A Student Finds Her Place in Judaism
By Alison Marlowe
I grew up in Suburbia, peripherally aware that it lacked anything close to what could be called a "sizable" Jewish community. But all the Jews I knew were the same kind as me, and I was not yet aware that there were any others outside Suburbia.
I went to college, as was expected of me, and found a Reform service at University of Illinois' Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, that fit my spiritual needs. For me, the power of a prayer is in how it is sung, and this service is consistently filled with harmonies and counter-melodies.
Two years of this rural campus began to get to me, and I craved something new and exciting. I happened to think of study abroad. I picked a city, and began to prepare to leave for Prague, in the Czech Republic. I had multiple reasons: I had visited two years earlier for four days as part of a Jewish tour group. The message being sent to all of us was, "Prague has a tiny Jewish community, but look at what our organization does to help it develop." But, the message that I heard was "This is what you will do when it is time for you to grow up." OK, it is a bit melodramatic, but it all goes to explain that I while couldn't quite identify all the reasons for my return to Prague, I knew that I had to come back.
Winter break passed quickly while I spent the time working, packing and spending time with friends. Before I realized it, I was already unpacking in Prague at the end of January.
After a month, my biggest challenge has not been homesickness, adjusting to the diet, walking everywhere or even learning the language. My biggest challenge arose when I had to decide which sort of Jew I am. To my knowledge, there are four congregations in Prague. Of these, one is Conservative, one Reconstructionist, one traditional Orthodox, and one Lubavitch Orthodox. One would imagine that I would head in a beeline for the Reconstructionist congregation, but I decided to try them all in turn.
The first Shabbat was also the first of the new month, which meant services at the Spanish Synagogue, home of the Conservative congregation. This was followed by dinner, services the next day, a discussion group after lunch and Havdalah at the Rabbi's place. I had a good time, and I met some incredible people. I decided that this wasn't the service for me, though, no matter how wonderful the community was.
The next week, I walked in a bit late to the Reconstructionist service. I was greeted with, "You don't speak Czech, do you?"
As I shook my head, I wondered, "What have I gotten myself into?"
Translations were sparse, but the service was a collection of familiar prayers, and although my native language is English, I felt comfortable among this group of Jews. But I decided that congregation was not for me either.
I was faced with two remaining options - Orthodox or Orthodox - and with it a new problem. I had come across a stereotype while I grew up: Orthodox Jews do not like non-Orthodox Jews because I am non-Jewish to them. I could never be accepted because I wear my skirts too short, or ride the tram on Shabbat or other stereotypes born of fear of the unknown.
I chose Chabad, and with a tiny little bit of fear in my stomach, I walked into the women's section. I picked out a siddur, and waited for the other women to come in. Every woman that entered wished me a "Good Shabbos," and smiled broadly. One girl, about my age, leaned over to help me every single time I got lost in the service. She made me feel much less self-conscious about not knowing all the prayers by heart. I began to relax into the service, listening to the Torah service and losing myself in the ancient words. I introduced myself around at the Kiddush, and I felt increasingly comfortable. After lunch, I walked home, leaving my new friends with promises to keep in touch and to stop by during the week to meet the children in the preschool program.
I fell asleep that night with the thought that I had found my place in Prague.
I did visit the preschool on Monday. I walked with the children through Old Town Square - running after them and peering at the fish tanks in front of a restaurant nearby - playing and singing all afternoon. I was ready for a nap along with the kids, but I said good-bye and went to class instead.
I suppose all this leads me to the same conclusion to which most relatively observant American Jews come when they travel abroad. I have heard that this is what people do when they are away from home. I just feel that it is logical, and the next step in my personal development. I have begun to cling more tightly to my tradition and my religious rituals. It makes me feel grounded in a country where I have no real foundation.
I've begun to identify myself. I am a young Jewish woman.
Why do I identify so strongly as a Jew, before any other identifier? My upbringing, my Jewish experience, Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, youth group, Hillel, activism, and the fact that I'm away from familiar surroundings.
I am not the same person here as I was in Naperville or Champaign. I keep my Star of David hidden when I'm outside, I pray nightly, and I observe Shabbat with a little more accuracy.
There is one constant, whether I call myself Reconstructionist or Orthodox. I am a Jew.
from the April 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine