“Jewish” has always been somewhat of an identifier for me, whether I realized it or not. From an interfaith family, I was raised Jewish. The extended family I grew up with was the Jewish side, so Judaism felt much more dominant than Catholicism. And I was constantly surrounded by fellow Jews.
I grew up in New York, in Westchester County — pretty Jewish. I went to Northwestern University near Chicago — pretty Jewish. But then, in 2017, I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina — not “pretty” Jewish. In fact, not at all.
I selected Charlotte somewhat arbitrarily to be my post-college home. It was a small city with enough going on, and, well, I got a job there, so off I went. Never once did I consider the Jewish population or lack thereof (though I did think about the political climate because: the South). But I’d never had to consider the presence of Jews before, so I… just didn’t.
Over my first year in Charlotte, being the only Jewish person in my office, not knowing a single other Jew in the city, actually made me feel more Jewish. Nothing about my practice, which had always been mostly secular, had changed, but suddenly, I felt more aware of my identity because nobody else had the same one. No one got my Jewish humor. I had to explain little things (you’ve never heard of challah? Really?!). I brought traditional food in to my office for a few Jewish holidays and patiently explained the traditions a dozen times over the course of the day.
In these moments, it felt kind of fun. For the first time, I was choosing to observe Judaism in my own way, and I relished sharing tiny slivers of what felt like home. I enjoyed being a tiny representative of a culture I loved.
But I also felt like I was missing something. Was I really the only one? Why was I suddenly noticing the lack of Jews and, for lack of a better term, wanting to be more Jewish? Would it be better if I had just one Jewish friend? Or maybe it really didn’t matter and I would just get used to it.
Then I realized: I missed my family. I missed pulling on my sheer tights (anyone else associate the High Holidays with the first time pulling on tights since the previous winter?), sitting in temple alongside all seven of my cousins, and eating bagels with everyone afterwards. It felt like my internal calendar was out of whack—expecting all of these things to happen, yet experiencing none of it. Lighting a menorah alone felt lonely and even ostracizing, having no one around me who even knew what that meant, let alone with whom to share it. I knew not to even think about Passover — I couldn’t do a seder all alone.
And then, in late 2018, my grandfather passed. My first true loss, I felt his absence poignantly for months. Being the Jewish patriarch of the family, he represented my family’s Judaism (to me, anyway). I lit the candles and said the prayers while I was back in New York for the funeral. I lit more candles and said more prayers once I returned to North Carolina. Later that year, I observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for real. I performed tashlich for the first time. I fasted for the first time. I brought food into the office again. And I started going to Chabad events — looking for friends, mostly, but also out of curiosity.
I didn’t suddenly dive into Jewish life. I went to a Chabad event every few months. The first few events, I barely spoke to anyone. My significant other at the time was Catholic and, fortunately, super interested in learning about Judaism, so was always happy to tag along. Finally, at a women’s challah bake, which I went to alone, I befriended a few people and we actually ended up hanging out a week later. Finally! A few Jewish friends.
Then, a few months ago, I took a very Jewish job with a very Jewish organization: Moishe House. It felt like my life became super Jewish overnight.
At first, I reveled in feeling at home surrounded by Jews all the time. I loved bringing out my Yiddish vocabulary and learning new terms every day. I loved working with a Jewish educator to become more fluent in the things I wrote about on social media. But soon, the lines between my own Jewish journey and my job began to blur. What did I have to learn for the job, and what did I actually want to learn for myself? What did I want from any of the above? Even Jewish social events started to feel like work. I came home from a big Shabbat party one night and said out loud to my empty apartment: “My life is too Jewish.”
I’m hesitant to make a declaration about what this all means for me. It’s strange to have my personal life coincide with my professional life in such a deep way. I’m still exploring my personal connection to the very thing I work on every day. Judaism is clearly meaningful to me — I’m just working out what exactly that looks like. And I expect it to continue to evolve, especially as my work continues to push me to confront different Jewish realities. It would have made for a great story if this concluded with me finding my religion, but, like a good Jew, I am still questioning.
But there is one thing I know for certain: I’m grateful to have Jews back in my life, I had no idea how much I took it for granted while growing up. And wherever my life takes me next, whatever religious (or non-religious) path I wind up on, I know I’ll be looking for my fellow Jews.
Image via David Mark/Pixabay