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by Alyssa Goldstein
At the very beginning of my freshman year at Bard, I never, ever would have expected that I’d be involved in Jewish life there, much less become the head of its Jewish Students Organization. Clubs involved with socialism, the labor movement, the environment? Sure. But why would I want to go to Shabbat every week? I was (and still am) an atheist. I don’t pray. I’d never been to hebrew school, or had a bat mitzvah, or belonged to a synagogue. When I did have to go to synagogue for the weddings or bnei mitzvot of family and friends, the services I had to sit through seemed boring as hell. I’d celebrate Jewish holidays with my (secular) family and friends, but those gatherings were strictly centered around food, socializing, and more food.
So when I did get involved, it was pretty much by accident. I’d agreed to do promotional work at Bard for the Kibbutz Program Center. I was busy with college stuff and really, really did not want to be doing this work, but I wanted to go to Israel that winter with Hashomer Hatzair and they were going to pay for part of it. So in order to find people who might be interested in taking my pamphlets, I went to Rosh Hashanah dinner. And then I heard that there would be cooking for Shabbat. Every week. With challah baking! And it would all be vegetarian! I could try out my new vegan challah recipe! Intrigued by the promise of non-cafeteria food, I went. I hit it off with the rabbi and his affectionate golden retriever, and since I had to attend Shabbat the next night if I wanted to eat the food we’d made, I figured that sitting through the service wouldn’t be too bad. Since that week, I’ve hardly missed a single Shabbat dinner. The company was great, the food was good (with the exception of a few adventurous mishaps) and I found singing the prayers to be relaxing. I know the whole service by heart now.
In order for me to grow to enjoy Jewish campus life so much, I really had to feel comfortable in my Judaism, and that hasn’t always been easy for me. First, there was the fact that I was one of the lone secular Jews in an Orthodox neighborhood, and it was a challenge for me as an 8 year old to convince my Orthodox playmates that I was still a Jew, albeit a very different type of Jew than they were. Not only did I not wear long skirts or go to yeshiva, my mother wasn’t even Jewish, and we celebrated Christmas each winter along with Hanukah. I was also an atheist, and for awhile I thought that this precluded my Jewishness. I didn’t want a bat mitzvah--not only did my shy and awkward preteen self find the thought of being the center of attention absolutely horrifying, but I didn’t feel right going through any kind of religious ritual when I just didn’t believe at all.
When I joined Hashomer Hatzair at the age of 13, it seemed like my path to Judaism had magically opened. It was obvious that this was a movement steeped in Judaism, but an entire summer at camp passed without a single mention of god. We talked about socialism and social justice as Jewish values. No one cared that my parents were intermarried, or that I celebrated Christmas. We dressed in white for shabbat and dedicated the candles each week to our hopes for the future.
It wasn’t until several years later, after I grew comfortable in the Hashomer style of Judaism, that I was suddenly reminded of the confusion I’d once felt. At summer camp, one of the staff members’ wife was a rabbi, and she asked us counselors if she could do the dedication of the Shabbat candles that week. We agreed, thinking there would be no problem, and she did a more traditional candle-lighting and prayer. Some of the campers got up to participate, but others were extremely upset at the intrusion of religion into the secular Jewish space. One camper furiously asked why we were propagating a religious tradition which devalued her for being a woman. I was secure in my secular Judaism at that point, so I could approach the candle-lighting prayer as something interesting and different rather than something threatening. But for our young campers, Hashomer was a precious refuge. Suffice it to say, our Shabbat candle-lightings were strictly secular from then on.
I’m not active in Hashomer anymore, and I’m now able to see some of the flaws in the movement’s Judaism (for example, it definitely bought into the “new Jew” ideology which presupposed that Jewish bodies were weak and feeble and needed to be made strong). But for now, at least, I no longer feel at all confused or ambivalent about being Jewish. There are many, many different ways of being Jewish, and whichever one you choose, there is always going to be someone else out there who thinks you’re a bad Jew. For instance, I’ve met a lot of people (even secular ones!) who hear that my mother isn’t Jewish, and say, “oh, so you’re not really Jewish.” (Helpful hint for being a decent human: never say this to anyone). Having my Palestinian boyfriend help me schlep my Christmas tree up the stairs may also not be the most conventional Jewish behavior. But who wants to be conventional?