Judaism is, in many ways, a practice defined by community. It is tradition to study Torah in havruta, with a study partner, and many mitzvot, commandments, are based in forging a connection with others. Jewish holidays are thought of as bustling, family-filled affairs where you’re always an arm’s reach away from a friend or relative.
But I didn’t come to Judaism surrounded by a built-in community. In many ways, I had to create one for myself. I was raised without any religion. My father is, as he calls it, “a recovering Catholic,” and my mother had no religious upbringing. The only shred of religious influence I had was a controversial family rumor that my mother’s grandmother, a Hungarian immigrant, was born and raised Jewish — but she had hidden that part of her heritage from her children and had stopped practicing once she married her German-Protestant husband. Growing up, I clung to this small flicker of ancestral connection as a way to propel my curiosity about Judaism.
Since I was a child, I told people that I was Jewish, before I even really knew what it meant. I read about Judaism. I went to every bat mitzvah in the seventh grade. I forced my family to play dreidel on Christmas. Though I never had the chance to meet my great-grandmother and ask her what made her feel compelled — or perhaps obligated— to abandon her Jewish practice, when I read something that resonated with me in Jewish texts, or when I spoke to Jewish friends about their culture and values, I felt connected to her. I felt like I was reaching back into the past and holding onto something precious. My parents, ever subscribers to the if you’re happy, I’m happy parenting philosophy, continue to be endearingly earnest and curious supporters of my Jewishness.
By the time I got to college, I truly felt Jewish, but I was unsure of how exactly I’d be able to explore my identity. My first Rosh Hashanah ever was marked by me, a wobbly-legged college freshman pacing around outside the front doors of Hillel, alone, giving myself a Rocky-style pep talk and wondering if I should just run back to my dorm room. But I was there. I had to do it. And so, entourage-less and uncomfortably sweaty, I marched myself through the front doors and went to my first ever official Jewish service.
Some of my most profoundly spiritual and markedly Jewish experiences have all happened when I was alone. I went to events at Hillel alone until I made friends to go with. I filled a journal with all my favorite Jewish fun facts, prayers, and jokes. I memorized prayers that no one had taught me. I read articles about Jewish holidays, and tried to adapt advice on how to prepare the home for Passover to suit my shared college dorm room. I was often the first person to explain to a non-Jewish person what Shabbat dinner is, even though I had just taught myself only a few years before.
Sometimes, before going off to Shabbat dinners on campus, I would intentionally take a moment to light two candles alone in my room. I’d say the prayer to myself where no one could hear me sing the words a little off key, a little mispronounced. The ritual was an act of gratitude for myself, for getting me to another Shabbat. For finding the courage to forge my own unique path to a Jewish identity.
This aloneness culminated on my first trip to Israel. I was visiting my boyfriend at the time, who was studying abroad there, and we went together to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Because the Wall has separate sections for men and women, my boyfriend and I had to go down separately. And so once again, I was alone. As I walked down the sloped path, I became hyper-aware of my entire body, my footsteps, my skirt clinging around my legs, my skin. But it wasn’t bad, insecure self-consciousness. Like my solitude performing Jewish rituals or on holidays, I had grown to realize that this self-awareness was deeply peaceful — like floating in water, flooded with the sound of your own heartbeat. It felt perfect — and spiritually significant — that I was taking this walk as I had taken so many walks in my Jewish life: alone, but with the quiet backing of all who had gotten me to that point.
Being alone that day at the Western Wall let me connect with my most peaceful, spiritual self, and made me feel connected to my Jewishness. In the quiet of my own thoughts, I felt so fundamentally connected to everyone else there, to the Jewish people, to the muddled history that brought me to where I was. I felt connected to the girl I sat next to at my first service, who showed me when to sing and when to stand and didn’t laugh when I started turning the pages of the siddur the wrong way. I felt connected to the Jewish friends back home who encouraged me to look into Hillel at school and gave me outfit advice for holidays.
Even though I was alone, I was the product of so many people’s earnest and generous efforts to make me feel accepted and bold enough to do what I needed to do. I wouldn’t have been at the Western Wall — or writing this article! — if I hadn’t felt connected to Judaism itself, to the values, to the stories, and most vitally, to the people.
The word “alone” itself is poetic; it derives from the Middle English phrase “all one.” While this could be understood to mean “distinct,” I like to interpret “all one” in the same way that I think Judaism asks us to interpret our place in the world: a shared oneness with each other, with ourselves, with God, with history, with the world.
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