I’ve always been the token Jewish girl of my friend group. I was religious by secular standards — middle school was a time of ongoing attempts to clarify why I spent Friday nights rocking out to Oseh Shalom instead of Bop to the Top, and why bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches were less than ideal for breakfast. I enjoyed my reputation as the “face of Judaism” and never failed to seize an opportunity to discuss my heritage (which ranged from stories of meaningful services and marvelous matzah ball soup, to hard-core Israeli dancing and embarrassing first kisses).
When I reached sixth grade, however, my mother made the decision to leave our synagogue in favor of the smaller shul my Hebrew teacher was creating. In a twenty-minute drive, I had unknowingly made an extensive journey from Reform to Orthodox. Everything changed. The tunes to my favorite prayers became unfamiliar, services lagged on for hours, and dinner discussions shifted from Zaydey’s medication to the Rebbe’s teachings. I became acutely aware that I wasn’t quite as Jewish as I had thought, and that omitting pork from my diet wasn’t all it took to be considered kosher.
My locational change exposed me to a new perspective and initiated a persistent internal debate. I found myself wondering, “How do I become a “Good Jew?”
For the last seven years I’ve thought about this without fail. Each passing Pesach and Rosh HaShana brought about a different solution. There was the Jewish jewelry phase, through which I acquired countless Hamza necklaces and more Star of David studs than could fit in my “Hatikva” (the Israeli national anthem) reciting jewelry box. Then there was the Modeh Ani phase, where I prayed each morning before getting ready for school; the challah phase, in which I carb-loaded on braided bread; and the Shabbos candles phase, when I looked long and hard at both sides of my hands (as the tradition mandates), occasionally finding new freckles. Despite my arduous efforts, these tasks left me unfulfilled. I ultimately concluded that in order to be a good Jew, I needed to be an orthodox Jew. Picking and choosing customs to focus on wasn’t enough; I needed to meet every standard of my new religious community in order to fully adopt their label, and thereby become worthy.
Step one: Tell Ema. “Mama, I’ve decided to become orthodox.” She giggled. “Good luck Reb. The Orthodox see modesty as a virtue.”
Step two: Unfold my Soffee shorts a couple of rolls.
Step three: Listen to my summer camp soundtrack on repeat until the Hebrew words flow off my tongue.
Step four: Thank G-d whenever possible.
Step five: Ask Rabbi Yitzchak countless questions, until I’m sure I’ve exhausted his patience, even though he assures me I haven’t.
Step six: Walk to Shul on the holidays.
Step seven: Throw my sins in the water on Yom Kippur.
Step eight: Listen to sermons carefully and incorporate their messages into my daily life.
Step nine: Fall back into old habits.
Step ten: Keep falling.
Step eleven: Accept I’ll never be a “Good Jew.”
Step twelve: Forget I even tried to change.
And so it went. My unorthodox orthodoxy faded into a distant memory, only to be recalled when occasionally driving past a Chabad house on Shabbos. It wasn’t until I came to Princeton that my status as a “Bad Jew” bothered me significantly, as it had in middle school. During frosh week, I attended conservative services at the Center for Jewish Life, dragging my OA friend along in typical freshman fashion. The high holidays came and went, I prayed and fasted, reflected and rejoiced. My excitement waned, however, as I was confronted with the classic CJL-Chabad dilemma on Shabbat and came to realize that both locations were populated by yarmulke-wearing men, i.e. what I perceived as better Jews than me.
My internal debate had been set aflame yet again and as I pondered becoming a Good Jew, I came to my old solution — I felt a need to pursue orthodoxy over personal connection. I let these thoughts sit for a couple months, avoiding spending time at the CJL until I could assure myself I was religious enough to fit in.
After a significant period of religious isolation and an even more significant number of persistent listserv emails, I hesitantly applied to the CJL board. Ironically, my frustration culminated during our bonding retreat, as I watched my two temporary roommates recite their evening prayers. Unsure of how to realize my orthodoxy goals but certain that I couldn’t do so alone, I sat up in bed and confronted my friends. My familiar declaration of intention met a familiar response: giggles, just like those of my mother, so many years ago. I was informed that the checklist I had long pursued did not exist. There was no dummies’ guide to mitzvot (good deeds) I could read to become a Good Jew. An extensive discussion led to the realization that each girl found different customs vital to her practice of Judaism. After a journey that has persisted far longer than that first car ride to my new temple, I’ve come to the following conclusion:
Religion is what you make out of it. There are no perfect Jews. There are likely no perfect Christians or Muslims or Buddhists either. For so long, I’ve thought I wasn’t religious enough. But all along, I’ve been true to my personal customs, and I’ve kept them to a tee. Maybe I’m not a “Good Jew” by most people’s definitions, and often I’m not even a “Good Jew” by my own standards. But I’m slowly realizing that the “goodness” I am pursuing is a fluid concept, and I can never reach the perfection I’ve always sought. Orthodoxy manifests itself in so many ways, and if I ever do become “Orthodox,” my version of it won’t match the versions that surround me — whether it’s at Chabad, the CJL, the synagogue of my hometown, or the shul of my future residence.
Even as I pursue a stronger relationship with G-d, I plan on maintaining the aspects that make religion applicable and important to me. My 11:11 wishes, said as prayers to G-d, requesting the safety and health of my family, will remain a major part of my day. The Adon Olam remixes are definitely keeping their spot on my gym playlist. And when I do change it up, when I finally shut off my phone before sunset on Friday, when I expand my pork-less diet to exclude chicken parm as well, it will be because doing so holds a significance to me and brings me closer to my faith — not because I feel a pressure from my environment to do so. I’m far from “the face of Judaism” my childhood friends thought I was, but my decisions about religion do and will continue to be a major part of who I am. I’m slowly discovering that how I classify those decisions has less to do with religion itself, and more to do with how religion manifests itself for me as an individual.