This posting continue a series of pieces called “Who’s a Jew.” These essays are not pretenders to halachic discussions nor are they an invitation to debate the relative worth of the various streams of Judaism or of the other boxes into which individuals and groups try to stuff Yiddishkeit. Rather, these writings are meant to be reflections, contemplations, inspirations, and the like, for the many faceted ways in which Judaism is reflected in each of us. It’s important for us to validate that Jews come in lots of flavors.
This narrative’s an allegory for means by which we can begin to heal the hurts we Jews sometimes inflict upon each other. It is also a true story of a young woman who was accepted for who she was, not for who she thought she had to be.
We open our home to many young visitors during Sabbath and holidays. Most of those youth are searching for a more meaningful religious experience than the ones with which they’ve grown. Often those young adults find us through other young people who have passed through our lives. Sometimes they find us through networks established for people seeking heightened understanding. Regardless, when those teens and twenties visit us, or visit any other family who opens their (religious) life to outsiders, their encounters can be frightening.
My family’s Sabbath includes blessings at the table, prayer services at the synagogue, a wall of “religious” books in our dining room, and organized study opportunities. Whereas such forays into the ways of our people are optional, for our guests, some of my family’s strictures, such as not using phones or cell phones, not turning lights on and off, and not smoking on Shabbat and holidays, are nonnegotiable. Consequently, our youthful visitors who have already extended themselves by acting and dressing differently in our home than they might in other portions of their lives, can be intimidated.
Despite our protests to the contrary, our young guests often are unable to envision us as having been like them. In one case, being able to imagine my husband and me as progressing, nonlinearly in our personal growth, rather than as having achieved it instantaneously, helped a sweet and frequent visitor.
She approached me, after one of our many people-filled Shabbatot, and asked me if I might stop tidying up in order to sit with her on our porch. I happily obliged. That special young lady then told me, measuring each word, that she did not always wear skirts. I told her I wasn’t judging her. We spoke about a few more things before my husband collected her and the rest of our university delegation for their drive home.
The next time that the young lady appeared at our home, she was again wearing modest dress... until after Shabbat, the time when our overnight guests and all of their paraphernalia typically sorted themselves out in our main hall. That sweet young woman had assembled her suitcase and her plastic-wrapped leftovers. She was ready to return to her books.
She hugged me and my daughters and gave affectionate words to my sons. Then she looked at me. Her eyes telegraphed desperate questions; “Did I notice? Did I care?”
I smiled and shrugged in answer. I had noticed the well-fitting blue jeans. I cared that she continued coming to our home. I gave her an extra squishy hug and a kiss on her head. I wished her well with her exams.
The young lady returned to us repeatedly until we moved across the world. At one point, she told me that the Motzei Shabbat when I did not judge her based on her external affects was the beginning of her feeling accepted by our people. The young lady went on to encourage other youth to experiment with faith.
It’s so important to love rather than to decree!
B’ezrat Hashem, Part V of “Who’s a Jew,” “Media Savvy: the Fires of Rhetoric” will take apart some of the ways in which Jewish identity impacts the media and some of the ways in which media frameworks impact Jewish identity. Part VI, “Blaring among the Mustards,” will explore the relationship of Jewishness to Otherness, especially in this era of the global village. Part VII, “Overview” will look at some unrequited longings.