Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where there was plenty of Jewish life. As a younger kid, I even attended day school. But like many of my peers, as I got a little older I strayed from Judaism. In high school and even the early days of college, I didn’t think about my Jewish identity at all.
Instead, my identity was a mishmash—when I headed up the road to the University of Texas at Austin, I was known as the athlete, the cross-country cyclist, the co-op resident, the student, the lab tech, the teaching assistant. The only ‘Jewish’ part of my identity was that I was the ‘token Jew’ among my friends; the one who explained that “the Old Testament IS the Torah,” and “No, bacon isn’t kosher, but yes, I’ve tried it,” and so on. Meanwhile, if I spent a weekend at home, I would light the candles with my parents on Friday night, drink some wine, enjoy family time, and soak in that sweet Shabbat stillness.
It was a form of dual-living: when I was on campus, there was the part of my identity that was the student, athlete, reader, TA. And then back home there was the version of me who lit the candles with my parents, fasted on Yom Kippur, and would kindly decline pepperoni on my pizza.
The Austin-college-student side of myself took over the majority of my time. The ‘Jewish’ part was sporadic, which made me feel indulgent when I did get to participate in Jewish traditions. Doing simple things like sitting between my parents during Yom Kippur services felt like taking a sip of ice-cold water on a 101 degree Texas day, quenching a thirst inside me that stayed parched during my everyday life.
Why was the Jewish part of me so thirsty? Or rather, why did I not just continue to water this aspect of my identity? Maybe because it was difficult to be different from everyone and everything around me. That’s something I am still figuring out and I will continue to dissect it for a while.
But you can’t compartmentalize yourself forever. The pieces of myself, the quenched and the parched, the secular and not, began to morph as my time in college came to a close. And then I signed up for a Hillel Poland trip. I traveled to Europe with Jewish students I should have known from our shared time in Austin—but because of my avoiding things like Hillel, I didn’t know any of them.
This trip to Poland changed everything for me. There was an afternoon on the trip when we went to a small Jewish neighborhood in the middle of a Polish city. Our tour guide explained how the courtyard we were standing in used to be filled with Shabbat light. All the families would put their candles in the windows and shine the spirit of Shabbat to the city. Standing in the now-decrepit courtyard that was once filled with Jewish families, I could almost taste that cozy, quiet Shabbat night. We decided to stand in a circle, arms linked, and sing “Am Yisrael Chai.” As we danced and cheered, others came to join us. Soon, our circle doubled in size, with Jewish people from all over the world singing together in pride.
It changed things for me so much that I decided to take a Jewish job when I graduated. Somehow I went from parched to full-on drinking in the Jewish experience, committing to two years as an ISJL Education Fellow.
That moment in Poland is what I want to bring others as an Education Fellow. I want to make sure that the people I meet while on my visits realize that Jewish identity is about the whole picture. Judaism is wonderful and it fits in everywhere, every way, every day! You just have to be open to it. You may find your identity while ordering your toppings for a pizza or while singing with strangers in a foreign land. That’s the wonderful thing about identity—it’s always right there where you are.