Orthodox Jews Are People Too



I climbed up the steps and onto the second floor. What I thought was going to be a meet-and-greet of Jewish students was actually a circle of observant Jews who all seemed to know each other. They mingled, presumably discussing the Talmud, Teaneck, and which Schechter schools they attended. My mind wandered:

    ’Twas the first night of Chanukah
    As the clock at nine struck
    No Reform Jews in sight
    I felt like a schmuck

Hillel’s annual Chanukah party, and I was making up Jewish versions of Christmas carols. I told myself to be more social but as I strolled around the room I felt out of place: I was a reform Jew for whom the food meant more than the services.

Yarmulkes and long skirts swirled around me in a confusing mix of religious observance and college life.

    Their heads covered
    By scarves dark and demure
    My legs clad in jeans
    No knee-length skirt, for sure

Not all of Columbia’s Jews could be so…Jewish, could they?

Born and raised in a small town in Fairfield County, Connecticut, I was never very religious. The closest I ever really came to davening was watching bearded men across the aisle bob back and forth like Jewish buoys in my grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue on the High Holidays, and I remember the Junior’s cheesecake at the party after my Bat Mitzvah better than I remember reading torah.

But that ritual life must have meant so much to those people at the party. They dressed Jewish and acted Jewish, while I just used my Judaism as a basis on which I was allowed to make Jewish jokes, not for day-to-day religious purposes. It was a platform for me to claim a rich cultural heritage without having to take part in most of the practice.

Standing in that room, watching observant Jews interact, put in visible terms that age-old question of what it means to be Jewish. The students davened and said kiddush, but did that make them more Jewish than I was?

At Columbia, it seems like one is put in a category: practicing, religious Jew or ignorant agnostic—and if Judaism is defined by outward rituals, then I am not sure I want to be Jewish. I’ve found meaning in services, but they do not move me as much as individual prayer and personal spirituality do. The smallest thing can be sacred; whether in a group or by myself, I believe in the holiness of life and in not acting out rituals that serve no purpose for me. I define myself as Jewish, but not by someone else’s strict rules.

But Orthodox Jews are people too, so I started talking to them. As it turned out, not all of them were  as different from me as I had taken them to be. Many of the students and I had much more in common than our Jewish faith. They had finals, annoying professors, and problems with moldy floors in their dorms just like I did.

I realized that my problem that night was not that I resented the crowd for being faithful; I was just jealous that they felt so at ease with one another while I was off glaring daggers because I wanted to feel the same.

What I know now is that my Jewish identity—whatever it is—will have to involve community, though I still have no idea where ritual fits in. At times, I feel most like a member of the Jewish community when I pray. In other instances, I embrace my Judaism most when I am with my family members, kvetching about the Republicans on Fox News.

Culture and ritual can both be part of Judaism, I have come to see, but for me neither can be its true identity, if any true identity exists. Now, just like I did with the Chanukah carols I sang to myself at that party, I make it up as I go along.

7 Older Responses to “Orthodox Jews Are People Too”

  1. Al
    February 17, 2010 at 8:15 am #

    If you “kvetch… about the Republicans on Fox News” you may find that you have a lot less in common with Orthodox Jews than you realize.

  2. ColumbiaOrthodoxAlum
    February 17, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    “If you “kvetch… about the Republicans on Fox News” you may find that you have a lot less in common with Orthodox Jews than you realize.”
    Not at Columbia…while the Columbia Orthodox community is not as monolithically liberal as most of the Jewish community, it is much more liberal than the wider Orthodox community (or at least its stereotype).

  3. E
    February 17, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    Which Shechter schools they went to.
    : D

  4. David Neil
    February 17, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    first, check out isralight.org i think you would like David Aaron- and there is a sense of community with that group. Secondly check out http://www.simpletoremember.com i think you can find some interesting things on the site to listen to. Enjoyed your article!

  5. Robin Margolis
    February 17, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    Dear Carly:
    That was a very interesting and honest article.
    Considering starting a social and study group specifically for the Reform and other non-Orthodox students at your school. You cannot be the only one! Then you would have a group of Jewish buddies where you had more in common with them.
    Also, the Orthodox themselves are eager to share Jewish personal spiritual practices. Those practices can be incorporated in a person’s personal spiritual life without joining Orthodoxy itself.
    Chabad has a 5 minute “The Deed” series of tiny videos showing how to perform various Jewish spiritual meditation, prayer and ritual practices at:
    They are taught in English and can be incorporated in the spiritual practices of any Jewish person.
    Here’s a section of short Chabad videos on Jewish meditation:
    There is also a ton of information from a non-Orthodox perspective at:
    Perhaps a group of non-Orthodox students could consider how such practices could be made meaningful for them personally, in individualistic ways.
    Many blessings on your spiritual and cultural journey,
    Robin Margolis

  6. Jacob
    February 17, 2010 at 10:12 pm #

    As to how Judaism is defined, don’t let Orthodoxy get to you (in a bad way or in a ‘suck you in’ way, though the latter hardly seems to be a danger for you).

  7. Jacob
    February 17, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    That’s the kind of thing every Jewish college student should be able to endorse, since the Talmud (Megillah) http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/t04/meg02.htm says that you have to get so wasted you can’t tell the difference between the wicked Haman and the righteous Mordechai.

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