For One Teen, Getting a Jewish Education Was a Form of Rebellion

Lilit Marcus' Quest Back to Her Roots — On Her Own Terms

New Jew: Lilit Marcus says her parents’ hands-off approach allowed her to explore Judaism on her own terms.
Thinkstock
New Jew: Lilit Marcus says her parents’ hands-off approach allowed her to explore Judaism on her own terms.

By Lilit Marcus

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.