Mimi and I were five years old and were great friends. Looking at pictures of ourselves hugging each other as only five-year-olds can, me with a lopsided haircut, courtesy of my sister, and Mimi with her tightly curled chestnut hair, I remember the fun times we had—playing in the snow drifts in our backyards pretending we were trudging through Arctic snow drifts and drinking “tea” with our dolls in her sukkah. It never occurred to me why she never ate in my house, though I had no problem having milk and cookies at hers. And then one day she moved away. I cried because she never said goodbye. I overheard my parents saying that they moved because the neighborhood just wasn’t Jewish enough. Even though I was only five, I understood that I wasn’t Jewish enough—but didn’t exactly know what that meant. And then when I was shamed by a teacher at religious school who accused me of coming from a house of traif (which I didn’t understand either) because I had brought a box of non-kosher cookies for party—there it was again—I wasn’t Jewish enough. Though the rabbi came and pleaded with my mother to send me back, my mother knew that if she forced me to return, I might be turned off Judaism. Instead, my parents sent me to a Jewish camp, and that solidified my connection to my Jewishness. But that issue of being Jewish enough had always haunted me—through all my male classmates’ bar mitvahs where I was relegated to a seat behind the mechitza and couldn’t see a thing to the many times I attempted to attend services and just didn’t fit in. That feeling exists among many in our community today. But with the extensive history of our people, the countries and cultures we have lived in and with, how can anyone define exactly what is Jewish? Well, we at JLife want to explore the many facets of “Jewishness” here in Orange County.
As mentioned in one of this month’s articles, Adin Steinsaltz uses the analogy of a family to describe the Jewish people. As members of this large family, each of us expresses our Judaism and connection to each other in various ways: how we pray to how we celebrate. Has there been a generational shift from tribal to social? What defines and binds the modern Jewish Community? And what is the prevailing sense of connection of modern Jews to Israel? These and other areas of Jewish life in Orange County today will be the focus of a series of articles. We hope you will share your ideas and experiences as well.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.