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!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • 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.