The High Holidays in Judaism are made up of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). They’re generally in late September or early October, and both are important observances, spent with family or in the synagogue with the wider community. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most observant of Jews. Most of the past Jewish New Years I’ve spent at home with my family, enjoying a meal and affectionately roasting each other. In college, I’ve managed to make it to services two out of four years. This was one of the two years, and as usual, I became uncomfortable as soon as I stepped into a room full of Jews.
I’m used to being the only Jewish person in a group. I’m more comfortable that way. It’s not because I like the novelty of it – it’s not fun to be the person everyone looks at when the conversation gets around to Jesus or the one who has to explain that no, that Holocaust joke your weird friend just told really isn’t funny. It’s more because whenever there are more than two Jewish people in a room, and I’m one of them, it’s almost guaranteed that the other Jewish person is more religious than I am.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem. There’s a proud tradition of Jewish secularism, especially in the United States, and the dual nature of Jewishness as a religion and an ethnicity means that your participation in the religious aspects isn’t the final word on your role in the community. But for some people, particularly people who attend services regularly or did so in the past, the fact that I didn’t grow up going to temple, that I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, that I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, is a problem, and they haven’t been shy about telling me so.
I was in seventh grade the first time someone insinuated that I wasn’t Jewish enough, and that was far from the last time it happened. I’ve had to explain to people who have no business asking why participating in organized religion was a touchy subject for my non-traditional family. I’ve told people that my mother is Jewish – which is true – and had them aggressively push the point, trying to figure out which of my two mothers is the Jewish one. Because apparently, it matters. I’m used to dealing with non-Jewish people who are rude and bigoted, but to be picked on and bullied by one group of people over an attribute that members of my own group are trying to strip from me is a head-trip I could have done without.
This isn’t a plea for Jewish people to stop policing the Jewishness of other Jews, although it would be nice if that happened. Instead, it’s a question. When I step into synagogue for services and feel that instant surge of discomfort, is the problem with me or with everyone else? Should I wander blissfully into services, acting under the impression that no one will challenge my right to be there? Should I go in nervous and defensive, expecting questions to come flying from every angle? Or should I let my past experiences speak for themselves and stay home? These are questions worth considering.
I just wish I didn’t have to consider them every time I try to participate in my own community.