No matter how late it was or how many times we told them we’d just eaten, walking into my great aunt and uncle’s Montreal apartment meant finding a dining room table blanketed with food. In a room filled with family photographs and needlepoint pillows, my tiny doda (“aunt” in Hebrew)—she was maybe five feet tall—would pull out homemade dumplings and pickles, or boiled chicken and gooey sponge cake. There was no getting around it: If my parents, brothers, and I didn’t at least nibble the food, she would fuss over us, wondering what was wrong. Better to just eat.
It’s no revelation that Jewish people are serious about food. We claim everything from challah and blintzes to lox and latkes as our own, and the shared experience of eating is the focal point of many a Jewish holiday. That’s why, when Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, rolls around every fall, I find myself daydreaming about meals from my childhood. From the rich flavor of my mother’s tender brisket to the cinnamon-laced scent of just-out-of-the-oven apple cake, the memories ignite my senses and take me back home.
The rituals were always the same. After a morning in synagogue, pots and pans clanged in the kitchen as my mom got to work marinating a nine-pound brisket, slicing potatoes, and boiling chicken to make broth. Dogs’ paws pitter-pattered on the linoleum as they wandered around, trying to find a comfortable spot away from the hubbub, while I’d lie on my bed reading or finishing my homework—I might have the day off from school, but the TV was off-limits.
Holidays, my parents taught us, were about celebrating family and rejoicing in—and understanding—the traditions and tenacity of the Jewish people. Eating matzah during Passover, for instance, reminds us that when the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise, so they ate it unleavened on their journey through the desert. Being Jewish, my parents insisted, was something to take pride in and stand up for, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that way.
Even so, I’m still surprised at how unfamiliar my background can be to some people. Again and again, I’ve been the first Jewish person an acquaintance has met. I’ve never had more than a handful of Jewish friends. And except for a two-week trip to Israel, I’ve never been in a place where Jews were a majority. Even though I’m part of an impressive heritage, with thousands of years of ancestors and history, I still sometimes feel like I’m trapped in a Where’s Waldo? book—except instead of looking for a geeky guy wearing a funny shirt, it’s a game of Find the Jew.
A 2008 study by Connecticut’s Trinity College of religious affiliation in the United States found that our population “continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity.” Having lived in both small towns (Indiana, Pennsylvania) and big cities (Toronto and Denver), I’ve experienced the spectrum of religious belonging. I’ve been in the minority many times, and fairly equally represented at others, and I’ve been received and regarded with everything from tolerance to prejudice. In Toronto, many of my schoolmates were Jewish, so it wasn’t a “thing.” In Indiana—and even in Denver—that hasn’t always been the case. In these places I’ve often found myself having to stand up for or define my religion for someone, an exercise, I’ve come to realize, that reinforces the prominent place Judaism holds in my identity.
As more people distance themselves from organized religion, Judaism has only become more important to me. Living in a predominantly Christian society—one that bombards us with “Merry Christmas” wishes from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and whose political and social spheres are heavily influenced by the Bible—has made me increasingly determined to maintain and strengthen my Jewish self.
But it’s not always easy. There was the University of Denver professor who told me that taking class off for Yom Kippur (the holiest of Jewish holidays) would be an unexcused absence. There are the ill-advised, if not always ill-intentioned, Holocaust jokes I hear now and then. My brown, wavy hair and button nose have often provoked people to tell me I don’t look Jewish, as if there’s a standardized image on Wikipedia listed under “Jews, appearance.” (One of my brothers has blue eyes and even lighter hair than I do.) My other brother often felt disconnected from his adolescent soccer teammates whenever his primarily Christian team prayed before games, and he once was benched after missing practice for a Jewish holiday, leaving him to wonder if his coaches would even think of holding a practice on Easter. Even my name, which I love, is Hebrew (it means “branch”), an obstacle in a profession where my name is my brand—yet some people can’t pronounce it.
And of course, in addition to these external conflicts, there’s the age-old internal one: the marriage conundrum. Whenever I tell my mom about someone I’ve begun dating, she works through the basic questions—who is he, where did you meet, what does he do—before landing on what she really wants to know: “So…is he Jewish?” she’ll ask with a hopeful inflection that conveys the weight behind her seemingly casual inquiry.
I get it. Jewish history is full of stories of persecution, and it logically follows that if we worked so hard to survive, particularly during the Holocaust, we need to pass on our beliefs. To my mother and many others, the merits and benefits of marrying a Jew are self-evident, but I haven’t decided yet if religion is a relationship deal-breaker for me. (It helps that I’ve got it easier than my brothers: In Judaism, religion is passed down through the woman, so my kids will be Jewish no matter what.) Plus, at 24 years old, marriage is the furthest thing from my mind anyway.
Although my mom—unlike some people I’ve met across various faiths—would never disown me for marrying outside my religion, I know it upsets her that I rarely meet Jewish men. My practice involves going to synagogue for the major holidays and not eating pork, but that’s generally it. And yet friends often tell me I’m the most religious person they know, which underlines the complexity of Judaism: It’s both a religion and a culture. I’m culturally observant, nurturing my heritage through my actions and personalized beliefs rather than simply following the rules in a book. That’s what I was raised to do. My parents left it up to us, as their parents had before them, and as I plan to do with my own children. Maybe I’ll marry someone who follows the rules more stringently and keeps a kosher house. Maybe I’ll turn out more like my brother, Seth, who doesn’t keep most of the holiday rituals but sends his kids to Jewish school. Maybe I’ll be some sort of composite. I know I’ll figure it out when the time comes, and I know I’ll be accepted for it by the people who matter most.
Each December when I was a kid, I’d walk down the hill to my best friend’s house to help her decorate her family’s Christmas tree. We’d rip through tissue paper to find the sparkling orbs and glue- and glitter-covered homemade ornaments before I’d head home, light the Hanukkah candles with my family, and open one of my eight presents. My friends had their rituals, my family had ours, and we all shared in them.
Nowadays, I live far from home, and when the holidays roll around, I return to the memories of my family’s traditions: The soothing ritual of candles being lit; the solemn hum of prayers during a Passover seder; the boisterous conversations across the dining room table. It’s my responsibility to preserve these traditions, for myself, my future family, and my people.
And sometimes the practice of sharing Judaism with others is the best part of all. Gefilte fish—a Jewish standby—is an acquired taste. It’s a dish that’s better to eat before you hear the ingredients, but, if you must know, it’s ground white fish mixed with spices, carrots, and onions. Last April, I held a mini Passover seder with my friend Morgan, who’s also Jewish. We invited a few of our gentile friends, and after much convincing, we got them to sample gefilte fish. As they gulped down the smallest bite they could manage, their eyes opened with a confused look (at the taste), and their lips quickly frowned in loathing (at us), before they finally swallowed and told us it wasn’t as bad as they thought. They really weren’t saying much, but at least they tried it. And that’s something, because they’re the ones who count, the ones who value my identity even though—and because—it’s different from their own.
Daliah Singer is 5280’s assistant editor. Email her at [email protected]