I haven’t tasted a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s deli. I haven’t gone trendy restaurant hopping with the East Side Jews, declared that Mel Brooks is my savior, eaten pork-laden Chinese food on Christmas, or learned funky tunes and dance moves for the prayers at Jewish summer camp. And the truth is, I never will.
It makes me sad that I never got to experience all these things that I deem, “cultural Judaism.”
Three years ago, I converted to Judaism, but long before that, in 2011, I started my Orthodox conversion process. Pretty soon after I decided to convert, I gave up non-kosher food, stopped going out on Shabbat, gave my pants away to Goodwill, and became a hardcore, traditional Jewess. I didn’t look into Reform Judaism because my husband (then boyfriend) didn’t grow up that way, and we did not find a Conservative synagogue we liked. We felt most at home with Orthodoxy.
The first book I read about Jewish life at the start of my process was Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life. She wrote about how if you loved Woody Allen movies, you might feel like you were Jewish. That was pretty much the extent of my glimpse into cultural Judaism.
In Orthodox conversion classes, learning about the culture of Judaism isn’t a thing. You don’t get to hear about the comedy of the Catskills or go on field trips to famous Jewish delis, even the kosher ones.
Instead, you learn mostly about the laws dealing with keeping kosher, Shabbat, modesty, and the holidays, and you study the Torah. Then, you move to an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where you meet other Orthodox people, and you are solidified in your bubble.
Don’t get me wrong — I love my Orthodox community. I don’t know how I ever would have survived Los Angeles without them or grown so much in my spirituality. But I don’t want to only live in a bubble. I need more cultural Jews, and cultural Judaism, in my life.
Thank goodness, I have many culturally Jewish friends who are willing to come to my neighborhood and eat at a kosher restaurant with me. I can watch Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and follow the likes of Sarah Silverman and Ester Steinberg online. I can always see a great comedy show at the Canter’s Deli Kibitz Room or read Alma when I’m jonesing for some culture, too.
Going forward, though, I want it to be easier for converts and Orthodox people like me, who wish to have more cultural Judaism in their lives, to be able to access it. And I think it wouldn’t hurt for this exchange to go both ways.
Maybe Orthodox synagogues and conversion classes could host secular speakers and do a tour at the Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum, for instance. Culturally Jewish organizations could bridge the gap as well by holding events at (legitimate) kosher delis and teaming up with Orthodox synagogues.
We could aim to teach each other about the value of both the religious and cultural aspects of Judaism, and why both are important, and how one cannot exist without the other.
I know that learning more about the cultural side of Judaism will only positively enhance my sense of self. When I have kids, I want to pass down not only a love for God, the Torah, and the Jewish people, but also an appreciation for Jewish movies, kitschy memorabilia, pastrami on rye, lox on bagels, and all those other critically important, delicious, fun, and amazing parts of our collective Jewish identity.