Asking tough questions

Rachel Schwartz

When my moms and I landed in Tel Aviv last year over winter break I met an old man in traditional Orthodox Jewish garb in line at the airport cafe. He saw me looking at the ice cream flavors and said to me at first in Hebrew and then in heavily accented English, “The best dairy comes from Israel. The ice cream, the milk… this is the land of milk and honey.” He asked me if I had ever been to Israel before and when I told him this was my first visit he said, “Wait till you see Jerusalem. The city will call to you.”

Before I visited the Holy Land I was the most religious member of my family, but since I have been questioning how or if I will involve religion in my life.
In third grade I sent myself to Hebrew school, not in hopes of a huge party to go with my Bat Mitzvah, but because I thought I should have a Jewish education. Though both of my moms consider themselves atheists they like Jewish cultural tradition and gladly sent me. When I was 13 I didn’t want to stop coming to Hebrew school as soon as I got the chance to stand on the bima in front of my friends and family, as was common at my congregation. As the demands from school and ballet increased, however, I stopped attending the Youth program at my synagogue.

Last year as I began to visit some colleges and saw Hillel groups and Jewish life centers on every campus I started to think about how I wanted to approach religion in my life when I would be out on my own. Whereas at home I have to petition to get my moms to go to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, I felt I should get more involved in the Jewish community in college and maybe attend Shabbat services and dinners.

In Israel it was amazing to feel as though I could scratch any patch of soil and physically touch thousands of years of history. I feel grateful to have been able to go and learn about the region’s ancient and modern history and will carry memories like stopping in the middle of the desert to look at the two holes on the face of a mountain where the dead sea scrolls were discovered for the rest of my life.

I was surprised, however, to find that I did not feel a connection to the land as the man in the airport described. I felt totally dissociated from the orthodoxy I witnessed. Whether it was seeing an Armenian priest and his incense get scooted out of the Catholic section of the Church of the Holy sepulcher, watching all of Jerusalem halt as mosques around the city blared the call to prayer in slight syncopation, or watching men bow to the Western Wall with all-consuming fervor, the world there seemed so different from my own, as though it belonged to a different century.

This year when my moms didn’t want to attend High Holy Day services, I didn’t object and at the Bar Mitzvahs I have attended this year I have felt conflicted. It feels good to chant in unison and I still feel proud to know the prayers, but at the same time I wonder whether it is valuable to make such traditions a part of my life in the future. These are the kinds of questions I have been asking myself at the end of my senior year as I struggle to be the person I want to be when I move away from home. I know I am only 18 but sometimes I feel as though I am already running out of time. I want to thank all my teachers for introducing me to the types of discussions that have helped me learn to ask difficult questions of myself and for helping me understand that while there may not be a definitive answer I should always keep asking.