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Lost in Jewish No-Man’s Land

When my friend recently circled her husband-to-be, blindfolded by an opaque laced cloth, her mother and mother-in-law each holding a candle in one hand with her dress train in the other, I had a moment like many I’ve had throughout my life: I wished I were more religious.

My near envy had nothing to do with her wedding, or the seven circles custom, as many Reform and secular Jews do this while approaching the Chuppah. It had to do with my ongoing adult struggle to have a more defined sense of who I am as a Jew and what it means to be Jewish — something I presumptuously assume Jews who abide fully by Halachic law must securely know.

My religiosity is a hybrid of Eastern philosophy and Kabbalistic spirituality. Its foundation was built by the suburban Chicago Reform household and synagogue in which I grew up. The walls are sprinkled with Conservative experiences I have had and witnessed, and the windows peer into glimpses of occasional Orthodox fantasies. Most days I feel comfortable with this amalgamation. Some days, I feel like I’m not doing “Jewish” right.

The first time I fantasized about being Orthodox was in high school. My confirmation class went on a field trip to a nearby Jewish day school. I don’t remember why we were there or what we were learning, but I will never forget looking to my left and seeing a girl with long brown hair and a long red dress covering her knees, long sleeves covering her arms. I remember thinking, I could do that, I could wear long sleeves and long hems and feel closer to God. I remember thinking that’s what being more religious would do — bring me closer to God.

The year after high school, I studied in Oxford, England, at a school for American students taking a gap year before college and British students taking A-level exams. One day at the local gym, I put on my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah shirt. It was a play on the Hard Rock Café symbol with his hometown of Flossmoor, Ill., featured at the bottom. In typical Jewish geography fashion, a girl across the locker room announced she grew up in Flossmoor. She was on her junior year abroad from the University of Pennsylvania (where I would coincidentally go myself) at Oxford University.

She invited me to join her for Friday night shul and dinner at Oxford’s Jewish Society. Having never before fully observed Shabbat, I joined her, intrigued. It was a Conservative shul. I remember the melodies flowing through my body. I remember feeling deprived having never before learned or sung the words to L’Chah Dodi. In the days and weeks that followed, I walked around in the British winter, the tune pulsing through my head.

During my freshman year of college, my parents came to visit for Parents’ Weekend, mere weeks after my younger brother had been hit by a car and killed. Though shiva had ended, we were still in mourning and went to Hillel to say Kaddish on Shabbat. We walked into the Reform service where everyone was sitting in a circle. One girl had a guitar in her cross-legged lap. My mother looked at my father and me and gave us a look that this didn’t feel “right.” We walked downstairs to the Conservative service and felt more at home. I continued this dance throughout college — Conservative services on the high holidays because the Reform ones didn’t feel like “enough,” but otherwise, I barely entered Hillel. In fact, I spent more time in college at both my campus’ LGBT center and black cultural center, even though I’m heterosexual and white.

After college, I spent the fall and winter living in Atlanta. That Rosh Hashanah, I saw the film “Black Dahlia” with two friends, both Reform Jews. For Yom Kippur, I felt compelled to attend shul, and ended up at a family friend’s Reform synagogue, sitting alone, as the family friend skipped services to prepare the break fast meal, which I would attend later that night. I remember feeling at home there in her temple, listening to the Rabbi’s sermon, contemplating my sins, relishing in my Judaism.

I’ve lived in New York City for six years. I’m terrified to admit this, but every holiday is an internal struggle. I never really feel fulfilled. Instead, I feel stuck in an amorphous quagmire. It felt so much easier to define my Judaism when I was growing up: I was Reform; I went to Hebrew school; I fasted on Yom Kippur and didn’t eat bread or corn syrup on Pesach; I chanted 40 verses at my Bat Mitzvah and kept studying with my Bat Mitzvah tutor until I was 14 because I loved learning about Judaism.

My mother and extended family still live in Chicago, and I can’t fly home for every holiday. My father now lives in New York, and while he attends shul on the high holidays, like I do, sometimes it gets complicated finding a synagogue to attend. My grandmother and uncle live in Scarsdale, but they haven’t celebrated a holiday in decades. My boyfriend’s family is in Long Island, and they while they no longer attend shul, they have meals and gatherings every holiday. My Jewish friends range from Modern Orthodox to Reform to atheist and secular. Every holiday I have a host of choices; every holiday is — like my religiosity — an amalgamation.

Growing up, my Judaism was contained; it was all so easy to box. But then I spotted the girl in the long red dress at the Jewish day school, and studied in Europe, and went to college, and moved to Atlanta, and settled in New York. I’m not sure if living under my parents’ roof, belonging to our synagogue, or being too young and naïve to question my Jewish identity is what kept me anchored. But I do know that now, at 30 years old, I feel lost. I feel like I’m wandering in the desert, praying for manna from heaven — anything concrete to tell me what I am. Anything to tell me if I’m doing this right. But maybe that’s the whole point: constantly questioning and searching for meaning that matters to each of us – a language and lens through which to negotiate mortality, no matter what religiosity with which we do or do not affiliate.

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