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But what about me? Unlike the people in Horowitz’s study, there was no single event for me, no holy smoking gun. As a kid, my parents exposed me and my sibling to a bit of both religious traditions but otherwise backed off from making us pick a team. I grew up in the South, where I went to public school with a lot of evangelical kids whose first question to a new student was “What’s your name?” and second was “Which church do you go to?”
Looking back, my early interest in Judaism was a way of rejecting the Christian culture that I felt rejected by. Considering I couldn’t even tell you what Jewish people thought or believed, “Jewish” was just my way of being a weird kid. It was the word I used instead of “goth” or “freak” or “artist.” Instead of black lipstick or a nose ring, I picked a Star of David.
For some reason, I stuck with Judaism. On the first Friday night of college, I showed up at my campus’s sad little Hillel, which shared space with the almost-as-small Catholic Student Union. (Because I attended a Southern public university, the Campus Crusade for Christ had two rooms and an off-campus meeting space.) A dozen of us put together a sign-up sheet for who would bring kosher food and lead services week to week. Then I realized that I had no idea how to lead services, what happened in a service, what all those Hebrew words in the service meant or how food that didn’t contain pork products could still not be kosher. I never went back.
During my aborted attempt to join Hillel, I discovered the existence of a program called Taglit-Birthright Israel, which I finally went on during the Christmas — not “winter holiday,” the school called it “Christmas” — break of my senior year. I was placed on an “orphan trip,” which consisted of students whose Hillels and on-campus Jewish organizations were too small or poor to put together their own trips. The trip had an arts-and-culture focus, which meant that between visits to the Kotel and Masada we would also learn how to paint things and do improv. But my “I’ll finally magically learn everything about Judaism simply by setting foot in the Holy Land” plan was a disaster from the beginning. Instead of a direct El Al flight, our group ended up on a wayward series of planes from New York to Reykjavik to Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, arriving a day and a half late. We packed 10 days’ worth of sightseeing into eight, and the jet lag never went away. I was 21 and panicking about what I was going to do in six months. Most of the other students were 18 and obsessed with legal drinking and making out with soldiers. I had forgotten all of their names by the time I arrived back home.
When I came up with a plan of sorts six months later — it involved a bus to Manhattan and an unpaid internship disguised as a job — I thought that I might find myself, or at least my Jewish self, through some sort of New York City magic. At a mixer for young Jews who had just moved to the city, one girl mentioned that she only really hung out with “eco-kashrut Reconstructionist Jews,” to which I replied, “There are enough of those people that you have friends?”
Soon, though, there were all kinds of Jews in my life, everywhere. A new friend invited me to something I’d never heard of before — a minyan. It met in his West Village apartment. It was the first time I hadn’t been terrified or intimidated at a religious service. There was a mix of Hebrew and English, with a transliterated siddur so that I could actually understand what I was supposed to be thanking G-d for. A rabbinical student whispered in my ear when new parts of the service came up so that I could know what was going on and why.
It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t anything my great-grandparents would have recognized as a synagogue, but it was the first time in my life that I had ever loved being Jewish for its own sake, not because it marked me as cool or different.
Had my parents inculcated a love of Judaism in me, would I have found myself in that West Village apartment? I doubt it.
Lilit Marcus is the author of “Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace” (Hyperion). She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Blackbook and The Atlantic.