Om Shalom, So I Begin

“Such a thinker.” These words fit me like that pair of sneakers you keep for gardening – comfy, but beat-up and worn-out, too. Here I am, trying to be such an un-thinker. I’m all tangled up in the weeds this week – and I’m glad. It’s time to get out the machete and start hacking.

I was standing at the kitchen sink last night. Guess what I was doing? I was thinking! And suddenly, I realized that the trouble starts when I doubt myself or the validity of my knowledge, no matter how I attained it. That’s when the self-questioning begins with no end in sight, obliterating my natural insight, obscuring my intuition, diminishing my wisdom.


There’s something I have written very little about here, mainly because I have written very little about it anywhere, and that is my Jewish life, or at least the more nternal aspects of it. I realize that even this phrasing posits my “Jewish life” as somehow over there, separate from the rest of my life.

Struggling to find my way “in” Jewishly, perceiving myself as an outsider, is close to the heart of the matter. So often, I’ve overlooked years’ worth of writing – poems, blog posts, essays – and instead focused on the story I haven’t been able to enter yet. I’ve wondered when I will write it, how, where, what will finally catalyze that readiness. And I also recognize that it’s not an all or nothing, that I’m living it, and the stories come in images, bits and pieces, moments… perhaps even blog posts.

Looking back, I realize that writing about saying blessings with Aviva and Pearl or receiving my Hebrew name, these are glimpses into my current Jewish experience. But they skim the surface like dragonflies, and I want to drain the whole damn pond to show its floor.

I have thought of my Judaism as being “self-taught,” which carries smoky undertones of “hard-won,” which in turn carries husky hints of “a chip on my shoulder.” See, I’m not one of those kids who went to Jewish summer camps and youth group meetings, or even lit Hanukkah candles at home for that matter. The only bat mitzvah I remember is the one where I was on the catering staff, passing stuffed mushrooms to proud family members, wondering, Am I Jewish, too? Christmas was a full-blown affair at my house. And yours truly was the most gung-ho participant.

I have often been met with surprise when people learn that I was not raised with any Jewish education, formal or otherwise, especially people who knew me as the Director of UVM Hillel our first few years in Vermont, or who have heard of my on-again, off-again thoughts of becoming a rabbi. Greg’s not Jewish, but we are raising Jewish daughters. The beautiful, tortured path that led us to that commitment will certainly get its own chapter.

The book. The imaginary book. The one that recounts the journey that led me to “discover” my Jewish identity, to delve into it, to fall in love with it, and to wrestle mightily with it; to hear the train whistle in the darkness and bristle with bone memory of trains in the darkness; to wander into a synagogue in Prague in search of home; to see anti-Jewish graffiti in Toledo, Spain – until 1492, the home of my father’s family; to spend months interviewing Russian Jewish immigrants in Brighton Beach, Jews who apart from the “J” stamped on their passport and a few Yiddish whisperings from their grandparents fully identified as Russian and knew very little about living a Jewish life; to see the full circle of my immediate family, my parents and sisters, all of us coming into ourselves in different ways as Jews; to learn more from my mother about her Christian Science upbringing; to talk to my father about the Holocaust and contemporary examples of genocide under our very watch; to wish my middle sister safe travels as she sets off to accept a major award in Jewish philanthropy at the home of the Israeli prime minister; to care this much that my kids feel proud and knowledgeable and connected to their Jewish past and present.

And yet. Easter came and went, on the heels of Purim and the eve of Passover. One of my sisters called and asked, “How was Jewster?” And I bristled at my own discomfort and baggage and inability to laugh at myself. We went to my mother-in-law’s house for a turkey dinner – turkey, not ham, in deference to me, her Jewish daughter-in-law. I caught myself enjoying watching my kids collect chocolate eggs all over the house. And I’m amazed at the power I’ve given it all. My own fear of raising kids who won’t be clear about their identity, who won’t fit in, who will have to teach themselves how to belong, whose knowledge will be hard-won and edgy.

I read these words and feel I need to explain. I also read these words and see just how thick the weeds are, just how strong my denial of that very fact, just how those very fears are so counter to every mama bone in my body, every Jewish bone, simply every bone. The bones that know no fear. The ones that know my children are whole. I am whole. And this is our home, all of it.

And yet. These same bones carry Noyes Camp and barefoot dancing in the grass; memories of Jewish alienation in college and painful searching throughout my twenties; discovering Buddhist teacher after Buddhist teacher born Jewish and beginning to fall in love with the deep connections between these two traditions; finding Jewish teacher after Jewish teacher who inspire me to become a Jewish teacher despite myself; discovering so much in Judaism that isn’t conventionally taught; yearning for community while resisting traditional models and institutions, having been raised outside of them; feeling alternately grateful for my perspective and occasionally burdened by it.

There are a thousand stories to tell. Probably the best place to begin is here, acknowledging that this story began telling itself a long time ago. Maybe a good place to start is right here, by acknowledging my need to capture every aspect of this tale at once, and giving myself permission to slow down. Maybe I need a different image, a new metaphor, some alchemy that will transform the weeds into jewels, so that jewel by jewel, I can begin to look at the chain of people, of places, of moments, of stories, of weddings and funerals and baby namings and moments of connection so effortless, nothing hard-won about them, the ones that are a birthright, the belonging that requires no passport, no proof.

Image: Siona Benjamin, “Finding Home”

14 thoughts on “Om Shalom, So I Begin

  1. Shelli says:

    Oh my gosh, this is beautiful, Jena. Though I’m not Jewish, it resonated with me because I was raised in a Christian family that never went to church or taught me much about the religion. Now I find myself searching for where I belong. There so much in many traditions that I long for, and other things I reject. I think it will be a life-long journey, and yet, as I search, I feel alienated from many people. As you say, it makes me feel “alternately grateful for my perspective and occasionally burdened by it.”


  2. Anonymous says:

    Is it not likely that it’s not “thinking” and introspection but rather prayer and a synagogue home will be the most likely routes to lead you to your true Jewish identity?


  3. Anonymous says:

    Jewel by jewel — a beautiful image. Jewels are precious. On a string they can be strongly and flexibly connected, and also separate.


  4. PixieDust says:

    This post is deeply powerful… connecting to our culture is powerful in itself… I am American born and raised, but I hold the creativity and flourish of my Mexican heritage so dear, speaking Spanish ensuring my daughter could both read & write as well as speak it… it is a beautiful journey, yes?

    Jewish tradition, history, and culture… jewels, indeed…

    Mazel tov!




  5. MamaShift says:

    Hmm, I identify strongly with this post — though I was raised by a non-practicing Presbyterian mother and a traumatized Catholic father.

    Now I practice Vipassana and attend UU services when I have the chance.

    The reason I ended up a UU is that I felt a strong desire to connect with traditional Western religion, a part of my culture.

    I greatly admire the Jewish religion, especially their steady practice of forgiveness.

    Have I set up a tradition — roots — for my daughters? Not really, except to make sure they are totally aware of our interconnectedness.


  6. Meg Casey says:

    Oh Jena-I have struggled with this too, although I am not Jewish–I was raised Catholic but had a very strong Jewish grandmother, I have a sister who was a wiccan and I relate so strongly to eastern philosophy and religions.
    My grandma once told me these are all just windows into the one big unknowable. We can choose one window or many windows–embrace one , try many. All is somehow OK–all of it is right. All of it is available to us as a tool to know Love.
    Our identify, our children’s identity is us–is them, whether it is one tradition or a jambalaya of traditions that help us make sense of the world. It is all ours whether we were born there, grew up there or chose it.
    I look forward to hearing more about your journey to find the things that resonate with you and your soul. The things that make you say aha. The things that allow you to relax into being.


  7. bella says:

    I relate to this feeling of “hard won”. And it can wear one down, can’t it? :)
    You are who you are, in all of the faces and layers and stories, and it is beautiful.
    Thank-you for beginning, for sharing this part of your story.
    Happy weed whacking. :)


  8. Karen says:

    Book recommendation to read in about 3 hours flat: “My Grandfather’s Blessings” by Rachel Noemi Remen.

    Tip: don’t “call” it anything: no -ist, no -ish, no either/or. That’s where the walls go in.

    Hint: It’s not a metaphor.It’s what is in front of your eyes. Otherwise, it’s just literary. Make yours real!


  9. Jena Strong says:

    Shelli – The lifelong piece is something to embrace, I think. As if this journey was something we “got” at some point and then stopped living. Thanks for sharing.

    Anonymous – Yes, prayer and a synagogue home (and a havurah, in my case) are routes, too. It’s a both/and – the thinking and introspection are important pieces for me in terms of exploring my story, not a replacement for creating and finding community and practice. Thanks for your comment. Who are you?!

    Anonymous – I love this description of the jewels.

    Pixiedust – So glad you shared here a glimpse of how you’re integrating your Mexican heritage into your daughter’s life. Yes, it is a beautiful journey.

    mamashift – interconnectedness. I thought of your comment this morning. Aviva, Pearl & I were going for a walk in the snow (yes, snow). Aviva caught a flake on her tongue. I told her that I saw it melt. “Now you are part snowflake!” I told her. “Part everything?” she asked. Children get this – we are all part everything. AND there is something, for me at least, powerful about connecting with a tradition. Thanks for your comment.

    Meg – I so appreciated your words here about the jambalaya. I have at times felt almost threatened by that, especially earlier in my “interfaith” marriage (and “interfaith” self in a way, even within Judaism!!). But none of us is one thing, and all of us are one. This I know you understand and live and teach Max.

    Bella – So happy to be showing our faces, peeling back the layers, sharing the stories with you.

    Karen – I just took the unread copy of “My Grandfather’s Blessings” off my shelf and am looking forward to those three hours. Thank you for the tips and hints. No walls, just love. So glad you’re here.

    Shabbat Shalom, everybody!


  10. Shawn says:

    I am deeply moved by this post, your rawness and eagerness, too. It makes me think about one thing: That I was not raised to take religion or spirituality of any sort seriously and this is the first I’m realized that very point, one I definitely don’t want to regret with my own daughters. Thank you. You’ve woken me.

    But, yeah … that thinking thing. It’ll get you. Every. effing. Time.


  11. Mika says:

    You wrote it so beautifully. The eternal Jewish struggle, made even more complicated if you don’t believe in God.
    I can think in circles on the issue, especially when it comes to Anise. I went to Jewish elementary school – didn’t practice much at home. My husband is not Jewish, but officially Anise is.
    But you sound so confident in your Jewish identity. Proud of it, and clear in your beliefs. Easter eggs are just eggs (and chocolate!), it doesn’t have to have spiritual significance. Or it can, and one doesn’t have to negate the other! (except for the celebrating Jesus part :)

    I can’t wait to read your book!
    xo m



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