My siblings and I were raised in Wyoming in a secular household by our Jewish mom and gentile dad, who are both originally from New York (Mom: Long Island, Dad: upstate). We celebrated most of the major Jewish and non-Jewish holidays but it was all very casual. Our town didn’t have a temple or even a rabbi but did have a small Jewish community. Holiday celebrations were either held at someone’s house or a rented space, which now seems to me a perfect metaphor for a people who persevere despite having been continually uprooted and displaced.
I didn’t have Jewish friends growing up. None of the few other Jewish kids were my age and they all went to different schools. Neither myself nor my siblings had bat or bar mitzvahs. I attended a few Hebrew lessons one of the local Jewish community members taught when I was about 12 or so, but as my teenage years approached I decided it was “uncool” and “weird” since none of my friends were involved. Instead of just explaining this to my mom, I told her something along the lines of “I don’t want to study Hebrew because I don’t think I believe in God so I’m not Jewish anymore.” And I will never forget my mom’s reply:
“Well, you don’t have to believe in God but you’re still Jewish.”
Not only is this one of the most Jewish things a Jewish mother could say, but I’ve held it deeply in my heart all these years. I’ve always distinctly felt Jewish, but it wasn’t until my 30s that I really started exploring what that meant to me.
In my mid-20s I went through a very “new age” spiritual phase. I travelled to India where I took private yoga lessons, then went on to Thailand where I attended yoga school for 6 weeks. Upon returning to the US, I began teaching yoga and had a regular meditation practice. I read the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita, and took Religious Studies courses in college focusing on Buddhism and Hinduism. I was also into several various (and questionable) wellness practices and definitely participated in some cultural appropriation.
My Jewish life had always revolved around my mom - she would remind me of holidays and events and if I was available I’d attend them with her. I moved to Tennessee when I was 29 and started to feel a hole in my life that I realized was where “doing Jewish stuff with my mom” had been. I realized I had only a very basic understanding of Judaism and didn’t feel confident enough in my “Jewishness” to seek out a community, so I started reading books, listening to podcasts, and following Jewish accounts on social media. And I discovered my own culture and religion was rich with everything - and more - that I had been seeking in my 20s.
And here I am today, at 37 years old. I’ve still barely skimmed the surface of all Judaism has to offer but I have a 20 month old daughter and it’s very important to me that she grows up knowing the complex beauty of her Jewish heritage. So I’m learning as I go, hoping that we can build traditions and memories together and that she, too, will always proudly “feel Jewish.”
**Note: there is no right or wrong way to be Jewish. If you are Jewish, you are Jewish enough in whatever way that looks to you!**