In order to understand her identity, an Irish Catholic student at the University of Virginia had to follow her passion: a major in Jewish Studies
“You’re running away from who you are,” a family member warned me before I left for a spring break trip with my university’s Hillel. I couldn’t blame him: I am a blue-eyed, baptized Catholic, the product of a lifelong religious education set in classrooms with crucifixes hanging on the walls and statues of the Virgin Mary standing in the doorways. Most of my childhood classmates came, as I did, from large Catholic families with conspicuously Irish and Italian surnames. Despite my total immersion in all things Catholic throughout my upbringing, however, I always felt acutely estranged from both the Church’s religious precepts and Catholic culture overall. But on the cusp of that trip, I felt for the first time that, rather than escaping from an identity, I was actually starting to figure mine out.
A few years before, a totally unexpected encounter with the Jewish Studies department at University of Virginia turned into a consuming intellectual passion. Now, three years and many experiences with Jewish life later, I have found that Jewish Studies has become much more than simply an academic pursuit for me. In the strange, twisted, but amazing trip that has been my college experience, Judaism has provided me with the friends, mentors, values, and spiritual community that I didn’t even know I had been seeking. What started as an avowedly intellectual interest has influenced the entirety of my life.
I grew up in a very loving, very religious Irish Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs—the kind that flies a surprisingly tasteful flag featuring the scene of Jesus’s birth, illuminated by a spotlight, outside our front door during the Christmas holidays. During my childhood, my parents brought my three siblings and me to Mass every Sunday, where we squirmed and giggled our way through the weekly sermons. Cultural Catholicism pervaded our lives, from the elaborate religious rituals that we regularly observed to the social conservatism of our parents.
In ninth grade, I was enrolled in a strict, all-girls’ Catholic high school—a world of assigned lunch table seats and abstinence-only sex education. Rather than bulldogs or wildcats, we were, unfortunately, the Marians. Marians were required to observe all sorts of rules, the most undeniably humiliating one being the requirement to introduce formal dates to a welcoming line of benign but intimidating nuns.
We still had fun, of course. My friends and I invented imaginative games in our Latin class and threw the occasional breakfast tailgate at my parking spot before homeroom. We joked incessantly about our mandatory yearly assemblies with a local pro-life, chastity-promoting Catholic organization, from which we always received bright red stickers that asserted, “I’m Worth Waiting For!” But, though frustrated with Catholicism, by a large majority we identified with the politically and socially conservative views of our parents. I discussed with pleasure “building a wall” for the “illegals” and withholding taxes for the wealthy, and my government class contained one endearing but lonely liberal—a spike-collar-wearing Hillary Clinton devotee with multiple piercings and a pink streak in her hair.
When I started my first year at the University of Virginia, I felt ecstatic to finally experience freedom. Like so many of my peers’ college choices, my own decision to attend U.Va had been uninformed; I had no idea what I wanted to study or who I even was. My chance introduction to Judaism occurred when one of the first students I met, on one of my very first days at school, invited me to attend a Shabbat dinner at U.Va’s Hillel. Being a spacey 18-year-old with virtually no social inhibitions, I agreed.
At that time—before the Hillel’s new multimillion-dollar addition was completed—Shabbat dinners took place on long, crowded tables on old hardwood floors in two rooms featuring posters about Israel and ceiling-high bookcases filled with texts about Judaism. The warm lighting, the books, and the other students who seemed suspended in that hazy, magic time between the end of the school day and the weekend ahead—it all seemed so homey. I was utterly, inexplicably besotted. Of course, I was also utterly, comprehensively Catholic.
But, as I now realize, this new exposure to Judaism coincided with the emergence of some festering issues with Catholicism’s theological precepts. That fall, I enrolled in a course about the Hebrew Bible—during which it dawned on me that no one, including me, had to read the Bible as God’s Word. Still, I wasn’t sure what this meant for observance. During my Bible professor’s office hours, I would interrogate the petite, bewildered woman about her belief in God and Christianity. Repeatedly, she replied that she couldn’t share with me her own personal views, only the academic discourse.
The following semester I enrolled in a Jewish history course. I was astounded by the Jewish historical narrative and Jews’ contributions to intellectual and cultural life despite one horrendous instance of persecution after another. The American Jewish immigrant experience seemed particularly fascinating: Yiddish theater, Tin Pan Alley, you name it—for whatever reason, I was into it.
With the help of my obliging Jewish history professor, who took the time to respond to my theological queries during office hours with even more thought-provoking responses, I began to make peace with the religious teachings of my upbringing and explore new religious philosophies. And then he made an unexpected suggestion: that I consider majoring in Jewish Studies. Having no better ideas at the time, I decided to pursue it.
The next year, I became even more involved in Jewish life. I started going to Shabbat dinners every Friday night with my growing network of Jewish friends, several of whom I met in my quirky, close-knit beginners’ Hebrew class. One weeknight at Hillel, I was startled to find myself teaching a recent convert how to braid challah. I also took an incredible class about Jewish philosophy with a soft-spoken professor who explained the development of Jewish thought from Spinoza through post-Holocaust thinkers. From him, I learned for the first time about the compatibility between atheism and Jewish religious observance. Now, here was a philosophy that I could get behind! As a lifelong skeptic, I loved Judaism’s encouragement of theological inquiry, of questioning rather than knowing the answers. In addition, as I read more about Jewish thinkers who had existed on social and religious margins because of their Jewishness, I felt an odd affinity with them. In my (somewhat dramatic) perception, I was the ultimate Jew: a non-Christian, non-Jewish insider-outsider who perilously straddled the lines of membership in both communities. I didn’t fit anywhere.
Through Hillel, I also formed close friendships with several older, intellectual Jewish students, who began to influence my increasingly left-leaning views with their advocacy of typically liberal political causes and interest in tikkun olam.
After the congregants of an Orthodox synagogue could no longer afford their rent, they found help in the local mosque.