What Being Jewish Means to Me

Posted on November 13, 2020 by Rande Aaronson, Caryn Shinske and Keith Holler

Every year at our Yom Kippur Reflections Service, several members of our congregation speak about how Judaism, and the experience of being Jewish, has affected their lives, their perspectives and their character. Here, three of the speakers from this year’s service offer their thoughts on how being Jewish has impacted them.

Rande Aaronson – When I was a very young boy, I once met another boy with blue eyes. I was startled and amazed. Before this, the only people I knew with blue eyes were members of my family. So, I determined that this must be a sign. We were connected. We would become best friends, buddies for life. We shared something that not everyone did. But to my dismay, time passed, and that boy felt nothing toward me. Having met someone with blue eyes was no more a connection than if he had met someone with lungs or toes. There would be no best friendship, no connection for life. I began to question the whole connection premise.

Years later, my parents sent me to Hebrew school. But I had nothing in common with anyone else in my classes there, either. As it turned out, in the town where I lived and the public school I attended, there was not another child that went to this new kind of school, and so I felt alone and distant. Who were these people? Eventually there was laughter and jokes about the names of grandparents, and uncles with names like Goldie or Moesha, and I joined in, mentioning Hilda and Zalmon. We joked with curse words we learned in this odd language called Yiddish, and I made a friend because we had a few intersections in our lives.

When I went to college, I brought along with me an old menorah for Chanukah. On the first night of Chanukah, I set the menorah up on my windowsill, making sure that the fire sensor in the small cell I lived in would not go off when I lit the first night’s candles. On the second night before I lit the candles, there was a knock on my door, and I tentatively answered. There stood someone I hardly knew, and he said to me, “I hear that you are lighting candles; can I come in and light them with you?” We lit the candles together, and by the eighth night there were four of us in my little room, sharing a moment, a memory, a blessing to God for our good fortune.

Many years after that I had four children, two of whom are sons. Each one had his bris in my tiny living room, surrounded by relatives both squeamish and bold. There was nervous energy everywhere, but thank goodness the mohel, Jackie Mason’s brother, broke the ice with a few jokes. Soon the room calmed down, smiles broke out and the prayers began. It was at that moment, yes, that moment, that I realized what I had not on my first day of Hebrew school or when I lit the candles at college….I was connected. I was connected to thousands of years of Jewish lives, I was connected to millions of Jews who had experienced this very same moment, I was connected to every Jewish man and woman who had ever lived because of our faith. This was my true blue-eyed moment.

That experience was my Jewish epiphany. We are all connected. Since that moment, every Passover Seder I feel the connection, every sound of the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah I feel connected, with every challah I rip for my first bite I feel connected. I think of that one boy I met in Hebrew school more than 50 years ago because I still speak with him and we see each other at least once a year. That student who knocked on my door 40 years ago is one of my best friends and always will be. And now you! Today, I am connected to all of you and always will be. For that, I say thank you.

Caryn Shinske – I had the privilege of growing up with a large extended Jewish family. Every year we joined together for important ritual b’nei mitzvot, huge Passover seders, Chanukah gift-giving gatherings and Purim parties. All the kids went to Hebrew school, we collected tzedakah for Israel, and we attended High Holy Day services without fail.

Our gatherings at my maternal grandparents’ home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn were filled with lots of laughing, kibbitzing and schmoozing. As a girl, I often played with my cousins during these gatherings, but somehow always ended up in the kitchen, soaking in the discussions and camaraderie of my female elders as they talked about their temple’s goings-on and this-and-that simchas, while getting tables in the dining room set for the large family meal about to occur.

Strolling the streets of my nana’s and grandpa’s neighborhood as a teenager, I would recall my mom’s stories about growing up as a conservative Jew in a Hasidic neighborhood. From her I learned about streimels and pais, the strict and gender-defined roles of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but also where to buy rugelach and babka, and which kosher butcher had the best chicken.

As a child and young adult, these activities and discussions, as well as years of Hebrew school and my bat mitzvah, formed the core of my Jewish identity.

But, I’ve evolved.

While my childhood memories and teachings are the mortar of my Jewish foundation, the Jew I am today is someone who asks a lot of quiet questions and is both pensive and contemplative. I often feel like the human version of cholent: a mix of this, a dash of that, some hearty things, some leftovers, all stewing together on simmer. What I end up with is a hot and heavy pot of Jewish … some might say guilt … I choose to say moral qualms.

So who am I as a Jew at the midpoint of life, and what is my responsibility? I think about this often.

I am a proud, but deeply concerned, Jewish woman. These days, two phrases often spoken by our rabbi are frequently on my mind and pretty much wrapped around my heart.

“If I am only for myself, who am I?”“

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

I sit here, in the Hebrew year 5781 and secular year 2020, saddened by sharp rises in anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry in every form. I have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that people want to hurt us – and others – simply for being who we – and they – are, and based on stereotype-filled narratives. Skin color, sexual orientation, religion, political stripe. As a Jew and human being, I will not abide it, and I am at a loss to understand how and why any Jew anywhere would not stand up for others, Jew and non-Jew.

We are a people that has been persecuted since the beginning of time. I have been a victim of anti-Semitism, both as a child and adult, more times than I can count. Consequently, I, as a Jew, cannot and will not victimize others.

If I am only for myself, who am I?

I am more than a Jew by birth and training. I am a woman of fierce convictions. I am a Jewish leader. My beloved sister-in-law tells me I am a woman of valor. I have the strength of Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah and Miriam, and a responsibility to use that strength for good, for people of all races, religions, orientations and backgrounds. We all do. There is much work to be done by myself, and by all of us. Will we sit idly by, or will we take action?

We are the chosen people for a number of reasons. Being silent is not one of them.

To me, being Jewish means:

Posing questions.

Getting answers.

Righting wrongs.

Demanding – and instilling – change.

Embracing education.

Enduring in the face of opposition and oppression.

Succeeding where others have failed.

Contemplating past and present actions.

Asking forgiveness.

Lifting up others.

Helping fellow Jews.

Practicing chesed, or kindness.

Repairing the world.

Remembering that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Lighting Sabbath candles.

Honoring the lessons and memories of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and ancestors.

Making my mother’s killer brisket, recreating my dad’s Jewish chicken soup that would keep us warm for days, and one day mastering my Aunt Bertie’s legendary rugelach recipe.

I believe being Jewish means to persevere, and to see that others do so as well.

After all, I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I free to desist from it. And If I am only for myself, who am I?

 Keith Holler – What does being Jewish mean to me? After I was asked to speak at the reflection service, I spent some time thinking about how to answer this question. I thought about many topics that we as Jews share: our connection to Israel, our shared heritage, our traditions, special holiday foods, and honored religious ceremonies. But to come up with an answer that would ring true to me, I had to go back to my childhood and think of the events and people in my life that formed my Jewish identity.

I was born in the mid 1960s, and grew up for the first 12 years of my childhood in Staten Island, New York. Just before my bar mitzvah, my family moved to Matawan, New Jersey. Pleasant Jewish childhood memories included many cousin b’nei mitzvah, Passover seders, and long holiday services. I made lifelong friends through my association with my local synagogue. Later in my life I had the opportunity to travel to Israel twice, to experience first-hand what life is like in the Jewish state.

In thinking about these Jewish traditions, I thought a lot about the family Passover seders that were led by my uncle, who is still alive today at 94. I remember attending High Holiday services, sitting next to my father, who showed me the holiday traditions that he learned from his father, and who learned from his father before him. I thought about preparing for my bar mitzvah, and also watching my brother and sister complete their b’nei mitzvahs a few years later. I found myself thinking of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, who I know performed the same rituals that I am talking about now – many years earlier, and in some cases, in different parts of the world.

Now, before you think I had the most idyllic Jewish childhood of all time, there were some family traditions that I could do without. A few of them include:

  • Memories of walking two-and-a-half miles each way to temple during the High Holidays, rain or shine; that definitely did not make my top ten list.
  • The yearly “who done it” discussion around the family Passover table about who brought the “wrong” non-kosher soda for Passover. You would think everyone was trying to figure out who shot President Kennedy.
  • Missing most of the October 1, 1978 playoff game between the Boston Red Sox and my beloved New York Yankees because the game fell on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I can tell you that missing parts of that game brought my 11-year-old self to tears.
  • Growing up in a “somewhat” kosher home and trying to explain to friends which plates were for meat and which were for dairy, and what the purpose was.
  • And lastly, why did Passover have to last eight days? I can tell you that bringing gefilte fish, chopped liver and matzoh to lunch every day did not go over very well at my middle school lunch table.

When thinking about these cherished traditions, I noticed that all of these, yes, even the “not so cherished traditions,” brought a smile to my face. I lingered on all these memories, and I didn’t want to leave. After a while, it became very clear to me how to answer this question.

To me, being Jewish means having a past to which I am linked by the generations that preceded me, that prepared their children for their bar and bat mitzvah. Those generations sang Kol Nidre, and then blew the Shofar, like we will do one last time at the end of Yom Kippur. It means lighting Chanukah candles, partaking in Passover seders with family, helping to build a sukkah, and then passing these same traditions to our children.

These traditions go back generations and generations. And, ultimately, I am a link in a chain that will carry these same traditions on to future generations. Although I don’t necessarily live my Jewish life the same way as past generations, it still means appreciating the many traditions that I grew up with, both good and bad, and honoring the family members who passed these traditions to me. It means that it is important for me to be that link in the chain, being an active part in passing Jewish traditions that I learned from my grandparents and parents, to my daughter and family, so these same traditions can be passed to future generations – which, I am sure, they will celebrate in their own special way!

Chag sameach and please stay safe.

Originally published in the November-December 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.