October 31, 2018

Jew-ish: Growing Up a Jew in W. Michigan

by Emma France in Religion, Travel

I was raised in a lovely home with my parents and three siblings. My mother was born into a Jewish family and my father was raised Christian, though he no longer practices it.

We come from a small town in West Michigan with a population of 2500 people, where I was the only Jewish person in my graduating class. To say I grew up without much exposure to my own culture and religion is an understatement. 

My peers were either Christian or Catholic and there was never a church farther than a couple miles from where I stood. As a child, I attended church services with my grandparents out of guilt for not spending enough time with them. As I grew older, I began to realize the issues I had with Christianity. The experience of sitting unwillingly in those pews had made me almost forget I was Jewish. I remember playing with the other children between services and having to explain that I didn’t believe in any of it, that I was Jewish and that this was not my house. The other children couldn’t grasp it they truly believed Christianity was the one and only religion. I was angry at first because I was young and didn’t understand others’ emotions, but I realized that they didn’t understand it because they were brainwashed and had no exposure to other religions. This was all they knew. I now realize that my issue with Christianity wasn’t necessarily the religion (to each their own), but it was the specific church. After my brothers and I stopped attending, I had given up on religion as a whole and, like everyone else, pretended that part of my identity didn’t exist. The only reason I was still Jewish was because of matrilineal descent, a code of Jewish law. In other words, I was, by default, Jewish because my mother was, whether I chose to accept that or not. 

It wasn’t until high school that I started to acknowledge the Jewish aspect of my identity again. I had a very close knit group of friends, all of whom I still respect and love dearly. Though they practiced Christianity and Catholicism, they never once tried to shove it down my throat. In fact, they wished me a Happy Hanukkah every year. However, they were young and had morbid senses of humor, often making Holocaust jokes directed at me. Things like throwing me in the oven or writing a number on my arm. I laughed them off out of fear or rejection and because I felt outnumbered, but to this day I regret not having told them how offensive it was. Though I attended a rather small public school, I tried as best I could to keep my religion a secret due to the fact that I was not comfortable being put on the spot or talking about something I had little knowledge about. I was Jewish by birthright, but I felt as if I didn’t belong to it. Because the community was mostly Christian, holidays and other stories were talked about in many of my classes. It was the norm. I had become accustomed to it. 

After my move to Kalamazoo in 2016, I became more curious about my culture and religion. I joined Hillel, the Jewish college student organization, where I had felt even more out of place. It’s a small chapter, but the people involved were raised in traditional Jewish homes, regularly attended synagogue, and knew traditional Hebrew prayers like the back of their hand. I tried to tell myself that I was only a little behind and that it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel like I just didn’t fit in. I decided to continue attending the weekly Shabbats and eventually found myself on the executive board my sophomore year of college. In October of 2017, I was offered a spot on the Taglit Birthright trip, and two months later, I was in the Jewish homeland of Israel. 

I heard “free trip to Israel” (how very Jewish of me) and immediately began the application process, pushing my fears and social anxiety aside. The weeks leading up to my flight, I started to get incredibly anxious and avoided the subject when people asked about it. I was so nervous I almost backed out of the trip altogether. I was scared of many things; traveling around a new country with 40 strangers, being involved in religious activities and traditions I didn’t know or actively practice, etc. I ended up going on one of the most eye-opening and exhilarating adventures of my life.  

The trip to Israel is another blog post altogether. But those two weeks I spent immersing myself in Israeli culture made me accept my identity as a Jew. While touring Mt. Hertzl, a friend I had expressed my concerns to said to me, “Just because you don’t feel Jewish doesn’t mean you aren’t. You’re on this trip, aren’t you? It’s your birthright. You’re Jewish, regardless of whether you feel like it or not.” Maybe it was the atmosphere and environment I was surrounded in, but he helped me solidify my identity. Judaism is interesting in regards to the fact that it is both a religion and a culture. I still have issues with religion, but after stepping foot into one of the holiest and most respected temples in the world, I understand why people believe in it. The forty other Jews (the most I’ve ever seen in a given point in time) understood that I was essentially new to the religion and helped me learn the prayers and traditions for services. They told me about their temples back home and what it was like to have a Bat Mitzvah. In fact, there were a few others on the trip who didn’t have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah growing up, so the staff organized a small ceremony at one of the Israeli hotels we were staying at. Myself and the others read from the Torah and were raised on the chair during the Horah. Who else can say they had their Bat Mitzvah in Israel?! Maybe the prayers aren’t for me, but it was nice to have at least been welcomed into it by other Jews, something I had missed growing up. 

My experience, or lack thereof, as a Jew growing up in Christian communities was detrimental to my identity. I am in no way angry that this is how I was raised, if anything, it only made my trip to Israel all the more extraordinary. Things are the way they are and I cannot be angry at anyone for the absence of a Jewish presence in my life. As an adult, I have the autonomy to explore my culture and traditions as I please. I grew up surrounded by others that didn’t acknowledge that part of me, and while I wished it had been more prominent in my upbringing, it was out of my control. Though I’m still young and have much to learn, I’ve come to the realization that my Jewishness wasn’t something to hide or be ashamed of, even though others ignored that part of me, but it something I was meant to explore all on my own. For me, religion is very much a personal experience. My religion is mine and it means what I want it to mean to me. That’s not anyone else’s to erase. 

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