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What Judaism means to me

Well, today I realized I’ve never really talked about religion here. So I guess I could give it a try? No? Then let’s get to it.

As this is my first time here, I should start with my personal story and relationship with religion.

I was born to a couple of Jewish parents. My mother is a believer, and my father is an atheist. Thanks to an agreement they got to superman-knows-how, I was sent to a private Jewish school, to learn about my peoples’ origins and traditions; of course, eventually, I didn’t quite fit in.

In my early ages, I never understood what was about this “god” fellow. I mean, what was his problem? Eve bit an apple so suddenly everything was wrong and they had to suffer for eternity? SOMEONE needed a hug.
But I didn’t talk much about my doubts regarding this character. I felt everyone else accepted him, so why shouldn’t I? But, then again, why should I? Of course, my thought process wasn’t as clear during that time in my life, and it is only now that I understand this was the overall concept I was trying to wrap my young mind around.
I still enjoyed the classes though. I’ve always been fascinated by huge, epic tales, about men in conflict, and adventure, and missions -and what book in the world does that best that the Torah? The Sillmarilion? We could discuss that, yes.

In fourth grade, I started reading a lot. And I mean a LOT. I didn’t feel represented by my school, identified with my classmates, or interested in fashion (as every other girl there was); I felt lonely. In books, I found worlds to escape to, something to make me feel accepted somewhere.
And, what did I read the most, you ask? Well, what my father thought I’d like: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Oh boy, did I devour those books. Every single science fiction text by them in my house was read and re-read and re-read. And, inevitably, I felt the urge to understand more. I mean, what did this guy mean by cold fusion, and hydrogen-propelled engines? That’s right friends, that was the birth of the geek in me.
My mom a scientist, I asked her everything I wanted to know, and she explained with joy. If there was something she didn’t know about, I’d go to any book I could find that talked about that subject.
My favorites were the ones about astronomy, unsurprisingly. And I learned, a lot.

Now, here I stumbled upon the first real paradox in my life. See, in school, I was thought about how god created the sun and the moon, and the stars, and darkness and light, and all life, and everything there ever was and was to be.
Whereas in my house, I read about the Big Bang, about black holes and supernovas, about DNA, about evolution, transgenics, genetics.
Something didn’t seem to fit quite right.

That summer, I was sent to Majané Ramah, a three-week camp with activities related to Judaism and religion, though they also covered lots of interesting subjects. And I had a great time there. I only had a problem with one thing: what was with all the praying? We were woken up at seven just to go read from the Sidur and pray. We prayed before and after every meal. We prayed at night. In the afternoon. After an activity. It just seemed senseless to me, wasted time, and so unbelievably boring. And when I asked WHY we were doing all this, they said that was just the way god wanted us to act.
What the friggin’ hell? I’d never prayed before a meal before, and no divine being had gotten mad at me because of that in my life! Not that I knew of. And I believed that, if he had a problem with me, then he should’ve let me know.
By the second week, I was convinced this was all nonsense. Bored, and desperate for something different, I decided to perform a little experiment on my own.
In every prayer, I would stay still, and quiet, and I wouldn’t pray.
I would just stay there.
And, of course, I came to the conclusion that nothing happened. What did god care about us praying or not? I mean, could anyone prove to me that god was listening to us? Even further, could anyone prove there even WAS a god?

Plop! Goodbye god.

Suddenly, the equation started making more sense in my head. Well, of course, if you removed the Torah and god from it all, then that contradiction I talked about before didn’t bother me anymore.
And that’s how, at age 10, I decided god wasn’t a real thing.

I must say, I talk about it lightly in this short paragraph, but it was quite the shock for my young little mind. I even cried for a bit. I felt cheated, and lied to. And I was quite angry.
“Mila, why are you in such a bad mood today?”.
“Because I just realized god doesn’t exist”. Imagine being an organizer in that camp and being told that by one of the kids. You’ve failed. Miserably.

Continuing, I came back home from the Majané that summer, and discussed this with my parents. My father already thought the way I did, so he shrugged, telling me only I could define what I believed. My mother agreed, but I could feel a layer of bitterness in her voice.

Anyways, I spent most of my fifth grade in that school trying to figure out what I should do with this discovery of mine; furthermore, my classmates didn’t take long to find out about my new set of beliefs.
“Believing in god is what Judaism all about”.
“You shouldn’t come to this school if you don’t believe in it”.
“Are you even Jewish anymore?”.
Only a few examples of the many questions I was confronted with at first. And not having a lot of experience in the subject, they really hit me hard. I didn’t feel any less Jewish by no believing in a big guy in the skies, honestly. But, if they said all that, then it was for a reason, right…?

By the second half of that year, I was in a deep and serious spiritual and existential crisis. What WAS I? I wanted to be Jewish. I liked it. I liked some beliefs, and traditions, and I liked studying what people had said hundreds of years before me about the world and its rules, and absorbing all that knowledge made me happy; I felt connected with my peoples’ past, and that made me whole.
But, did I have to right to feel that way?
Not only that, but my female classmates were already starting to make plans for their Bat-Mitzvah, which was their official integration to the community, and more than once had they questioned whether or not I should be able to do so.
It was around that time that a new rabbi joined the school. This time, a woman. Her name, Silvina Chemen. There already was another rabbi in the school, called Dani Goldman. Awesome guy, he has some very interesting views on what being Jewish really means, as does Silvina.
So, she joined the school, and we had a special class so she could introduce herself, and tell us about her ideas on religion and Judaism, and all.
Of course, she blew my mind. Many times I felt as though she was talking to me only. And, when she was done, I seriously felt for the first time that all my ideas about what this identity we shared really meant had been expertly put into words and handed to me so I could analyze them and incorporate them.

But it wasn’t until we were leaving the temple, were the class took place, that she actually changed my world.
Feeling some kind of trust towards her, I approached her on my own, and presented her with the conclusion I’d gotten to that summer, and how that crashed with the idea of doing my Bat Mitzvah, even though I really wanted to.
“But sweetheart, doing your Bat Mitzvah isn’t about your relationship with god, but your relationship with the community, and your own spirituality. With or without a divine being, you can tell that being Jewish is about something more. And that something is what you should do your Bat Mitzvah for”.
I’m paraphrasing, of course. But that was, more or less, what she told me, convincing me to go through that journey again.

The preparation for the ceremony saturated me of religion, and for a while after doing it I didn’t want anything to do with the temple, or with prayers of any kind. Still, I am ever grateful with Silvina for showing me another face to the world.

After that, I kept a skeptic mind for some time. Walked away from the temple, and relied on purely empirical ways of reasoning. I laughed at all religions and shrugged my spirituality off.
But it didn’t take me that long to realize I was being and idiot.
Accompanying my mom to the temple on festive days is one of the strongest bonding experiences we share. And discussing my identity with other people is a truly beautiful thing.

It took me a long time to refine my ideas about my spirituality, and I don’t think I’m even close to reaching the end of my journey. Hopefully I’ll never be; this is far too entertaining.
But, let me tell you about the conclusions I’ve gotten to over the years about myself.

-There is no god, other than the one we created.
-Judaism isn’t a religion.
-Judaism is an identity. A Nation. A story. People.
-I belong. Beyond any rules and restrictions, I belong.
-Judaism is flexible, and adapts to changes and the historic processes it goes through.
-If it doesn’t adapt, then it’s not Judaism.
-Respecting Judaism doesn’t mean doing Shabat, or respecting the Kashrut. It means studying those who studied before me, and always having the existence of past generations present in my mind.
-Judaism is chaotically organized, and doesn’t shove anyone aside. It is a constant debate over what surrounds us.

It’s probably as difficult to understand as it is to explain. But that is, in a few words, what being Jewish means to me now-a-days. Maybe it’ll change tomorrow. I don’t know. Nobody knows. That’s the fun part about it all.

Anyways, sorry about all the confusion. I just wanted to organize my thoughts about this today.
Thanks for reading.

-Mila.

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3 thoughts on “What Judaism means to me

  1. This was really inspiring to read and i’m really glad that you wrote this. Even more glad that I was able to read it. I love reading about peoples personal journey in reference to religion. I feel your moral compass, spiritual, and religious practices (if any) are things that should be decided and developed by you, and not something that is forced upon you by other. Having always been on my own journey discovering my belief, as far back as i can remember them being imporant, I never remember anyone close to me trying to hinder me from figuring out what i believed in or going to find the knowledge. So i commend you on being on your own journey to enlightenment, and welcome any conversation you may want to have about it. I love to share and i thank you for sharing. I may do one of these myself eventually.

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