Jew by Choice



by Stacey Zisook Robinson

I am a Jew by choice.

And before you ask – both my parents are Jewish. One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandfather, sheltered by his tallit, as he gave the benediction to his congregation on Rosh HaShanah. We celebrated the major Jewish holidays – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach, anything else being an esoteric holdover of a bygone age – mainly with a meal. Occasionally, we even made it to synagogue.

I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Sunday and Hebrew school, bat mitzvah and confirmation class. I was dropped off and sent inside while my parents had a quiet Sunday morning, or a free hour or two on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late afternoon. I sat, every Saturday morning for almost a year, reading ancient Hebrew and what seemed like even more ancient English, littered with “thees” and “thous” and flowery beyond belief, alone among a handful of old men, as required by the dictates of my upcoming bat mitzvah. Alone, because my parents had other things to do.

I devoured religious school. I felt as if I had found the place where I belonged, had always belonged, a familiar and sheltering home, as we navigated through Jewish history and holidays. I ran through all the primers for Hebrew that our rabbi could throw at me, such that by the time my family switched synagogues, I was a year ahead of the rest of the kids in my secular school grade. And it wasn’t just schooling: There was youth group and music, too. Debbie Friedman’s (z”l) songs were fresh and new and grabbed something inside us, got our hands clapping and hearts soaring. We sang a new song to God, and we did it with joy.

When I became a bat mitzvah (although, when I became a bat mitzvah, we still had a bat mitzvah; there was none of this “becoming” stuff), – from the bima I gave a bat mitzvah speech that I declared my parents to be “Lox and Bagel Jews,” people who ate their way through Jewish culture, but who, when push came to shove, really felt more comfortable on the golf course than the sanctuary floor on a Saturday morning. I further declared that I would never be like them (remember, I was a teenager). Most importantly, I declared my intention and desire to become a rabbi.

All of my fervent declarations were met with a hearty chuckle, most especially from my parents. Although they were willing to play along with my more participatory adventures in Judaism, they drew the line at the rabbinate. “That’s really not a job for a nice Jewish girl,” they told me. Funny thing, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a girl – after all, we were living in the modern world of 1974, and women could do anything (sort of). No, they didn’t think the calling appropriate because they figured I’d never make enough money by praying professionally.

Like most teenagers, I was adamant, intractable, supercilious and superior. At 13, I knew the answers to life, the universe and everything.

By 15, though, I knew there was no God and that religion – specifically Judaism – was nonsense. I refused to participate because I refused to be a hypocrite. Of course, I still took off from school, and later, work, for all the major Jewish holidays, and I ate all the major Jewish meals at their appointed times, each in its season. A girl has to eat, right?

From then until my early forties, I was a Jew by birth, and that was about it. I did not disavow my Judaism and I did not seek other religious option, though I flirted with alcohol as an emergency spiritual plan and then with a kind of universal (not to be confused with Universalist) just-be-a-good-person, peace-and-love kind of amorphous spirituality that had no form – and certainly no God. It was easier for me to be disconnected and contemptuous, and so I was.

Somewhere along my way, something happened, something changed. Getting sober helped. Getting married certainly didn’t hurt. Having a child pushed me over the edge, turned my contempt into something quite like hope. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon a grace note of faith.

And now? Now I am a Jew by choice. Every day – let me repeat that: every day – I choose to be a Jew. I choose to engage and connect and participate and act and worship and pray as a Jew. It is a conscious act, like the King who says to Scheherazade: “Good story. I guess I won’t kill you today. Maybe tomorrow.” Some days, I am the King; some, Scheherazade. I must both act and choose. With that, I find a measure of peace, a sense of wonder, the joy of obligation and the freedom of service.

I still like riotous, raucous, chaotic family meals to celebrate the holidays, but there is so much more, for me, to being Jewish: It is family tradition and ritual, faith and intent. It is cultural and religious and social. It is how I live my life as an individual and as a member of a community. It is family meals and silent prayer. It is difficult and simple and resonates within me and fills me with light.

I am a Jew because I act. I am a Jew because I choose.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. This post originally appeared on her blog, Stumbling towards meaning:  Stacey’s Blog.

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14 Responses to “Jew by Choice”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Okay, Scheherazade. We look forward to the next story!

  2. avatar

    I am a Jew by choice. My Grandmother came from a Jewish family, except for the tidbits of wisdom that came from my Grandmother’s guidance I was raised in a religious void. Where we lived, the housing projects sometimes in Chicago and sometimes in Los Angeles, you dared not to be Jewish. It was treated as a family secret. Now a grown women I came to Judiasm as spiritual search. When I am at temple services I envision my Grandmother with me, something she was denied because outside influences.
    I don’t feel comfortable most of the time with other members because I was not raised Jewish and lack a Jewish education but I still feel Jewish because of my connection with my Grandmother and the spiritual connection I need.

  3. avatar
    Stacey Zisook Robinson Reply April 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Fern– thank you for your story! I believe that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. We all choose, to believe, to pray, to act and do, as mindfully as we know how. It is that mindfulness that connects us, both to God and to each other. I believe, too, that there are no degrees of Judaism; that is, I am not more Jewish because of an accident of birth, and some other person is more Jewish because of his/her adherence to ritual. I’m glad you found us, whatever path you took to get here. Our community is all the richer for your presence.

  4. avatar

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Like the rain outside today that waters the earth, your words helped nourish spiritual souls.

  5. avatar

    Regarding your religious school, where “I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Sunday and Hebrew school, bat mitzvah and confirmation class,”

    you ought to pause before you make statements like that, for you surely know that that little bit of education, where the infinity of Torah is concerned, hardly qualifies as “full complement”, or, to be frank, even an iota. There is more to what they can teach a few hours a day, if that much, when subjects such as Mishna, Gemora, Halacha, Midrash, Chumash, Rashi, etc. make up the daily dosage of learning done at yeshivot.

    Furthermore, “religion” is behavioral interaction with the world as Torah instructs us, according to Halacha, not what we’ve read or spoke about without relaying it into the operative agenda of the day.

  6. avatar

    By aserting that you are Jewish BECAUSE you choose – in and of itself denies HALACHA! Like it or not, you are Jewish because your mother is Jewish and for not any other reason. That you want to flaunt your choice behavior, you ought then to do it under another rubric. For example, “I am a religious Jew because I act so.”

    Only a reformist mindset could conjure up being a Jew because of a “choice” they made late into adulthood, when in fact they were born Jewish, and already Jewish in the womb!

  7. avatar

    Frank – what you say makes more than enough sense because the mother carries her child 9 months before it is born, whereas the man may have no idea whom he impregnated – so fixating on the mother’s religion is more than sound sense.

  8. avatar
    Practicing Reform Jew Reply April 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Frank, whoever he may be, is abusing the hospitality of this blog. This space on the Internet is provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, as it says in its header, to provide the news and views of Reform Jews.

    Frank, and Mary_Linda as well, are fully entitled to practice their variation on authentic Judaism, which forgets that Halachah comes from the word to walk, that is, to move forward. If they feel that being born of a Jewish mother is all that is needed to be a Jew, so be it. Some of us, however, believe that what you do during your life has more to do with being Jewish than what your Jewish mother did nine months before you were born.

    Ms. Robinson has eloquently expressed a position which is represents Reform Judaism as an affirmation, not as a genetic accident. More power to her!

    Frank, on the other hand, has expressed a position which represents a total lack of derech eretz, ignorance of the Talmudic principle eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim, and seeming unawareness of the prohibition against loshon horoh. Shame on him!

  9. avatar

    Hi there,

    We nevertheless such as riotous, raucous, disorderly family members foods to signify the holiday season, however there is certainly a lot more, for me personally, in order to becoming Judaism: It really is family members custom as well as practice, belief as well as intention.

    Thanks,
    David

  10. avatar

    Just because I disagree with you make does not mean I ABUSE you “Practicing”. Why should another opinion offend you?

    All I said was is that halacha states a Jew is determined by the mother. Is that abusive? You say halacha, as the word itself connotes, suggests behavior to be the determinant. I, for one, do not feel offended by your disagreement.

    But I respond, to say that halacha does in fact represent how we interact with the world, only some think their own wisdom can best guide them whereas the non-reform perspective relies on what it thinks derives from yet a wiser reference.

    Mary Linda – you make a great point.

  11. avatar
    Practicing Reform Jew Reply May 3, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Frank, When you come into my house as a welcome, but uninvited, guest, it is chutzpadik if not an abuse of my hospitality to immediately tell me that I built it wrong and have furnished it wrong.

    To have criticized Ms. Robinson for judging her Jewish education to have been a full complement is just the first of your rudenesses. To assert that halachah must be affirmed as solely determinative for Jewish behavior in effect impugns the integrity of Reform Judaism in its approach to moving Judaism forward in the world, just as the Rabbis moved Judaism forward even in advance of the destruction of Bayit Sheni, the second Temple.

    On the other hand, your applauding Mary Linda for making a great point — that the egg and not its fertilizing agent is the determinant of one’s Judaism — is to say that Judaism is about biology, not about theology or ethics or culture. A better defense for matrilineality is the greater influence of the mother in instilling religious values — but how can we assume that about a mother who can’t be trusted to know whether the father or her child was Jewish?

    I am a practicing Reform Jew by choice, finding too many flaws for my taste (even if not necessarily for yours) in the Orthodox practice of the household in which I was raised. I still maintain that you owe Ms. Robinson an apology, and also the Union for Reform Judaism an apology for using its blog site as a platform for expressing your rejection of our insistence that Jewishness is in the choices we make after we are born, not the choices our mothers made before we are conceived.

  12. avatar

    Dear Practicing,

    I surfed to your unrestricted website and expressed an opposing opinion. Your seething anger is tangible. Because my comments “impugn the integrity of Reform Judaism in its approach to moving Judaism forward in the world”. That is true. So what? Defend it. Are we not one family? Can I not voice an opinion different from your holy grail?

    You have no reservations when you srike out hard at orthodoxy, do you? You can malign orthodoxy because your early household disappointed you. And now, without orthodoxy, you’re free to steer your own vessel, and, of course, Reform Judaism – by dispensing with strict premises and standards, just as christianity deals with Judaism, fits your bill.

    Mary Linda gave a good reason why a mother would be the best determinant of the child’s religion. Note her reason is besides the fact that halacha so determines it. You insinuated the mother she spoke of behaved promiscuously. I was thinking from a historical perspective where Jewish people were often targeted by antisemitic progroms, of which, unfortunately there were very many in very many lands and for very many centuries. You took “today’s woman” against which to measure her reasoning.

    As I understand the meaning of a blog, it’s open for people to comment. You ought not to fear (or become angered) because of a difference of opinion, or even of a rejection, any more than I feel offended by your attack on me, unless you fear your own logical underpinnings thereby hang in the balance.

    If you wish, I will no longer comment here.

  13. avatar
    Practifcing Reform Jew Reply May 7, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Frank said, If you wish, I will no longer comment here.

    I am not the arbiter of who comments here, just a reader who believes that those who surf to unrestricted sites should make their comments with a degree of derech eretz to their hosts.

    My early household did not disappoint me. It made me the person and the Jew that I am, and to understand that the Creator gave me, and Ms. Robinson, the free will to make choices without having outsiders chide me that those choices are wrong. just as

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    [...] Hooray for me (she said, somewhat drily – after all, this is not about me). But still, I ask myself: “Have I done enough? Have I, have we, the community that surrounds and supports these questing, growing, questioning minds – have we given them enough, to anchor them in their doubt and disbelief, to strengthen them in their journey to adulthood? Will they, too, become Jews by choice?” [...]

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