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.