Growing up in the middle

Yesterday I found a blog called Musings from a Square Peg. From the introduction:

Recently I have begun questioning my assumptions and wondering if I should be Orthodox – and if so, what stripe. My parents, Jewish educators both, managed to imbue their children with their passion for Judaism. I feel that I have failed to convey my passion for Judaism to my children, and that I need to provide them with a stronger model of observing Mitzvot. I am wrestling with many questions. . .

Transmitting Jewish identity to children was easier a generation (or two) ago. Both my parents grew up in Yiddish-speaking homes. Even though my husband and I observe more than my parents did, we can’t get rid of our American, secular outlook. Something has been lost. And the outside influences seem more pernicious. Square Peg is right; we need to work harder to raise our children to be committed Jews. The challenge remains even here in Israel.

In her blog, Square Peg shares her thoughts about prescribed roles for women in Orthodox Judaism. She longs for a community that takes Jewish observance more seriously, but wonders if she can accept a “lesser” role for herself after attending an egalitarian synagogue for so long.

I recently read an article lamenting the fact that kids who get turned on to Judaism by Ramah and USY (the Conservative summer camp and youth group) end up either modern Orthodox or non-observant. It’s hard to find a serious Conservative community. I thought Square Peg belonged to one, but I guess things aren’t rosy there either. It’s not easy for any of us to find religious inspiration in our fast-paced world.

I grew up somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox. If I’m brave enough I may address my transition to Orthodoxy, and my views on gender inequality in Judaism, in a later post.

I grew up attending a traditional Conservative synagogue, which my parents left when it became egalitarian in the late 70s. Even though they had felt comfortable in that shul, they objected to the movement’s ruling that allowed driving on Shabbat to attend synagogue. Committed Jews should live near the shul. (My mother felt slightly superior when she learned that my future husband’s staunchly Orthodox family lived far from the Orthodox neighborhood.)

We used lights and answered the phone. We didn’t drive, shop or write on Shabbat and kept strictly kosher, but we lacked those small halachic observances like not eating before kiddush, disabling refrigerator lights, washing netilat yadayim (ritual hand-washing), and daily blessings and prayers. Friday night prayers were at 8PM year round instead of following the sunset. I felt awkward when interacting with the Orthodox kids and rarely invited them over. On the other hand, few non-Orthodox families kept kashrut and Shabbat. I was too serious about my Judaism to feel comfortable with their kids, either.

I suspect that the observance level in my parents’s home wasn’t so different than that of Square Peg’s, whose father was a Conservative rabbi. But there is a difference between maintaining a level of observance because you identify with the Conservative movement, and choosing the level arbitrarily. My parents were definite about where they wanted to be. But I felt lost without some kind of objective standard.

Many Jews have trouble when I try to describe my religious background. They only know about FFBs (frum from birth, or born into a religious family) or BTs (baalei teshuva, who became Orthodox as adults). I really don’t fit into either category.

People didn’t know what to make of me then either. When I was about 8 I went to a weekly “Shabbos Party.” I was the only girl from the non-Orthodox day school, because everyone but the Orthodox lived out in the suburbs. During the party, the rabbi’s teenage daughter noticed that the light in the bathroom had gone off. She asked if anyone knew about it and looked pointedly at me. (I recently asked a friend, who was there, whether she remembered this incident the same way. She did.) Now I hadn’t been to the bathroom but if I had, I knew better than to turn off the light. I also knew that my parents would never make a guest uncomfortable. Fortunately most of the Orthodox community did not act like that teenager.