Finding Comfort in Synagogue—But Only When I’m on the Road
Overseas, I sought out ways to connect to the community, but when I came home, my old sense of alienation would quickly return
What was it about being home that triggered such discomfort? It occurred to me that being home was, in a sense, analogous to an affiliation in a group—that, despite being a Jew abroad, there was something about being an American Jew that gave me the distance from others that I unconsciously craved. At home in Miami, shul continued to feel like a sterile environment in which I was just another congregant.
By that time, my interest in Judaism had finally taken on more of a permanence in my mind. I was becoming more attracted to Jewish fiction and music, learning “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” on the guitar, and wolfing down books by Shalom Auslander and Etgar Keret. But for the years after my last trip abroad, it all felt like little more than a hobby—certainly not the identity-forming compulsion I had experienced earlier.
Several months ago, I was between chapters in my life; I left my job working for a Jewish nonprofit in Boston and was in the process of moving to Brooklyn to begin a fiction MFA program, so I dipped into my savings for a trip back to Europe. Spending a week in Prague, I immediately felt that familiar pining for Jewish community. I walked among the haunting, jagged graves of the Old Jewish Cemetery, amid the sparkling silver construction of the Spanish Synagogue. I took the bus to Theresienstadt, where I felt bereaved without the company of others. (Dad was right.) I found a place to daven ma’ariv, the evening service. It was an exceptionally moving week.
When I returned to the United States and moved to Brooklyn, though, I was prepared to once again feel the chafing I normally felt back home—a need for distance from the Jewish community. But it’s hard to find any distance from Jews in Brooklyn. There are Jews everywhere here. They spot me a mile away, asking if I’ve shaken the lulav and etrog as I walk to the subway. They ask if I’ve put on tefillin, if I’ve said the daily prayers. The less intense ones don’t want anything from me; they just want to wish me a shavuah tov, a good week. During my first week in Brooklyn, I started to feel my sense of belonging, of connection, begin to fade. Right on schedule.
As I unpacked my possessions in my new apartment, I came across a mezuzah, a necklace my father brought back from Israel for me many years ago. When I saw it, an irony dawned on me. All those years ago, I had asked my father for a mezuzah exactly like the one he had always worn. I wanted to be like him, to identify with him not just aesthetically, but through something deeper. It wasn’t just that he wore a necklace—it was that he wore a mezuzah. I wore the necklace for a while until the clasp separated, and then I threw it in a drawer.
Finding the mezuzah years later in Brooklyn made me realize that for the first time in my life I didn’t want my feelings about the Jewish community to fade. I didn’t want to be without my community again. I wanted to feel proud to be identified as a Jew on the street, appreciative of the ability to say shavuah tov back at you. I started to feel elated, as if I had stumbled across the kind of axiom that illuminates whole swaths of existence. It felt good to belong. It felt right.
So now, I’m working on going to shul on my own volition, starting with the holidays. Kashrut has an appeal to me that it hasn’t since I was 16; I’m not quite there yet, but I’m finding that treyf sits a little too unpleasantly now. I’m not sure how far I’ll need to go before I find what level of observance is right for me, but I know that Seinfeld reruns, bagels and lox, and Philip Roth novels won’t entirely cut it.
When my father first gave me the necklace, it functioned as a barometer for how Jewish I was feeling. If I felt Jewish, I wore it outside of my shirt, letting it hang as identification. When I felt less Jewish, or more persecute-able, I concealed it inside my clothing. But now that I’m in Brooklyn, it would feel cowardly to hide it. More to the point, it would feel disingenuous—to the world and to myself.
Finally ready to feel at home being Jewish in America, I fixed the clasp and slipped the necklace on. I wear it every day.
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