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At age 34, far from home, I joined a synagogue for the first time—in Charlottesville

Elisabeth Becker
August 09, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

I joined a synagogue for the first time at 34 years old, from afar, pending a move to Charlottesville, Virginia. As a New York chauvinist born to a Jewish mother and Baptist father, I had no more expected to join a shul than live in the South. But there I was, in Charlottesville, on a whirlwind trip to find my small family (son, husband, me) an apartment, after accepting a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia. I visited a handful of apartment buildings, each one feeling less like home. At the end of an unsuccessful day apartment hunting, I strolled through beautiful north downtown, the scent of magnolias perfuming the air.

I stopped in front of a red brick building, its stained-glass windows reflecting the glory of spring. As I approached, a wooden box of herbs in the front yard caught my eye, painted with the words “Havdalah Spices” beside three small yellow stars. I didn’t know the meaning of havdalah then, the blessing separating the sacred Sabbath from the mundane week about to begin. I realized, as I admired the building and its green bursting with new life, that I didn’t know much about Judaism. Nothing miraculous happened in that moment, but I felt a pull toward a place I had just laid my eyes upon, and a community I had never met. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is where I belong.”

For most of my life, I was afraid—literally—to be a Jew. I lived in New York City, so schools recognized the Jewish holidays, pharmacies sold menorah candles, and we celebrated the Jewish holidays with our neighbors. But in the apartments on either side lived the children of Holocaust survivors. When I was 12, a concerned school librarian alerted my parents to my exclusive interest in young adult Holocaust literature. I imagined little girls my age living in attics and donning yellow stars. As a teenager, I asked my mother not for designer jeans nor piercings but whether we could build a secret room behind our bookcases. (She declined.) Well into young adulthood, I closed our shades on Hanukkah, afraid—even on the Upper West Side—that my family would be persecuted. Jews are commanded to practice pirsumei nisa, to “publicize the miracle.” To me, it simply wasn’t worth the risk. When people told me that I (a mirror image of my Baptist father) didn’t “look Jewish,” I breathed a sigh of relief.

I slowly moved past this fear as I moved across the world—from Costa Rica to Kosovo, England to India—embracing a life of international work and an almost radical belief in diversity. I moved easily within other cultures, learning new languages and norms, celebrating Easter in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, where residents wove carpets from flowers, and Eid in Marrakesh, Morocco, where the air smelled of cinnamon and salt. It was, in fact, easier for me to be a cultural chameleon than to sort out who I was. A mentor once called me a “true cosmopolitanist.” I certainly believed in the beauty of difference. And I lived this belief: marrying a pious Turkish German Muslim man and, soon after, giving birth to our “peace baby,” a binational citizen born into a trilingual family split on two continents. As a cultural sociologist, I devoted myself to understanding the challenges faced by other religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

When I moved to Berlin in 2012 to marry my now-husband and begin my doctoral research on mosques, we resided on the edge of the Bavarian Quarter, colloquially the “old Jewish quarter.” The past of the city at once unsettled and called out to me—from the golden squares inlaid into the ground to the metal signs as high as the trees, listing the restrictions once placed on Jews. I spent most of my days undertaking research in the grand Sehitlik Mosque on Columbiadamm Avenue, contemplating spirituality, practice, and belonging. I soon realized that I knew much more about Islam than Judaism. I attended a Saturday synagogue service for the first time, but did not feel I belonged there, in a room full of Orthodox converts, in a city halfway across the world from my own.

When we relocated to the United States in 2015, something had been awakened inside of me. As I emerged from the hazy days of toddler rearing, I yearned to feel what I had seen in the eyes of my research subjects in mosques—a combination of belief and belonging, a vocabulary that connected at once to the past and to the place where my father had gone, without me.


My mother-in-law had an antidote for that yearning: Convert to Islam. She asked me to convert on numerous occasions, and it seemed reasonable at first, as did her concern that a shared faith would unite me and my husband. Maybe, I considered, I could explore my spirituality in this endeavor. And yet I came up against an insurmountable challenge: When I thought about who I was, the first word to come to mind was “Jewish.” I couldn’t erase that word without erasing myself.

I believed it would somehow be easier to be Jewish in the United States, a new world with different dark pasts. Yet when President Trump was elected soon after my return, I fell into a state of despair. I was afraid for my Muslim husband, who was leaving the country just days after the first iteration of the “Muslim ban,” but I was also afraid for myself. Most of all, I was afraid for our son. Soon after, swastikas appeared on the 1 train in New York City, which once carried me home from school, friends’ houses, and adventures across the city I so loved. Swastikas on the playground by my family’s home in New Haven, Connecticut, were to follow.

Suddenly, I could not breathe. This fear was familiar, but more potent than what I had experienced before: No longer the threat of a past, but rather of a present where hatred had risen, bubbled above the surface and violently erupted all over the place.

In autumn 2017, I had a breakthrough. I went to New York City for the funeral of a family friend, Rachel. She was 26, and the tragedy of her death permeated the circles of family and friends who joined to mourn her. The rabbi told a story from the Torah reading Chayei Sarah, translated not as the “life” but “lives” of Sarah. In this story, Abraham searches for a place to bury his deceased wife. The rabbi explained that to begin again, to move forward, one must not simply respect but lay to rest parts of the past, while incorporating other parts into the lives we continue to live. Life guarantees loss. Loss paves the way to new lives. In this moment, pregnant with love and with grief, weeping, and song, beside best friends wearing rainbow kippas and holding hands, I finally felt rooted in the tradition into which I was born.

Soon after, I was offered the opportunity to do postdoctoral research in Charlottesville: historical American city, home of Thomas Jefferson, entrance to the South. Last year, Charlottesville made the news when white supremacists and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis descended on the city to “unite the right,” protesting the removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. “Jews will not replace us,” they chanted, as they marched with machine guns cradled in the nook between their shoulders and necks, the soothing spot where mothers rest their infants’ crowns.

Those images haunted me then, hundreds of miles away, and later made me doubt my decision to relocate to a city where such divisions had come to a violent head.

But eventually, we decided to move to Charlottesville, and I visited the city to find us a new home. When I first saw the synagogue—and the havdalah herbs, small signs of rebirth—I was struck by its beauty. I longed to stay there, because I felt, for the first time after so long traveling the world, that perhaps I belonged somewhere beyond Morningside Heights.

“Fear doesn’t shut you down,” Veronica Roth once wrote. “It wakes you up.” The divisions that have hardened across the United States and the wider Western world, with rising populism, growing far-right political movements, and blatant xenophobia, terrify me. Yet they also woke me up. For the first time in 34 years of life, I felt ready to stand with, and for, my Jewish self in America, as part of a larger, vital diversity that I believe must prevail.

I joined a synagogue because I refuse to see cosmopolitanism and tradition as enemies. In fact, Islam brought me back to Judaism. I saw the moving power of tradition in my husband, in-laws, and the friends I made in European mosques.
I believe fiercely that we belong first to a human community, in which we share more than that which divides us. At the same time, such diversity does not exist without particularities: myriad ways of being in, and caring for, the world, and consequently countless ways of reaching beyond the world, which our ancestors carried forward across millennia, as their timeless parting gifts.

In all of my travels, I have yearned not for certainty (I have been asking questions all my life), but for a resting place—a sanctuary to quell my soul no matter where in the world I find myself. The seeds of who I am began far before our decision to move to Charlottesville: in my mother’s food, in my father’s embrace, in the opportunity New York gave me to see the whole world in a single neighborhood, block, building. That they will grow beside those havdalah herbs and I will—slowly—learn to be part of a Jewish community, has reminded me how new lives emerge from loss.


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Elisabeth Becker is a sociologist, currently the Freigeist Fellow at Heidelberg University.