As someone who grew up in Westchester, New York, I've never once felt alone in my Jewish identity. In fact, I've always been surrounded by other Jews — in my town, where two Bar Mitzvahs a weekend was the norm; at summer camp, when half my bunkmates disappeared every Friday night for services; even in college, the arts-focused Emerson awash in brown-haired, challah-eating future leaders of Hollywood.
Of course, I've long been aware that my norm is others' exception — if not utter mystery. Visiting the South and seeing churches on every street; going to my (one) Catholic friend's confirmation and not understanding a thing; sitting through a wedding ceremony where my parents and I were the only ones who didn't go up to get blessed by the priest — time and again, I am reminded that Judaism, so ordinary in my world, is, to so many others, not even a blip on their radar.
But it's never mattered, at least not to me. My family is reform, and barely that — we stopped going to services a year or two after my Bat Mitzvah, and our Passover celebrations consist of buying Matzah at Costco and listening to the soundtrack of The Prince of Egypt. We don't keep kosher, no one speaks Hebrew, and if you asked me the true meaning of Hanukkah, I'd probably tell you it has something to do with the 1989 CD I just put on my Amazon wish list.
When the two other Jews in my program went to Israel for a long weekend, a friend asked if they'd invited me, too. "Why would they?" I asked, confused since the three of us aren't particularly close. "Because you're all Jewish," she answered.
We are "cultural Jews," caring more about our Hollywood claims to fame (we got Buffy!) than religion. As an atheist, my Judaism is just a fact of my heritage, the reason for my brown-black hair. It felt mostly irrelevant.
That was, until I went to study abroad in Prague, where my Judaism, to my total surprise, has never felt more prominent. No, I haven't had any sort of religious awakening, or even discovered a deeper love of latkes — it's just that for the first time in my life, I am different. I am "the Jewish girl in our program." I am a minority.
No one in my program is cruel or insensitive, and the Czech Republic itself is one of the least religious countries in the world. But there is no denying it's the truth: I am the only Jewish girl of the 20-something people in my program. The only other Jews in the program, twin boys, are Orthodox, and their identity feels even further removed from mine than that of our Christians and Catholic friends.
Nearly all of us are New Yorkers, yet I'm one the few from below the Adirondacks; my world of delis, bagels, and Tina Fey has nothing to do with their own. The other day, my suite-mate told me she'd never even had Chinese food. I gasped, then felt silly for gasping, then just felt sad she'd never known the taste of dumplings or chicken lo mein on Christmas.
Here, my Judaism is the anomaly, but for awhile, that didn't seem like such a big deal. I'm not religious, anyway — why should it matter if no one around me had eaten a matzah ball or heard the word "mensch?"
Yet as the semester wore on, I became more and more aware of my status as "the Jew." I found myself detailing the intricacies of a Westchester Bat Mitzvah, entertaining curious friends with stories of themed parties and five hundred-dollar dresses. Several times, I had to explain why my family doesn't celebrate Christmas.
When the two other Jewish people in my program went to Israel for a long weekend, a friend asked if they'd invited me, too. "Why would they?" I asked, confused since the three of us aren't particularly close. "Because you're all Jewish," she answered, as if a shared religion is enough reason for three strangers to travel the world together.
I didn't mind explaining. It can be interesting to be the outsider when there's no oppression, only curiosity. But their questions also made me nervous — to them, I was the representative of all Jews, a title I'm in no way qualified to take on. I eat pork, I have a tattoo, I remember exactly three words of my Torah portion. Yet here, in Prague among all these goys, I have no choice. My religion is all over me — in my name, and my hair, and the looks I got when we traveled to Auschwitz, as if I should've been more affected by what we saw than they were, because it was mine.
My trip to Auschwitz was heartbreaking and emotional, filled with moving discoveries and unsettling feelings of recognition. Back in the city, I was surprised when a sign for Chabad made me smile, not because I wanted to attend, but just because I liked knowing it was there. And when the city put up a giant menorah on the first day of Hanukkah, I felt homesick and proud, even if the only celebrating I'll be doing is marathoning episodes of The O.C.
I've found myself bringing my Jewishness up here more than I ever would at home. Talking to friends just coming from Mass, I reminisced on the Hebrew-language services I once sat through every Saturday; eating a bagel at a cafe, I mentioned how bad it was compared to the ones from the Jewish delis at home; when the twins went to Israel, I found myself describing my own trip to Israel years back, nostalgically bringing up places and activities I didn't even know I remembered, let alone enjoyed.
Talking about my Judaism feels necessary here, like if I don't bring it up, it'll no longer exist. The fact that I care so much startles me. For someone so unreligious, I'm surprised by my own need to make my Jewishness known, to want others to understand. I don't feel obligated to start attending services, or fast for Yom Kippur, or reign in my love for Christmas music — but I do care.
Just how much, and what it all means, are questions I can't yet answer. I'll need years of further travel and life experience before I figure out exactly how important being Jewish is to my life, if I ever do. But for now, I am aware of it in a deeper way than I could ever have been if I had stayed in my bubble-wrapped world of Boston and New York, surrounded by those just like me. For the first time, I really feel my Jewishness — and I'm excited to find out what that means.
Images: Rachel Simon (4)