I’m sitting at a local modern Orthodox event for women only. I am surrounded by bewigged women wearing long skirts and layered tops–shells with shirts over them. I can tell they were born to the life. Some of them look fashionably modest, others frumpily modest, but they all look modest. They look like knowing these rules of clothing and dress come to them naturally, maybe from birth.
I am so jealous. I want to have been raised unquestionably Jewish, not Jewish in a Holocaust-ridden family that was moving away from Judaism as quickly as humanly possible. Not with parents who removed all the Jewishness first out of our family name and then out of our family home, who told people that their Eastern European accents were actually not Eastern European but anything else, except German. I wanted to have had a childhood that matched my Jewish soul, instead of me having to raise myself Jewish later.
I am an impostor at this event. I am wearing a long skirt and a shirt that covers my collar bones and elbows, and closed-toed shoes, because I know the general rules and because this is pretty much what I think an Orthodox woman would look like. I obviously am not wearing a wig because who would buy a wig with graying roots?
But I’m not fooling anyone, I think. I look like a secular woman playing dress up.
I’m trying to pass for Orthodox because I’m flirting with Orthodox Judaism. Born to those two atheist Holocaust Survivor parents and raised with Jewish food and Yiddish only, I started my own learning back into Judaism at 21. But the campus Hillel where I’d gotten the majority of my Jewish education was Reform. And as I learned more and more about Judaism, I became aware of the three main movements within Judaism, and some kind of hierarchy formed in my mind. I started thinking that Orthodox is best, and that I need to be on a journey to get there because what I am isn’t good enough. It certainly wasn’t good enough when I knew nothing, and it wasn’t good enough when I only knew what I learned at Shabbat coffeehouses in college, and it isn’t good enough now.
It also seemed to me that my belief in God was more consistent with Orthodox Judaism than with the other branches. I had no problem with prayer, with psalms, no problem even with a literal bible. I had no problem understanding that the Holocaust that chewed up and spit out my parents happened and yet God existed. I can believe the former did not negate the latter.
And so, this day, I find myself sitting at a Hilton Hotel on a weekday night listening to a lecturer tell her compelling story of being raised in a Conservative Judaism that is lifeless and soulless and discovering an Orthodoxy which brings her Jewish soul alive.
It turns out that a journey to Orthodoxy is taken in steps; a series of saying “yes” to mitzvot or rabbinical rules, and then saying that same “yes” over and over again, all while saying “no” to some of the things you once did.
But eventually, those “no” steps are the ones upon which I falter. I never manage to get my porcelain sink jackhammered out of my granite kitchen island nor put in a stainless one so it could be kashered. I never manage to get rid of my painstakingly collected vintage Franciscan dishes and buy glass ones. I never managed to get rid of my jeans. I can’t even convince my husband to stop running our store on Saturdays.
And then something happens. First, my husband of 20-plus years indicates that he is not on board with this. He has been okay with the quasi-Kosher thing we were doing, with two sets of dishes but only one set of pots and pans, and the meaningful way we raise our kids, but this is his line in the sand. This stops me short. Somehow I just can’t see jackhammering him out too, like that sink.
Then, our teenaged son, active in a Modern Orthodox youth organization, shows me that while his group is Modern Orthodox, he readily acknowledges being a Conservative Jew to everyone. He straddles these worlds comfortably, always knowing who he is. And in his example, I find my answer.
I’m never actually going to become a wig-wearing, or even a hat-wearing, Orthodox Jewish woman. And, while I’ll always grow and learn, I finally understand that there’s nothing wrong with being Jewish exactly the way I am.
I no longer think of Judaism as the hierarchy I constructed in my mind so long ago. Now I think of it more as a circle containing Venn Diagrams of the different movements inside, overlapping each other here and there. And I stand at the junction. Orthodox by belief, Conservative by practice, Reform by liberal principles, comfortable with all.