Editor's Note: Each year, Nueva students submit their work to the Bay Area Scholastic Writing Awards. This year, 16 students received recognition (for 21 different pieces) from a panel of novelists, editors, teachers, poets, librarians, journalists, and other literary professionals from more than 2,300 submitted works. A few students have offered to share their winning pieces with the Nueva community. This piece was written by junior Gigi S., who earned an honorable mention for her personal essay, "Jew-ish?"
About her piece, Gigi said, "I wrote this last year as a pastiche based off of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. In my piece, I grapple with my relationship with Judaism and my identity."
At Synagogue, if you sit next to me, you (being a devout Jew yourself) will hear me sing every prayer in harmony, while you sing along (likely out of tune for four hours). You, a grandmother, appreciate how someone so young knows every prayer, and you enjoy sitting next to someone who sings well. What you don’t know is that I sing in harmony, not because I love praying (as you do), or going to Synagogue (as you do), or being Jewish (do I?), but because I no longer need to read the prayers (I know all four hours by heart—I despise that I know this), and I don’t want to connect with the Hebrew words (and supposedly God—well—if they exist. Do they?), and so I entertain myself through the prayers each weekend by harmonizing—a gift, distancing me from the religiosity of prayer.
When I stand to bow to God (I bend as little as possible) during the עמידה, you notice out of the corner of your beady eye that underneath my prayer shawl, which covers my shoulders, that they are (you think inappropriately) bare—a little rebellion of my own. The rabbi then parades the Torah around and you ceremoniously kiss your own tassled prayer shawl (covering your covered shoulders I might add) and touch it to the Torah while I pretend I can’t reach it from where I stand. You kiss the Torah because it represents Jewish study (and of course, the word of God) as Judaism believes that questioning and intellectual enlightenment is the path to God.
Can one be intellectually enlightened and believe in God? Are these mutually exclusive? I (an aspiring intellect) appreciate the sentiment of intellectual enlightenment, and it is generally a part of Judaism that I (reluctantly) enjoy. I like the arguing inherent in Torah interpretation, that there are many ways to understand text, that there is never one right answer, as is true when writing an English paper or using persuasive historical analysis. I like that we are allowed to question. To argue. However, even though we are allowed to question the rules (and possibly God? I may be pushing the envelope with this one), somehow, we still blindly follow the rules. So, when I asked in Hebrew school, “Why do I—why must women cover their shoulders?” (It is the 21st century, is it not?) I was told that it was out of respect for God because “God said so” in the Torah (or some ancient men who wrote a rulebook for a society they created?). I hope you can see the irony in Judaism that I am trying to point out here.
Does this irony even matter? You and I are both Jewish, whether we like it or not. When the next Hitler, comes to kill the Jews—a repeated pattern in Jewish history, think Babylon, The Inquisition, Pogroms, the 2018 Synagogue Shootings—you and I will be killed. It doesn't matter that I believe less than you. It wouldn’t matter even if I decided I didn’t want to be Jewish. I would still be dead.
This begs the question: do I accept Judaism as a part of me because I carry the weight of being Jewish no matter what? Though Judaism has its blind followers (the part I detest), it is (my?) culture, (my?) family, a set of values shared across (our?) people for the past 5781 years. Every Friday night I come home for Shabbat, I am drawn in by the glowing candlelight, the familiar taste of honey tinted challah, melodies that feel like home, and the warmth of my family's arms wrapped around me. On Fridays I rest, enjoy peace, and cherish family. This (as you can probably tell) is my favorite part of being Jewish.
I will always be burdened with being part of a frequently hated ethnic group. If I am stuck with this burdensome part forever, does that mean I should keep practicing Judaism to enjoy the warm parts? The parts that mean something to me? Despite the irony, despite the contradictions, despite the fact that my religion may be based on belief in a God that doesn’t exist? Should I pass these traditions on to my own children if they are burdened with this identity the same way I am? I look at you, while you cover your eyes during Judaism's most holy prayer. I wonder if you asked yourself these questions. I wonder if this is how you ended up here, sitting next to me? I wonder if I’ll become you, a Jewish grandmother sitting in Synagogue next to the teenager who has yet to accept her identity and all that it means?