In March of 2017, I received an email that would change my life: I had been accepted into a master’s program in London. I was absolutely ecstatic. I was a recent graduate of a university so close to my childhood abode in Denver that I could easily take public transit and live at home (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and was itching for a change — a BIG change. And this was it.
Though I was, and still am, more religious than my family, I was still very much the average secularized American Jew. Half-Jewish on my dad’s side, Reform in belief, a Democrat, a theatre kid in high school, the odd Yiddish phrase here and there, an Ashkenazi surname that immediately pegged me as a Member of the Tribe — I had it all. I lit Shabbat candles and went to temple every now and again and my spiritual practice took on new depths as I matured during my college years.
I started to throw Hanukkah parties, cook matzah-ball soup furiously, and attended Passover seders with my elderly Jewish neighbors. I felt such a deep connection with my heritage and spirituality that I even decided to convert, a decision I made because I wanted to be fully, officially Jewish. Knowing I was moving across the pond, I wanted to be absolutely accepted by whichever Jewish communities I might find. Plus, the classes and preparation for my mikveh were a welcome break from the frustrating visa process and long-distance apartment hunting.
It all happened very quickly — classes ended, I immersed in the mikveh and became a full-fledged Jew, my visa arrived, my apartment was booked, and before I knew it, I was standing in Heathrow International Airport with two suitcases that held all of my belongings and no idea what the hell I was doing.
Living in central London was everything living in suburban Denver wasn’t: loud, polluted, filled with tourists, old, and busy. My university in London was a formerly-Christian institution that holds fast to its Church of England roots. It’s a good school with a mostly wealthy, upper-crust English student body.
I felt remarkably… foreign. I pined for the kosher section in my grocery stores in Colorado, I blushed when I accidentally let slip a Yiddish word or phrase, and my search for a local synagogue left me frustrated — they were all hidden, invisible to passersby, and no matter how liberal they were, they were all poorly-attended, velvet-chaired affairs with whispered passages in dense Hebrew. I missed the jubilant, shouted songs and the joke-filled sermons of my temple back home. Soon I found myself hiding parts of my Jewish identity — never bringing it up in conversations, and praying in English or not at all in public. I was, as REM put it, losing my religion — as well as my culture and a huge part of my personality.
I thought at the time that it was against my will, that I had to hide my Jewishness for want of a community and to better blend in with my posh, quiet peers in my serious and prestigious program. But now I realize I was shutting down, trying to cope with the changes I dealt with by making myself passive and ordinary, a fish in the current of London’s rushing rivers where it felt like if you deviate from the path, you could get crushed.
But as I grew more comfortable in London and made friends, my friends wanted to know the true me. They were brave in sharing their fears and unique identities with me and I felt I owed them the same openness. I soon learned to embrace my Jewishness and Jewish eccentricities, and in doing so, realized that they not only make me happy but make me feel connected me to the worldwide diaspora. I remembered I still had a community no matter where I went — it was both everywhere and inside myself.
A lot helped me in that time. I took hour-long Tube rides on the Northern Line to Golders Green where I could find warm babka in bakeries and familiar treats and wine in the best store ever: Kosher Kingdom. I stood out a little in the Orthodox neighborhood but found smiles and kindness as soon as I “shalom!”-ed. I let my hair grow out and embraced my unpredictable curls and watched waaaaaay too much Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I shared apples and honey with my roommates and cooked matzah-ball soup for my friends during dissertation writing so we wouldn’t get sick (side note: I am now a legend for my bubbe-like ability to cook a matzah-ball soup that’ll prevent and cure all woes).
Something amazing and unexpected happened when I embraced my Jewishness — I found my openness and pride in my identity to be infectious in other parts of my life. For the first time ever, I allowed others to read my poetry and won an award for it. I let my humor come through in my writing and got my master’s degree. I let my adventurousness take me on solo trips to Germany, Belgium, and Scotland, and I conquered my fears of heights and water at the most intense water park in the world in the Canary Islands. I found fun and unbridled joy in openness and acceptance. It was exhilarating.
So when I received an offer to pursue my PhD in the UK, I accepted. I bid goodbye to London, but I’ve made sure to hold onto the unexpected gift it gave me while I live in the southeastern tip of England. My Jewish identity has become a subtle rebellion against the grain, a challenge to the casual anti-Semitism of the UK that results, from my experience, by the lack of visible Jewishness and Jewish education. Though I’m still kinda miffed at the one girl who very seriously forgave me for “killing Jesus.” Sigh. You can’t win ‘em all.
My Jewishness is everywhere now, from the friends I’ve made in the small but defiantly-Jewish community in my new town to the thesis I’m writing in my Theology and Religious Studies PhD. It’s in my kosher kitchen and in the shots of whiskey I’ve taken with a nice Chabad rabbi I know (heh). It’s on my tongue when I pray in Hebrew and English and in the books on Jewish feminism crammed onto my shelves. Perhaps most importantly to me, it’s now in my every action and reaction along with the openness, confidence, and pride in myself that came as a beautiful side effect from loving my identity and personality.
And yeah, it’s in my ability to rap every word of Rachel Bloom’s “JAP Rap Battle,” okay?!