Scaling My Jewish Great Wall

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

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).

Comments

Bevakasha, thank you, gracias. I am also a wandering Jew in Beijing, I relate perfectly to your sentiments. Safe travels.

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