When I was an incoming high school senior, I had to take summer gym with a group composed almost entirely of incoming freshmen. I’d taken marching band for one of the two physical education credits I needed to graduate, and I had to medically withdraw from my actual gym class freshman year; so naturally, like anything you don’t want to do when you’re a teenager, I put that final physical education credit off until the last possible minute. What I didn’t consider in this process was the other demographic for summer gym: incoming overachieving freshmen. My polar opposite.
I can’t say I never procrastinated again, but I can say that “taking a gym class with exclusively what might as well be middle schoolers and getting absolutely academically decimated by them every step of the way” is a transcendentally embarrassing experience to have as a 17-year-old. Even if nobody in your age group was around to see it, you know how it felt when Braydyn lapped you like four times while you struggled to half-jog, mostly-walk the mile test, and you have to live with it for the rest of your days.
Why am I telling this story? Well, it’s the only emotional parallel I could think of to accurately describe why I have so much trepidation and shame over getting back in touch with Judaism. I was raised Jewish, but for the past dozen or so years I’ve existed in a bizarre liminal space with regards to it — and now that I want to go back, I have no idea how, and I feel excruciatingly behind schedule and out of shape.
Growing up, I went to synagogue for Shabbat every week, I was in a Jewish Pre-K, I went to Sunday School, I went to a Jewish summer camp where I met all of my closest childhood friends year after year, I studied Hebrew in preparation for my B’nai Mitzvah after school several days a week and complained about it a lot. Judaism was a massive part of my childhood. I loved being Jewish when I was a kid, and I still cherish a lot of those memories and miss that sense of community; I doubt I’d even be considering trying to come back to it if I didn’t.
The thing that brought it all crashing down, though, was… her. The one person who made my life an inescapable nightmare for years on end, and one person who ensured Judaism was a constant presence in my life just as long as she was. My biological mother.
My relationship with my bio-mom was strained throughout my childhood to a certain degree, but it really came to a head when my parents got a divorce when I was 12. That’s when she really started in on the emotional abuse: her go-tos included gaslighting, screaming, guilt-tripping me for loving my other relatives, and so on. Within the year, I wanted nothing to do with her — and part of that, coincidentally, meant that I did not want to hang out with her on the holidays, or take part in Jewish ceremonies with her, or pray with her, or let her use religion to tie us any closer together than we legally had to be. So, one day when she picked me up from school, I told her I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore. As expected, she screamed at me and shamed me for it, which drove me further into my decision. After that, though, neither of us went to the synagogue anymore. After having done all of that preparation for a Bat Mitzvah, I never had one. I moved in full-time with my other (agnostic) mom, grew up, and told everyone that I “was Jewish when I was a kid”.
The first time I went into a synagogue again was with my first roommate as an adult, as they wanted someone to go with them after not having gone to services in a while — particularly, someone who would at least kind of know what was going on. I was nervous, but I accepted. Anything to support a friend, right?
It was pretty different from the Reform synagogue I grew up in — here, there was separate gendered seating, and my roommate was worried about covering up their tattoos. Still, enough was the same that I felt like I had a good grasp on what was happening around me, and the people were very kind. The food after the service was familiar, too, and delicious.
I briefly thought about going back to Judaism and shrugged it off. No, I thought. It still had too much connection to her. Plus, I didn’t even belong anymore. It was too late. Things worked out this time, but I’m sure they’d never let me actually join the congregation — after all, I’m not even technically a Jewish adult, and to try and be one at this point would just be embarrassing.
I shoved the thought down, and it stayed relatively dormant for the next four years. But then, after moving to Portland, OR, and cutting my bio-mom off permanently, sparks of inspiration started to fly faster than I could block them.
Once we got to Portland, I met so. Many. Jews. And so many kinds of Jews, at that. I’d only known one queer Jewish person other than myself in Indiana; in Portland, I literally only know queer Jewish people. After years of viewing myself as an outsider, I was starting to see a place for me in the Jewish community again.
After that, I found out about Never Again Action, the Jewish activist group. I read about their efforts to combat ICE and considered how personally impactful it would be to have the opportunity to protest with them. Their cause is something I strongly identify with. When I was a kid, I involved myself heavily with reading about and educating myself on the Holocaust; Never Again Action’s mission and demonstrations brought a swell of old emotions bubbling back up in me, lighting up something innate in me.
I began to dip my toe back into my Jewish identity, now that I saw myself in it. When I took a sociology course on Death & Dying, we had an assignment to visit a cemetery and write about our experience; I visited a Jewish cemetery. It was beautiful, and I had a hard time not becoming emotional while writing my essay afterward. Judaism was starting to feel like something that could be part of me, independent of her.
After COVID-19 hit, I found myself baking a lot of challot. Like, a challah per week. I didn’t know what on earth to do about getting in touch with my Jewish roots outside of baking challah, and challah is delicious and comforting to bake, so that’s what we got. I started to talk frequently in therapy about my feelings concerning Judaism, because now that I was pretty dedicated to being Jewish again, I had no direction as to what to do next.
You see, my biological mother’s side of the family was Jewish before my grandfather converted to Catholicism, and then my biological mother converted back to Judaism as an adult — outside of her, I have no other Jewish relatives to speak of. Even beyond that, between my inability to remember names and my gender transition, I can be fairly sure that any and all members of the synagogue we attended, my old camp counselors, and any former friends would no longer remember me. I have no true familial or childhood ties to Judaism beyond my biological mother, and this made it feel particularly difficult to feel validated in any way, shape, or form that my Jewish roots existed in the first place.
Sometimes, to prove my authenticity to myself, I’d grasp at weird, sad straws, my worst moments — for example, the time a kid in my first-grade class told me I was going to Hell for being Jewish, or the time in Sunday school we learned about anti-Semitic stereotypes to beware of, because who would make up those kinds of memories? This is one of the more depressing mechanisms I’d employ to prove my reality to myself, pure self-pity. This doesn’t even matter, I’d think to myself, nobody’s going to judge you, just start somewhere. Anywhere.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I spend a lot of time ruefully sitting in the corner of the pity party I’ve thrown for myself. This past week though, something finally got me moving: my biological mother emailed me. In this email, she repeatedly called me the post-transition Hebrew name she decided to give me — without my consent or input — after I cut off contact with her. After researching it, I found out that the name, Levi, means “joined” or “attached”. If there’s one thing I don’t want to be with regards to my biological mom, it’s attached; I don’t know if she knew what it meant when she picked that name, but either way, I decided it has to go.
After pouring over website after website of Hebrew names, I think I finally found one: Simcha. It’s gender-neutral, which actually fits my identity, and it means “joy” — funnily enough, it’s also used to denote a joyous occasion, like a B’nai Mitzvah, wedding, or gathering. After being alone for so long, I want my new relationship with Judaism to be a little party. I want to embody joy. I’m still nervous and embarrassed and a little lost, but in terms of introductions, a name is always a good place to start.