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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

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The Gerard Dou Synagogue in Amsterdam. (Louis Davidson/Synagogues360.org)
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When I was in college nearly four years ago, studying abroad in England, I flew to Amsterdam for a vacation. It was one of my first experiences traveling alone, and I found myself intensely homesick. The galleries were lovely, the cafés enlightening, but there was something missing. I was suddenly hungry, for the first time in memory, to do something Jewish. So, I visited the Anne Frank House. I saw the Chagalls and Israёls on exhibit at the Jewish Historical Museum. I sampled kosher falafel. None of it took.

I called my father. He suggested I try shul.

Back at home, I wanted nothing to do with synagogue. But halfway around the world, the idea somehow sounded appealing.

It was Purim, and the elderly man who answered the door at the Gerard Dou Synagogue was wearing a rainbow afro and a clown nose. He eyed me, dressed in my traveler’s best, dubiously. I asked if I could join the congregation to hear the Megillah read, though I wasn’t a member. He answered without hesitating: “What kind of a shul would we be if we turned Jews away?”

The building was small and square, with antiquated furnishings and elaborate, gold-plated embellishments. The wooden pews were uncomfortable, but as I sat down, feeling the rigidity press against my spine, I smiled. The pain felt right. I had a sensation of being related to it, that I was suddenly with family. I fondly recalled long Saturday mornings in services with my father. I looked around and saw the painted and costumed faces of fellow Jews—Dutch Jews, Jews I had never met before. I heard a common language spoken and sung, a language I had heard countless times before. My longing lifted. I felt at home.

***

When I was growing up in Miami, my Conservative family was the most observant one I knew, and I was comfortable with that. I kept kosher and attended Jewish day school—and, after I transferred to public school, I attended Hebrew school. I leyned for every aliyah at my bar mitzvah. My father, the executive of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, went to shul every Saturday morning and davened daily; for years, he took me to services with him. I made Kiddush beautifully. I knew Yiddish phrases and the subtle yet substantial differences between lox and nova. By 11th grade, I had been to Israel 10 times.

At 16, everything changed. I took European History and was introduced to Sartre and Kierkegaard. Mr. Hunt, my exceptional teacher, shared the lessons of Descartes, challenging me to test the foundations of my beliefs regularly, making sure they withstood scrutiny. I did, and they didn’t. I excitedly started setting up and knocking down the things that had defined my life. I felt at once terrified and thrilled at the prospect of being so unhinged. Judaism had been an anchor; cut loose, I found that, in fact, I didn’t believe in God, that I had been given an unwanted gift in Judaism, that the responsibility of tradition was an onus—one that I was eager to dispel.

Under different circumstances, the unusually fervent tenor of my family’s observance might have been sufficient to keep me rooted, differentiating me enough from my peers to, in fact, make being Jewish cool all over again. But such is the life of a teenager. I didn’t want to belong to any group whatsoever, be it my friends or my family,

I stopped keeping kosher. I stopped going to shul, except for High Holidays. I went out with friends after my compulsory attendance at our family’s weekly Shabbat dinner. My parents accepted my decisions and gave me the intellectual space for which I was yearning. They never shied away from conversation and debate, eager to engage with me on questions of doubt and disbelief (in hindsight, an implicit faith that I would return to the fold may have fueled their support).

I spent the rest of high school raging against all the things that I had grown to identify as the norm, secular or Jewish. I began to dress differently than my friends, to read unassigned literature, to listen to obscure music; I felt ingrained with a flimsy yet frenzied sense of intentional nonconformity. Parties, group activity—it all turned me off. To that end, Jewish social events were repugnant. Jews engaged in ritual struck me as cultish. I began to find my membership in a Jewish community alienating. It got so severe that I became embarrassed by my own name. Asked what the C stood for in my initials, I gritted my teeth through my answer: “Chaim.”

By the time I got to college, my resentment for Judaism had taken on an immense gravity. I eschewed taking classes in my school’s prominent Jewish and Holocaust Studies departments; I was done with Shabbat, done with shul, done with Hillel (having tried it exactly once); I was done with it all. Until that trip to Amsterdam.

***

After the Dutch Purim service, the man in the rainbow afro invited me to an after-party at a rabbi’s house across town. Remembering advice that my father had given me about being open to new experiences, I accepted the invitation and made my way through the labyrinthine streets of Amsterdam.

Like Groucho Marx, I would never have willingly belonged to a club that would have someone like me as a member. But as I looked around and saw Jews like me, college students, stumbling through their nascent twenties, generating and shaping the definitions of their own identities, I found that credo falling away from me. They received me generously, brought me beer after beer. I conversed with Hasidic Darth Vader; I danced the hora with Frida Kahlo. I immediately felt at home among these partying, costumed Jews.

And what a strange feeling it was. I felt the clarion call of high school echo from the recesses of my memory, warning me against conformity, against belonging, against doing what the other kids were doing. I drowned it all out. This wasn’t about believing in God; it wasn’t about grappling with issues of philosophical gravitas, or about whether the other Marx was right, whether religion was the opiate of the masses. At the party, my sense of belonging was emotional, irrational. It was simply about what felt right.

The next month was spring break, and I wanted to return to continental Europe. After my experience in Amsterdam, I was feeling open to seeking out another Jewish experience. My mother’s parents are Auschwitz survivors, and it seemed fitting that if I was in that part of the world, I should travel to Poland to visit the camps.

“I don’t want you going by yourself,” my father told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s a concentration camp,” he said. “Because it’s the most horrible place on Earth, and I don’t want you to be by yourself when you’re there.” Then he offered a bribe: “If you go with a group,” he said, “I’ll pay for your trip.”

I found a British contingent of the March of the Living and was able to secure a spot in their group. Because there were only a few of us, we were assigned to a bus with the Dutch contingent. One day, on our way to Auschwitz, one of the Dutch participants was showing photos on his phone of his friends’ Purim costumes from the previous month. There I was, in the background of one of his pictures, having a conversation with a man in a banana suit. It somehow felt obvious that I should be there, so in keeping with the Jewish identity that I was gradually getting accustomed to reclaiming.

By the time we got to the camps, I was grateful for the shoulders to grasp, the hands to squeeze, grateful for the presence of others. Grateful to have been a Jew among Jews.

***

I have had many profound, meaningful Jewish experiences abroad since that trip to Europe nearly four years ago. I volunteered with the American Jewish World Service in South India; I worked at a community center in Bat Yam, Israel; I even had Seder with an elderly Sephardic couple in Morocco. I actively sought out Jewish engagement whenever I was abroad. But each time I returned home to the United States, my longing for Jewish community dissipated. It seemed that the moment I was around American Jews, my old sensitivities would resurface, and I would find myself again avoiding the values and qualities of home that I craved so powerfully while abroad.

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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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

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