An Outsider in the Woods
At Jews in the Woods, a spiritual retreat for college students, I tried to see how I’d fit in if I converted to Judaism
The most difficult part of the weekend was yet to come. After a dinner of make-your-own-kosher-vegetarian burritos, we convened in the great room for havdalah. From my previous experiences with havdalah in Israel, I remembered enjoying the beautiful, candlelit ceremony ending Shabbat. But as the music started, I once again felt incredibly frustrated by my ignorance regarding the prayers, songs, and motions that accompanied havdalah.
Shit, I muttered to myself as we gathered in a wide circle, arms around one another’s shoulders. The same songs that awoke a sense of nostalgia among my Shabbaton friends produced a reaction of dread in me comparable to, say, the Jaws theme music. As the swaying and singing began in the huge, dimly lit great room, I felt oddly exposed and began silently freaking out over my inability to fake my knowledge of the songs. It was ironic; after five semesters of Hebrew, I probably understood these songs’ meanings better than most of the students, but I didn’t know the tunes by rote. Repeating what I had done countless times before at Jewish religious events, I lowered my eyes demurely and vaguely moved my lips.
Then the ecstatic dancing began. My mind returned in that moment to a year long ago when I watched a friend’s shy dad at my school’s father-daughter dance. This father’s expression of pure terror at the prospect of dancing to silly songs in front of other people had been a mystery to me at the time—What’s the big deal? I had thought. At the Shabbaton, I finally understood how that father had felt. I didn’t know what I supposed to be doing, and that anxiety made me lose my interest in participating in the dancing at all. Very shortly, I retreated to an adjoining room where some similarly unenthusiastic students had already gathered. After talking with them for a while and, of course, engaging in another one of many platonic cuddling sessions that were so popular that weekend, I schlepped back to my cabin with mixed feelings about where exactly I was supposed to fit in the Jewish community.
By Sunday morning, the spell of the Shabbaton had broken and the sky had returned to gray. It was as if the sun had also attended the Shabbaton, and had decided to leave promptly at its end. After a mostly silent breakfast in the great room, interrupted only by the clank of spoons in cereal bowls, we said our goodbyes to the few students who had not already returned to their universities. With bemused expressions, my friend and I drove down the muddy gravel driveway, set the GPS for Charlottesville, and that was that.
But that wasn’t that. My relationship to Judaism was somehow permanently affected by that Shabbaton in the woods. Yes, at times I’d felt extremely uncomfortable, but I had really enjoyed the weekend of “processing” my emotions and learning more about Judaism with the quirky, kind group of young people I had met there. Having met these spiritually minded young people—even though I often felt like I didn’t quite fit in—I now feel much more comfortable with the idea of converting and learning more about Jewish spirituality. I’m ready for the next Shabbaton. I just hope there is a unit during the conversion process where I can learn all of those Hebrew children’s songs, so that next time, I can join in.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Want to make your children hate books forever? Here are some tips to keep them from reading—or, for book-loving parents, pitfalls to avoid