Scaling My Jewish Great Wall
With one week down and three weeks to go teaching in Peking University’s MBA program in Beijing, I finally laid eyes on what I had been waiting to see. It wasn’t the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square or Olympic Park. It was the minyan for the lay-led Shabbat service held in Beijing’s bustling Chaoyang District. I had found the other wandering Jews. And for the first time since I had flown 8,000 miles from New York, I felt like I was home.
As I took my seat in the community room, I planned to sing every Shabbat song that I rush through (read: skip) on Friday nights at home. My kids, husband and I are always too hungry/tired for the whole shebang. But here, I was going to belt out the Extended Play versions of “Veshamru” and “Shalom Aleichem.” I wanted to thank God for my safe journey, for protecting my family and for my Jewish community back home that had extended a month’s worth of Shabbat invitations to my husband and kids.
Oh yes, I was going to sing it. But then I began to cry.
I was overwhelmed from a week of being bombarded by a language I couldn’t speak, understand or read. I was overwhelmed by confusing social customs (spitting!) and restrictive choices (squat toilets or bust). I was out of place, out of my comfort zone and functionally and culturally illiterate.
I wasn’t crying because of that. I was crying because, as the first familiar strains of Shabbat songs left my trembling lips, I realized that I knew how to be Jewish anywhere. And having spent the first two decades of my life as a functionally and culturally illiterate Jew, this was no laughing matter.
Despite the fact that, in my professional life, I am a speaker and consultant for scores of nonprofit Jewish organizations, I never felt Jewish enough. Sure, I lead workshops on Moses’ leadership style and apply Pirkei Avot to strategic planning. But I was raised with neither formal nor informal Jewish education, and it wasn’t until I was 22 that I chose to embrace my roots.
Just like I found my first week in China overwhelming, I found myself completely overwhelmed by Judaism back then. Learning to feel Jewish was like trying to scale the Great Wall — insurmountable, enormous, endless. I was confronted by Hebrew, a language I couldn’t speak, understand or read. I was living in a culture that had confusing social customs (where, at my first shiva, I mistakenly sat in the low seat reserved for the mourner, and got nasty looks) and restrictive choices (wait — a BLT is O-U-T?). I was out of place, out of my comfort zone, functionally and culturally illiterate.
Even at synagogue today, as I struggle reading prayers, I wonder, “Am I Jewish enough yet?” At every holiday, when my father-in-law reminds us “so, the tradition is…,” I know that I am the only one at the table who really needs reminding.
As a self-diagnosed know-it-all, I struggle daily to live in a Jewish world where I feel like a foreigner — a phony native. It’s all relative, I realize. While I know more than my parents know, I know less than my 9-year old twins do, who, by fourth grade at their Solomon Schechter day school, devour Torah like I devoured Judy Blume, bedeck themselves for Purim like I did for Halloween, and understand everything my husband Michael says to them in Hebrew when, I suspect (hope!), that they are planning to surprise me with an iPad. (Bevakasha, guys?)
But when I helped my son Jacob with his Hebrew, I realized that something was sticking. When I pointed out, “Look again, it’s a raysh, not a daled,” Jacob’s jaw dropped in wonder.
“How did you know that?” he asked, stunned. “I just did. Try it again.” I brushed it off, acting like it was no big deal. It was.
So here I was in China, culturally and functionally illiterate in the eyes of its 1.3 billion citizens. I couldn’t summon medical help, police intervention or, frustratingly, a bottle of non-carbonated water. But I could say “no meat” in Mandarin, find the local Jewish community, and even knew where the one kosher restaurant was, in case a schnitzel craving hit. These small acts made me feel Jewish enough.
And apparently, I knew how to sing the songs people sing to say thank you on Shabbat. Not just any people — my people. As I crooned (and wept), praying to a God I’m getting to know, and feeling like I belonged, I realized that my personal Great Wall wasn’t too big to climb. Even as I celebrate my monumental achievement, and look forward to the miles of the journey ahead, I know that I am already Jewish enough.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a life coach, trainer and speaker. Her column, “Success without the Tsuris,” appears on The Jewish Week website (www.thejewishweek.com).