only as good as the body you lived in, to be bothered with anything else.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most religious of upbringings. Even though my father came from Orthodox roots and my mother’s side kept a Kosher home. I imagine that this second-generation from which both my parents stemmed were so caught up in the aftermath of a war, digging their heels into Middle America and keeping up with the Smiths and not so much the Cohens, that they didn’t deem it quite so necessary to be as religious as their parents. So, I grew up following a minimal Judaic practice. Which entailed only observing the most significant holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover), going to Temple on only two of them, and lastly being Bat Mitzvahed. (Not sure if that’s a word here folks, so just go with it. Thanks!)
And while it seemed all my Jewish peers were doing pretty much the same thing, following this quasi-Jew-for-a-day routine, the closer I got toward that pinnacle point of standing in front of a whole congregation of faces I did and didn’t know, reciting a portion of the Haftorah, pledging my commitment to God on my thirteenth birthday, somewhere in between my direction of heart changed.
Changed in a way that came as swiftly as learning the Easter Bunny didn’t exist, and as profoundly with its unspeakable dawning that I found myself pivoting away from all that I had known, to search out something more, something impactful that made sense to me. I mean “real” sense.
As you can imagine this upset my parents terribly. While they might have been tourists in their own faith, they still saw themselves as Jews and couldn’t understand my growing need that now led me down a different path toward Buddhism. A path that didn’t materialize right away, rather manifested itself over time after dabbling in numerous abstract schools of philosophy way above my mental pay grade, first. They were horrified to see me kneel before an “alter,” which in reality was the Gohonzon. An encasement that symbolically “reflects the state of Buddhahood inherent in life.” They couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to be welcomed into this world of thinking disciples, who like myself were also seeking an alternate road to that “something more” that didn’t require a belief in a mystical being — only a belief in myself.
That I remained a practicing Buddhist for many years in my OCD world where it’s impossible for me to stay true to anything longer than a New York minute, was a major feat. When I walked away though, I didn’t walk away empty-handed. I carried a deeper understanding of who I was and would always be. A Jew. Those are my roots right down to my core, an inescapable fact of my being.
In truth, people search their whole lives for all sorts of reasons. For justifications on why things happen the way they do? What does it all mean? What’s our purpose here? It’s simply part of the process. And because asking those questions for which there are no right answers, will only drive you bonkers. I learned that one the hard way. So, I simply don’t go there anymore.
Many times when we view life in retrospect, it’s pretty damn easy to all be bloody geniuses with crystal balls the size of Texas. And for me, it seems almost comical, ironic even and yet not, that I had to travel so far to learn what had been there all along. My mother used to constantly shake her head at my pigheadedness. Always fearing that late night call from the police related to some mischief or another I’d gotten into. That or lying in a ditch somewhere. Because I just didn’t know how to do things any other way.
I believe taking the easy route means nothing. Sweating out the victories means everything. @ldonskylevine (Click to Tweet!)
Even if the conclusion is the same.
Because you see . . . it’s all about the road trip getting there. And I had to determine for myself what those defining parts were in order to come to this particular place I am now. A place of bittersweet understanding of my role and my own concept of what it truly means to be a Jew. A person who’s only real job is to carry the cherished stories of my heritage with me wherever I go. And should I somehow pass this sense of embodiment onto my children . . . well, then . . . two points for me!
Look, I realize the sensitivity of this topic. And believe me when I say, “to each his own,” that they are words spoken with the utmost of sincerity. This is what makes this wonderfully, crazy, ridiculous world of ours so great. Or should be great, that we can feel okay about expressing our opinions and our beliefs free of fear and recrimination. When you look at the kaleidoscopic landscape of our society, seeing how different all these moving parts are — all shapes, sizes and flavors — you know, you just gotta love the beauty of it.
In any case, this week is the beginning of Chanukah. That often hard to pronounce, that impossible to spell Jewish holiday where we light candles for eight nights, eat latkes (potato pancakes), sing songs, play with this little four-sided spinning top called a dreidel, and if we’re lucky, get lots of cool presents. It is a festive time of the year for us. But like everything else steeped in Judaic symbolism, it represents a spiritual victory over darkness and all that we have achieved.
Photo credit: suttonhoo
Therefore, I will honor its message. I will celebrate these traditions passed from one loving hand to another and the small part I play in this remarkable tribe of people I was born into. And given that Chanukah also represents a rededication and the beginning of many wonderful things ahead, regardless of your race, religion or slant on reality, I would like to wish 365 days of health, prosperity, peace, love and happiness to you all.
L. Donsky-Levine is the author of The Bad Girl. She is currently living in South Florida with her family and when the moment avails itself, she can be found at her laptop, writing. So she says. And if not, she’s more than likely lost somewhere on the Internet tinkering on her blog, FB or Twitter.
Image courtesy of Juangia.