The difference between being Jewish in Israel and Jewish in America hinges on the perceiver. In Israel I was either the least or the most Jewish. Either I knew too many prayers, or too few. I was either the secular or the Orthodox, and once in a blue moon, rarely, I was simply Jewish, simply in synch, simply me.
In America, Jewish becomes a motivated act. I become an emissary. I come out of the woodworks so they will come out of the woodworks. I pray, so they will pray.
I went to a Hindu Ashram after Yeshiva to save my body. It was victim to the yeshiva ideal, a pale, thin hunchback, only the American version: weight gain and back pain. Yes, I left more knowledgeable, but no, my body did not thank me.
So, a yoga teacher training was my way of saving my back from a future of decay, and to make up for a full year on pause from a regular yoga practice. What this meant was a twenty-four hour flip of roles, of audience, of peers and compatriots. What this meant was that I had to resume my American role: spokesperson for Judaism.
At the ashram they made an exhausted point that all religions were welcome, even that all religions were “one.” This last argument left much to be desired as we chanted to Krishna before an idolatrous altar clad with a prominent photo of “Lord Jesus.” And on Fridays there was no acknowledgment of the Jewish Sabbath unless someone initiated it. This left me assuming my role as vocal Jewess, and provoked a deep murmur from within wondering why I ever left the Jewish homeland.
A beautiful deaf interpreter at the ashram had once been in training to convert to Orthodox Judaism. For a myriad of reasons she never made it to the Jewish finish line, but was left with a heavy stain of Jewish knowledge. This was my personal blessing as she fished out votive candles from beneath the altar and set up our Kabbalat Shabbat service. We lit her candles, and mine from the Chabad stand at the Tel Aviv airport, for a small gathering of onlookers. A former jailbird turned farmer, a spirit-woman of all faiths, and a few curious Jewish yogis.
Jews emerged slowly over the course of the month. In college I was a rape prevention worker and people told me their stories regularly throughout my four years. It happened after workshops, during and before meetings, and even once in the dorm showers.
One Friday at the Ashram, showering in preparation for Shabbat, I was singing Hebrew songs as I bathed (against Jewish law, I know, to chant in the bathroom) and a woman came up to me when I finished. She was a stately Italian woman, blonde, a bit older. She approached me in my towel to say that my singing was beautiful. “What was that?” she asked.
I told her I was singing in Hebrew and she said, “Oh! Are you Jewish?” “Yes,” I said, “Shabbat Shalom!” This Italian beauty nearly screamed and threw her arms around half-naked me. “Shabbat shaloooom!” Another girl came out of the other shower stall in her towel and suddenly burst out, “I am Jewish, too!” And we all hugged in the Ashram shower to celebrate our Jewish coming out.
That first ashram week was painful. Goodbye Israel, hello quiet mountains and hills, Jesus, Krishna, and a lot of what I thought were non-Jewish strangers. I missed Hebrew. I missed knowing my story resonated. I felt guilty at the great peace and quiet that surrounded me. No fear beyond the hills, no neighbors that detested me, no huge gaping problem with the whole world watching. I felt I got off easy, that I had abandoned my people.
I went to hear the Dalai Lama speak soon after finishing at the ashram. In the book they handed out it specifically instructs, “Abandon your homeland” as a path to peace. If the Dalai Lama says it is ok, perhaps there was merit to my exit. In that ashram bathroom I found a secret pocket of Jews. I thought I was alone in that Hindu sea. I thought everyone else was one way and me the other. That was the other piece of Judaism in America, remembering to ascertain victim status.
But then there was that fated shower, and my former almost-Orthodox friend and the candles. I brought some from Jerusalem and we filled the shrine-room with Hebrew and hugs. Jewish women emerged for the prayers and they honored Shabbat, some for the first time in years, one for the first time since her Bat Mitzvah. Somehow it felt like I was planted in this ashram to bring Judaism to those who were nearly equipped to replace it with Tantra.
One woman thanked me a week later and offered me a space at her sister’s shomer Shabbat home the next week. Another woman revealed she was half Jewish from Poland and offered to let me braid the focaccia for dinner into two loaves of challah. So another week we said the prayers over foccacciachallah, braided with blessings folded into each loaf.
Early in my month I asked the young Jewish woman from the shower to join me outside to say Havdalah prayers together. She was so sweet and we sat overlooking the mountains and prayed. She knew all the prayers despite four years of estrangement from Judaism during college. All the Jewish women, all six that I slowly discovered, knew the prayers, even the one who refused synagogue due to sexism. We sat outside and she began to cry. We talked about Jesus on the altar. We talked about Judaism. We talked about their expectation of us to dissolve into a sea of religious oneness. The young woman looked at me, tearfully, “I have never felt so Jewish as I do now.”
Perhaps this is the affirmation of American Judaism. The constant threat of cultural absorption thrusts us towards conviction.