By Monica Rozenfeld (New York, NY)
“It’s Friday! It’s Friday!” my grandmother screamed in distress after Mom turned off the lights in the bedroom. “It’s Friday!”
I was sitting there, witness to the mayhem, not understanding why turning off the lights had anything to do with it being Friday.
I thought that my grandmother had hit some sort of syndrome in her old age.
It was several years later when I fully understood that the only syndrome she had hit was nostalgia for a tradition her family no longer kept.
My family is from Russia, now the Ukraine, where it’s no secret that religious practice was not allowed during my grandmother’s youth. Religious schools were closed, and anyone discovered practicing Judaism was punished harshly.
So, my parents did not have an example of Jewish practice to pass down to me.
The secrets of Judaism had been hidden. Only my great grandparents knew them well: Shabbos, holidays, rituals, Hebrew, and history.
I was an oblivious Jew.
But when I started learning about Judaism in college, the pieces started to fit together.
Friday wasn’t just Friday; it was Shabbos. My grandmother knew the word, but was afraid to say it. So “Friday” became her secret code.
Little by little, I unraveled the pieces of my grandmother’s hidden Jewish life.
Her hatred for traveling on Saturday. Her refusal to cook after sundown on Friday. It all began to make sense.
“Oh, my father loved the holidays,” she would tell me in her beautiful Russian accent. “He celebrated every single one.”
Every single one, and I knew nothing of Purim, Shavout, or even Shabbos.
But after she related these kind memories, my grandmother would share little else with me. She was still afraid of the consequences.
“I’m not sure I am allowed to tell you,” she would say to many of my questions.
I’m not sure her fears ever subsided.
During the Holocaust, my mother once told me, she was just one gunshot away from the end of her life.
If that gun had gone off, my mother would never have come into the world, and I, of course, wouldn’t be here.
Before the gun was fired, though, a Russian soldier, speaking in perfect German, demanded the Nazi put down his gun and leave, and he did.
And my grandmother hadn’t forgotten G-d since that day.
So how did I start learning about Judaism?
The truth is, I always had sparks of G-d in me.
I always talked to G-d, and I always felt I walked with G-d.
But I didn’t know it was a “Jewish” G-d that I believed in until I took a Torah class in college. The speaker–a rabbi–said, “You only fall when you forget who you are.”
I was awe-struck, glued to this sentence: I only fall when I forget who I am. I only fall when.. I forget who I am?
Who was I?
The only solid answer that I came up with was: I’m Jewish.
And that visceral response led me on a Jewish path to finding my existence in this awakened identity.
Since then, I’ve become even more curious and engaged and excited to learn.
I want to know everything that I can about Judaism and what Judaism has to do with me. And I want to know how to thank Judaism for the very existence of me.
I just want to know.
Judaism has become more than an identity, a culture, a spiritual retreat. It has become my world.
And as I continue to learn about Jewish history – from our exile to slavery to the gun pointed at my grandmother – I find myself in awe that I am here, today, and, here, Jewishly.
I guess it’s true that we all go on our own soul-search trying to find out who we are and where we belong. I’m sure there have been many times I have been tested, forced to question who I am. But it was when I discovered, maybe rediscovered, all these things my soul already knew, that I figured it out.
Being Jewish is the most unshakable thing about me and what connects me to my past, and hopefully to my future.
Monica Rozenfeld currently works at a Jewish education-non profit and is the founder of TheJewSpot (http://thejewspot.org/). She owes many thanks to Maimonides, a fellowship program she participated in during college, which opened up the doors to her Jewish soul and is the reason she is engaged in Judaism today.