My Jewish education began at the St. Paul Jewish Day School in preschool and went through 6th grade. I will save my full experience for another time, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll just say that I had challenges. I didn’t thrive academically, emotionally, or mentally. All three of those took a pretty significant hit.
My Bat Mitzvah was March 15-16, 1996, and while I did enjoy this time to shine, it did not inspire me to pursue any further Jewish education. No afternoon school once I left Talmud Torah, no Birthright trip, no Herzl, no Ramah. Nothing.
I didn’t go to high school with other Jews- not like the other classmates at my temple did who went to Sibley or Central. I went to a small, St. Paul private school and was one of a tiny handful of Jews. I was also not too high on the totem pole of popularity. My academics were dismal and kept me from pursuing extracurricular activities like the annual play at my synagogue.
I longed to participate. I longed for the lifelong friendships I saw growing around me. I went to Kinnus and various Shabbaton and felt lonely watching everyone reconnect with their camp friends.
College is often a time to make more Jewish connections at one’s chosen university. I chose a small art and design school and lived in a tiny apartment with a motley crew of fellow misfits. I missed out on Hillel, campus parties, and didn’t feel comfortable at all joining the 20’s and 30’s groups at my local synagogues. Nothing felt right. It seemed I had missed the window to develop proper Jewish friendships and connections.
A year after my husband and I got married, he chose to convert. We had spent a year in a Judaism 101 class because he wanted to learn more. His interest ignited something in me, and again, I longed for deeper Jewish friendships and a connection to my faith. As I saw the women my age at temple having children, I wondered if that would be my opportunity, once I had a child.
When the time was right, we had Luna. She will turn 2 in October. Of course, life with this child has been full of growth and transformation for our entire family, but something totally unexpected has happened. I’ve discovered that I don’t need to wait to feel closer to my faith or wait to become more Jewish. At the risk of sounding, cliché, it has been within me this whole time.
My time at Talmud Torah may not have been the very best, but a seed was planted and I didn’t even know it, not until recently. While rocking my daughter before bedtime and trying to think of a song to sing to her, I thought, “What songs do I know by heart? I’m so tired of the go-to nursery rhymes.” As a preschool educator, I spend a lot of time singing the old standards to children.
Of all the songs to choose, Lecha Dodi tumbled out of my mouth, word for word, flawlessly. Then Oseh Shalom. My daughter says to me, “Sing more mommy, peez” and “sing again mommy”. Then, I sing my favorite: Ahavat Olam. I sing these prayers in the tunes I grew up with. These prayers came out as if I’d been practicing every day all my life. The days and weeks that follow I hear her singing these words in broken toddler English (currently my favorite language), and my heart explodes again and again.
It’s just in there – a deep sense of Judaism, a deep sense of pride, and a desire to give this gift to my daughter. I get it now. And the friendships I’ve been longing for? They’re coming. I’ll be honest: It is not easy to work your way through tight-knit groups of folks who went to camp and school together all their lives.
My daughter has unlocked the space in my heart where I was keeping all my love for Judaism- all my knowledge, my passion, and the peace I have with it. And I think it all started with the songs and prayers of my earliest Jewish education as a child. That morning Tifilot in class at Talmud Torah that I was chronically late to. The art projects that highlighted an upcoming holiday. Pasting paper chains together for the temple sukkah, making hamantashen in the kitchen at home, lighting the Shabbat candles each week and watching them go down safely in the kitchen sink. Each one of these small impressions we get as children makes us the Jews we grow into.
I find peace in knowing that just doing small things at home for my young daughter may help her to find comfort and peace in her Judaism when she needs it as she grows. She’s not quite 2 yet and she wakes up on Friday mornings and knows in her body what day it is and exclaims, “Shabbat! Challah!” She understands that when we go to temple, it is a special and meaningful time. She builds confidence and independence as she helps set the Shabbat table with me.
After all these years of feeling like I missed out, or didn’t go to the right events, or meet the right people, I know now that none of that is true. My path is my own, and it leads me to exactly where I’ve always wanted to be: At peace.