My memories of Judaism as a child are primarily composed of visceral and sweet moments. Sinking my teeth into a perfectly dense and crunchy bagel, with a bite of salty lox and a lick of cream cheese. Tightness in my chest as I resisted gasping for air holding the long note of “Ve’imeruuuuuuu…..” during a playful rendition of “Ohseh Shalom” at Sunday a.m. services. The familiar smell of cinnamon sugar challah wafting outside of my neighbor’s window every Friday (more like a Jewish cinnabon, really). Yiddish terms of endearment coupled with warm hugs from my aunts and grandmother. “Bubbeleh.” “Shayna punim.”
As I moved into my teen years, the sweet Charoset persisted, with a touch of Maror. The unforgettable comfort and overwhelm of hugging a 30-pound Torah in front of my peers as a 17-year-old bat mitzvah. The tug of my fingers underneath the edge of a plastic chair as I looked around at a room full of Milwaukee Jewish Day School kids, wondering if I’d ever find my place as a public school-attending, interfaith kid. The warmth of tears swelling as I repeatedly wiped my eyes in a tiny synagogue in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, during Kol Nidre services, allowing myself to feel the depths of bitter sweetness in a place where my heart was lonely. Passionate, heart rate-raising discussions with Jewish peers at the UW-Milwaukee Hillel building, with its modern architecture and beautiful, sunny library.
And then, per psychologist James Marcia, I reached the identity-diffusion stage of life. Being a Jew in any way, shape or form was less important than surviving my 20s. How on earth I managed to make some kind of career path for myself during this 10-year tornado of heartbreak, impulsive haircuts, and over drafting my bank account will always be a mystery to me. As my mother always says, I put one foot in front of the other, and I kept going. Along the way, I discovered my passion for social work, and was overjoyed to find myself among peers who met me in the depths of my intensity, and who shared my zeal for truth, justice, and service. The Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” (“repairing the world”) comes to mind. As Jews, we are called to do the right thing; to give to others and to our community, not because we are promised salvation, but rather, because if we don’t get our act together and fix these issues, who will? In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me…If not now, when?”
I found myself asking these same questions, and others, to my childhood rabbi, on a Zoom call during the pandemic months of 2020. “Rabbi, I want to know….how to be Jewish?” Our conversation flowed from darkness to light, and back to darkness, as we explored the inimitable ethos of the ethno-religion that I fell in love with years ago. The more I spoke, the more I was struck by the aesthetic beauty of Jewishness. The qualities that make it unique and hard to “pin down” make it all the more beautiful.
And so, I sit here today, with Purim approaching, asking myself this question: Why now? Why Jewish? The Purim story, in a very small nutshell, revolves around a woman, Esther, who becomes queen as an undercover Jew, and shows tremendous courage by declaring her Jewishness, thus saving her people from extermination. In the Trump era’s rise of antisemitism (I was hoping to G-d I didn’t need to utter his name, but here we are), I have oft found myself in the position of Esther. Dipping my toes into the pond of Jewish pride at a time when being Jewish can feel especially vulnerable. Being unapologetically Jewish means making yourself vulnerable to being misunderstood, judged, or even harmed. And yet, would we be Jewish if we stayed quiet? Is this not the plight of Jews since the beginning of time? And so, with darkness comes light and with light comes darkness.
And I find myself, again, at the beginning. Amongst the familiar sounds, tastes and smells of my childhood Jewry; breathing new life into old traditions, as I create a home with my soon-to-be husband. The words of my maternal Jewish grandmother echo in my mind: “Just a note to tell you I love you and am so proud of your growth. It’s hard to be an adult. I practice every day. Love you darling. Xxxoooxoxo <3 Grandma Rita.”
Is it hard to be a Jew? Sometimes, but we have chutzpah. And each other. Do I practice every day? Maybe in my own way. And what is being Jewish if not being a little lost and a little found?
Chelsea Gilbertson is a psychotherapist with Jewish Family Services, she lives in Bay View and has two cats. Her views are her own and are not representative of Jewish Family Services or the Chronicle.