When I was in first grade, my mom got to come into school with me to teach the class about Hanukkah.
I remember her reading the class one of my favorite Hanukkah books, “Melly’s Menorah,” in which a family of anthropomorphic Jewish otters misplaces their menorah, and the youngest of the bunch, Melly, saves the day by making one out of cookie dough.
We taught the class how to play dreidel and went through the motions of lighting a menorah.
It didn’t seem odd to me at the time that she was the only mom who came in.
My dad celebrated Christmas and Easter for the first several years of his life. It wasn’t until he was older that he even learned that he was Jewish. He was in fifth grade when his family moved to Oklahoma City, where they joined a temple for the first time in his life. He says his family found a sense of belonging and fellowship.
I’ve always thought of his mother — my grandmother — as the quintessential Jewish grandmother. She taught me how to make matzoh ball soup and had an extensive Yiddish vocabulary. It’s strange to think there was ever a time when she wasn’t so forthright about being Jewish.
My mom comes from a more traditional Jewish family. She grew up in a part of New Jersey with a large Jewish community, had a bat mitzvah and celebrated all the major holidays.
When my parents met in their first year at Brandeis, a Jewish college in Massachusetts, my dad was studying to become a rabbi. That year, he found himself questioning the arguments for a god, and changed career paths. He went on to study law, later becoming an atheist philosophy professor.
My brother and I were raised to be skeptical of a higher power.
We celebrated Hanukkah, mostly for my mom’s sake. Some years we attended Passover Seders, and I remember my mom hosting a few.
But most of what I know about Judaism I learned through friends, extended family, stories and pop culture.
When I was really young, a friend of my parents came to visit and brought my brother and me children’s Haggadahs, the Passover prayer book. I remember pulling it off my bookshelf from time to time, to look at the pictures which told Torah stories I didn’t recognize with Hebrew characters I couldn’t read.
I don’t fully understand how to celebrate most of the major Jewish holidays or what the meaning is behind them.
When I was in first grade, my family moved across town, and two doors down lived an Orthodox rabbi and his family. Of their 11 children, they had three daughters close in age to me. We became fast friends.
As kids we didn’t see the differences between my culturally Jewish family and their very religious one.
I would sleep over at their house almost every Friday night. I would have shabbat dinner with their family and attend services the following morning. My parents, while often invited to dinner as well, would rarely come.
Their mother taught me not to mix meat and dairy in their big kitchen, how to say a prayer when I washed my hands before a meal and how to sing songs in Hebrew.
As I got older, I saw less and less of the family. The girls went away to New York for high school and in the summers I was always busy with dance intensives and babysitting jobs.
It’s been years since I’ve seen them, but my mom says they still ask for me.
When I was 18, I applied for Birthright, a free trip to Israel for young Jewish adults. For the first time, I felt connected to Judaism. Nobody thought my name was weird or exotic and for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by other people who were also Jewish.
After Birthright and for most of college, I wore a Star of David necklace, but never really could articulate why. I stopped in part because I didn’t feel comfortable advertising myself as a Jew, in a time when anti-Semitism is still a very real threat.
I went back to Israel again for an internship my sophomore year of college. I wrote stories for an English newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, and covered news about Israel and the Jewish world.
I interviewed a Holocaust survivor, a friend of Anne Frank, who recounted her harrowing experience. After, she encouraged me to “come and help build the country.” But I’ve never felt a desire to make Aliyah (move to Israel).
Still, parts of my exposure to Jewish culture have resonated with me.
I tell myself marrying someone Jewish isn’t important to me, but I always finding myself more likely to swipe right on someone who is. There are so many traditions I don’t fully understand myself. Would this all be easier with a Jewish partner?
I will teach my children to say the blessing when they light Hanukkah candles. I will take them to my family’s Seders. I will tell them stories about my time in Israel and empower them to make decisions about how Judaism will impact their own lives.
Jewish traditions are beautiful. They are time-honored. They’ve survived through so much.
As a child, I lit Hanukkah candles for the promise of presents. Today, I light them because Hanukkah is the story of a war being fought for religious freedom and I live in a time where I can celebrate that victory without fear of persecution.
The high holidays start next week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. I know I have a standing invitation to spend the holidays with my mom’s family, but I’ve never made the trip. I tell myself it’s not the right time to travel or to take time off from work.
As I continue to discover who I am as an adult, Judaism remains part of a larger identity puzzle. How do I honor my heritage and these traditions without strong belief in their religious significance? How do I balance atheism with belief?
Day-to-day, Judaism seems to barely impact my life. But at the same time, it’s always part of it. My Hebrew name is a badge of honor, a daily reminder of the Jewish story I am part of.
I want to feel connected, to honor my heritage and to find my way in this subculture I was born into.
It’s just a question of how.