As the DC air has begun to feel less humid and crisper, many have commented how fall is on the way. When I begin to think about all that fall brings, I get excited, especially when I realize, for the first time in my cognizant life, this fall will not include exams and midterms. One thing I really like about the East Coast is that fall is a real, separate season. I love the trees turning color and the pumpkin and squash and sweet potato flavors infused in everything.
Additionally, the fall brings the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two holiest holidays in the Jewish religion, as well as a slew of other holidays, all of which require large meals with large crowds, possibly two of my favorite things in life. We Jews really like our holidays, because, let’s be honest, we love any excuse to eat and drink, especially when it’s required of us. Even though the holiday season doesn’t even begin for (at the time of writing) two more weeks, my friends have already been talking about who is hosting which meal and on what day for weeks. The anticipation of the food really gets us going.
So, because I fall in the category of planning far in advance when it comes to the Jewish holidays, and because I’m new at my job, I spoke to my boss about what the logistics would be about taking off work for Yom Kippur. She’s not Jewish, but we work with faith based development agencies of all religions, so, fortunately, I didn’t have to explain what Yom Kippur was. She assured me it wouldn’t be a problem for me to miss a day, and then asked if I would explain to the staff what Yom Kippur was and then launched into a story about another “observant Jew” she knew.
And for some reason, those words in the context of myself, “observant Jew,” made me cringe.
Because I work for an organization that works with the religious community, conversations about religion seem to come up a lot at work. I’m the only Jewish person in the office who still somewhat practices, so it’s up to me to explain the complex Jewish faith to the staff. I’m proud of my heritage and love being a part of the Jewish community, but it’s always a little uncomfortable to me to have to represent an entire population of diverse people, especially when I’m still figuring out how I fit into that world.
To me, the term “observant Jew” is someone who is Orthodox, or keeps Kosher, or who at least has gone to synagogue a few times in the last year. Despite my connections and attachments to the Jewish community, I am not Orthodox, do not keep Kosher, and have not been to synagogue since last Yom Kippur. But to an outsider, the fact that I have Jewish friends, two Jewish parents, and will be in synagogue instead of the office on Yom Kippur, means I’m observant.
Being labeled as “observant” makes me uncomfortable because while I enjoy exploring and learning about them, I have always been wary committing to many of the religious aspects of Judaism. Additionally, I’m still trying to find my place and to figure out what feels right to me when it comes to more than a cultural identity to Judaism, and while I haven’t figured out a label yet, I know “observant” isn’t one of them.
Yet, on another thought, while many Jews might disagree, I feel a fortunate thing about being a Jew in America is that, if I choose, I can find a way unique to myself or a small community to act Jewish. I remember one summer some friends and I went to the Mission Minyan in the Mission District in San Francisco. The best way to describe that service was an egalitarian traditional service in a room filled with hippies. According to the Torah, these people were not observing Judaism correctly or strictly. But, as the music filled the room, I watched as men and women closed their eyes and really felt the meanings of the familiar melodies. There were no black hats, but the energy in the room replaced what they were lacking in traditional observances. And while I didn’t ask, it’s very possible that many of these congregants define themselves as observant.
I guess labels are subjective, and people can define me how they choose. So while they’re busy defining, I’ll be busy exploring…and cooking up a storm for this Rosh Hashanah.
A heartfelt (and early) L’Shana Tova…a happy New Year to you all (or, Happy Fall for the non-Jews). May this year be one filled with laughter and exploration, on whichever road you choose to follow.