How a Jewish Studies Course Brought Me Back to My Roots

Scrolling through class lists is my favorite things about a new semester, searching through all the options, all of the possibilities. During the spring of 2018 I scanned my options, attempting to fit another history course to fulfill the requirements for my degree into an (in hindsight) already overstuffed schedule. I wound up going with a class another classmate had taken the previous fall, Intro to Jewish History and Culture.

That fall semester, my class went through a couple thousand years of history and touched on different cultural and religious tradition and concepts. I enjoyed the class so much that I wanted to take another, so in the spring I signed up for a Jewish American literature class. From these classes I was able to not only learn new things and explore Judaism, but to engage with my own connection to Judaism and strengthen it.

I grew up in what I would categorize as a multi-faith family with a mix of Catholics, Jews, and Pagans (with some atheists and agnostics thrown in for good measure). Essentially, I was left to my own devices to choose who I wanted to be — what I wanted to believe — while being exposed to a variety of faiths. While not particularly observant himself, through my beloved grandfather (or Pop-Pop as I call him) I was exposed to Jewish culture and principals. He taught me about caring for strangers and accepting others, as well as how to play dreidel and what makes a good bagel. So, before these courses, I had some general awareness around Judaism and Jewish culture, but I definitely had a lot to learn.

Beyond the content, being in these Jewish studies classes also gave me the opportunity to connect with others who were interested in Judaism or who were Jewish themselves. Getting to take a class and meet and discuss Jewish religion and culture was a totally new experience to me outside of visiting family. Even having Jewish friends was fairly new to me. I spent most of my childhood in the outer suburbs of the Twin Cities, where to my memory or knowledge I did not have any Jewish friends. In high school, the only Jewish person I knew was my astronomy teacher. College gave me the opportunity to engage with a part of myself that I wasn’t able to when I was growing up and make these bonds for really the first time in my life.

I was also able to meet a variety of people from more secular and more devout backgrounds. One of my friends from the class, Gila, hosted Hanukkah and Purim parties and a Passover seder — all things I had never been able to experience before. I was even able to bond more with my own grandfather, who was impressed by all the new knowledge I had acquired. In turn, he shared more family stories with me, ones I could truly appreciate now.

The classes that I took gave me not just friends but context for things that had always been a part of my life, but that I couldn’t fully understand. One day in my Jewish Literature class, my professor projected a painting onto the screen of a man and woman floating in the sky with a goat playing the fiddle. “That’s in my grandparents’ house!” I exclaimed to the girl next to me. The painting was by Marc Chagall, the famous Jewish artist whose paintings were popular features in Jewish homes a few decades back. Until that moment I had never encountered Chagall beyond seeing the several prints of his paintings hung around my grandparents’ Arizona home. I also learned why my grandparents hate Martin Luther so much — details around his vitriol against Jews had not been highlighted when I learned about the Reformation in high school. Soon I began to see more elements of Jewish culture and history in my own life that I had previously lacked the knowledge to identify.

All these things gave me more of an understanding of Judaism not just as a religion in a broad sense, but its history and culture — as well as my own family background.

I will say I am very lucky to have had an amazing Jewish Studies professor throughout the two semesters (shout out to Dr. Paradise!). One of his most iconic moments was comparing Jewish prayer to cheesecake — and then actually bringing in cheesecake the next class, much to our broke college student joy.

Eventually, these classes led me to the topic for my Capstone paper, which focused on Jewish women in the sex trade in early 1900s New York City. Not only that, but I’ve made the decision to officially convert to Judaism in the coming years, and to continue to learn and engage. I would definitely encourage those who are still in college to take a look at what your Religious or Jewish Studies department has to offer. Take a chance on classes and you might just find that could impact your life in a truly wonderful way.

Lily Nunno

Lily Nunno is a grad student studying public history, she's a pop culture nerd who watches copious amounts of youtube, and hopes to make the world a better place.

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