In high school, I idolized Jack Kerouac. I dreamed of beatnik-esque wanderings, of driving wherever the highways took me without a particular destination in mind. I had a realization, though, when some friends and I waited on the el platform in one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods to return to our campus in the southern part of the city. Wandering around Chicago was fun as long as we had a home to return to at day’s end. Likewise, in high school, riding the buses in Pittsburgh had been more exciting than stressful because I had a sure destination: my family’s home. My realization was that what I really desired was not to be a nomad as I had imagined, but rather the independence to establish a home for myself, allowing me the freedom to wander during the day, then have shelter at night.
Thinking about this now inevitably brings to mind memories of my adolescent struggles with Judaism. After a thoroughly Jewish upbringing and a childhood in which I was fully “on board” with the concept of being Jewish, doubt began creeping into my consciousness at about age fourteen. To be fair, this sense of doubt was not with Judaism per se, but with the concept of religion as a whole. Why, I wondered, did I need to label myself as a particular anything? For almost two years, I decided I didn’t need or want Judaism in my life.
Temporarily relinquishing religion, however, left me with a feeling of emptiness that I attributed to a need for spirituality. While a lack of spiritual fulfillment may have been part of the problem, my wandering away from Judaism also left me feeling distanced from my family, despite how supportive they were of my doubts. Regardless of the reason, though, I attempted to fill this hole by wandering around the outskirts of other faiths in a Philosophy of Religion course at my high school. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to discover my personal values of giving back, paying it forward, and building a loving community in the hopes of inspiring a more loving world staring back at me from my class notes under “Judaism.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that having been raised Jewish, choosing to relinquish Jewish theology was not enough to shake its values from me. Jewish values were my values, whether I considered myself Jewish or not. Since Judaism and Jewishness never left me, despite my best intentions, I figured I might as well call myself Jewish.
When I slinked back to my faith, metaphorical tail between my legs, I was frightened that my relationship to it might have changed, that now it would not feel as embracing or as powerful as it once did. Yet I found Jewish communities still embraced me, and the work I did as a part of them felt more meaningful now that I connected to its spiritual context. I was concerned, however, that perhaps my religion itself would now be different. What I discovered was that of course it was, but not because it was any less enveloping. The Judaism I left behind, I now knew, was the one my parents bestowed upon me. It was the Jewish life of my childhood, and because I had doubted it, that Judaism no longer had such a powerful grasp. What I mistook for spiritual wanderlust was actually the realization that, as I became an adult, I would have to create my own Judaism.
My Jewish experience since has been one I build for myself, day by day, brick by brick. I build it with the people I found in Pittsburgh as I got more involved in Friendship Circle, and with the communities I am helping to build in Chicago, like the campus Hillel and the Egalitarian Minyan. Just as with building a house, building and sustaining a Jewish identity for myself requires a magnanimous and constant labor. Even with all the work involved though, Judaism is still the only faith I want to return to after a long day of wandering. Judaism is still my home.
Dani Plung is a student at the University of Chicago.