Winner: Mira Scarvalone
I come from an interesting family. My father was raised a Christian and my mother, as an adult, converted to Judaism. I have only one Jewish grandparent. So technically, I am only a quarter Jewish. But I was never faced with the choice of being a Christian, or possibly both Jewish and Christian. I used to regret that a little bit; being half of each sounded like fun. But as I grew older I learned to appreciate why my mother insisted on raising me Jewish.
Growing up Jewish in New York was never easy. From a young age I realized that not everyone else was like me. In my public elementary school, I met some, but not many, Jewish students. I did not go to synagogue often, except for High Holidays and Hebrew school classes. Most of my classmates never really understood what it was like to be Jewish, and when it came time for my bat mitzvah, my friends were mostly excited to go to a party. No one really understood that it was a rite of passage, or how important it was to me that I was finally considered a Jewish adult. Perhaps this is what made me shy away from my Jewish identity when I was younger, the fact I didn’t really have any good friends who were Jewish.
I always had trouble at Christmastime. My neighborhood would string Christmas decorations from the street lamps, and play Christmas music in the stores. I used to feel a little envious of the fact that Christians got such a fun holiday. Sure, Hanukkah was enjoyable, but my parents never gave me pres- ents on the grounds that traditional Hanukkah gifts consisted of gelt, and giving actual presents was just out of the desire to imitate Christians. (They were right.) All my friends would get excited about Christmas and the presents they were going to get, while I felt slightly jealous. I would spend my Christmas visiting my father’s relatives for a big dinner. I never enjoyed doing that, seeing how there was a tree, and stockings, and everything. I’ve always wanted to just go bowling on Christmas, or eat Chinese food, but I’ve never gotten the chance.
I used to resent the fact that my parents never sent me to a Jewish day school. Then, I figured, I would have more Jewish friends, which might give me an incentive to go to synagogue more often and do more “Jewish” things. But I came to realize that the fact that I have constantly been exposed to non-Jewish elements of life, and to people who aren’t Jewish who question my religion, has made me a better Jew. I’ve had plenty of time to think about why I want to be Jewish, and I’ve been given the opportunity not to do certain Jewish things, like have a bat mitzvah. But I’ve always chosen to remain Jewish because my Jewish identity is important to me. I love being Jewish, and even though I may not always be surrounded by people who feel the same, I will always be confident in my religion.
These days I still don’t go to synagogue for Shabbat very often. But I come on Wednesdays to help out at the Hebrew school, where I am a teaching aide for first graders. I have found that I love to teach them about all things Jewish, and help them to learn more about their religion. I’m certainly glad my family encouraged me to do so.