It's a Jew Thing

What's it like growing up an observant Jew in a modern non-Jewish world? Read on...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

It's hard to even know where to start talking about my life as an observant Jew because there are so many different aspects, rules, and ideas. I'll try to start with the basics...Judaism as a religion has many different divisions and ways of practicing, which comes down to how observant you are in your practices (it's important to note that observance and religiousness are not the same thing because you can be very religious and G-d can be very important to you even if you aren't observant). The three main levels of observance are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism, and the lines aren't very defined. Reform is the least observant and many people who consider themselves Reform do not keep Kosher, go to services all the time, or observe all the holidays and traditions. Orthodoxy is the opposite extreme in which people keep strict Kosher, observe all holidays to the largest extent possible, and incorporate Jewish law into every aspect of their lives. For example, the practice of being "Shomar Shabbat" (which some Conservative people are as well) means that on Shabbat and religious holidays one doesn't work at all. This includes not using electricity, riding in a car, writing, lighting a candle, or using money (all of these things have different explanations, some of which I don't know and some of which are just really long to explain). This probably sounds really weird to non-Jews and even to some Jews, but it's an important part of many people's lives. Between these two concepts falls Conservative Judaism, which is my practice, and which covers a large blurred area.

Growing up, my family was observant. Growing up we went to services almost every Shabbat and on every holiday (including staying out of school to go to services on holidays), kept Kosher, and observed many Jewish laws. Additionally, my father became a Cantor (a clergy member in our synagogue) when I was 10 years old and my grandfather has been a Cantor my whole life. My family is not Shomar Shabbat but we did not do many things that were considered “work.” Shabbat is from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night (the Jewish calendar days go from sundown to sundown). So on these days EVERY WEEKEND (as well as during Jewish Holidays), my family doesn’t ride in a car (start a car, sit in a car, be a passenger in a car, take the bus, etc. I say this because often people ask if my friends couldn’t just pick me up and drive), use money, light a match, or do some kinds of work like laundry. Also, my parents won’t do any kind of work for their jobs on Shabbat.

Try imagining never being able to go to a Friday night football game in high school, to the mall with your friends on a Saturday afternoon, or even to your friend’s birthday party when you are 9 years old. To make things even harder, there were hardly any other Jewish kids in my city and most of the kids from my synagogue were from surrounding towns, went to other schools, and came from families that didn’t have practices as observant as my family does. Like I said, the lines of Conservative Judaism are very much blurred, so they could consider themselves conservative but do all the things I wished I could do on a Saturday afternoon. Growing up this was really hard for me to understand. This is what I grew up with. As I’ll tell in later posts, I don’t want it to sound like I had an awful childhood. My religion is a very important part of my life and has helped to shape my life in so many positive ways. It’s just a fact that part of the way that my life has been shaped is as a result of my feeling like I missed out on so many things when I was younger.

I think that’s enough take in for one post. I’ll write again soon to continue to explain everything. Please feel free to leave questions in the comment section to help tell me what else I should be talking about on this blog.


  • At 10:25 AM, Blogger carah said…

    I think it is great that you are so observant. I grew up in a very Jewish area, Cherry Hill New Jersey. And surprisingly for how Jewish the area is, it lacks many religiously observant families. Growing up my family always kept kosher inside the house and we would always attend services during high holidays and try to get there almost every Saturday during the school year. I also attended Hebrew school until I came to college and had the opportunity to visit Israel. Unfortunately and also disappointing, as my siblings and I grew older, my parents found it harder to keep kosher in the house and strict Passover (you would think it would be easier as we got older). I always felt those were the things kept me Jewish when I came home, especially because I do nothing at school. Even though I do not have separate dishes at school, I try very hard not to mix meat and diary. And ever since my grandfather passed away in May, my parents do attend services every Saturday morning which I think is great. But I think it is so nice that you and your family are so observant, especially in an area where it is probably harder to do so.

  • At 7:24 PM, Blogger Kristen said…

    I also think it is great that you are able to remain so observant. I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic School my entire life. We studied Judaism a lot in school and many of their practices seemed weird, even to a person whose religion stemmed from Judaism. I remember once in grade school we had a school wide traditional Passover dinner and I remember thinking how weird it is to have to eat this kind of food and maybe even in a certain order? I don’t remember it much since it was so long ago, if you could explain it a little that would be great.

  • At 7:51 PM, Blogger Shayna said…

    Thanks for the comments.

    Carah- I think it's really great that your still try to keep some part of Judaism in your life. To me, there is no wrong way to practice as long as you are doing what makes your religion an important and fulfilling part of your life (if that’s what you want). I have a lot of friends who grew up with practices like yours and also found it just as hard to transition to being Jewish in college. We all make changes when we leave home; I know my brother and I did.

    Kristen- on Passover the dinner is called a Seder which actually translates from Hebrew to mean "order," like the order you do everything in. Since the Seder is telling the story of the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt there is a very important order that one maintains to explain the everything (it takes about an hour and a half to get to the dinner, more if there is Jewish commentary like in my family, and then there is about half an hour more after dinner). The whole thing is pretty long and tiring, and the food is REALLY weird because you can’t eat anything like bread or pasta or anything with yeast in it (and this lasts for 8 days), but it’s actually one of my favorite holidays.

  • At 11:18 AM, Blogger Tara Raphael said…

    I think it's really interesting that you are an observant Jew. I grew up on Long Island, which many people see as a strong Jewish area. The truth is that most people in my high school were not Jewish, but the camp that I went to when I was younger everyone was Jewish. I definitely had a mix of different people in my life. My family raised me in a Reform Temple. I went to pre-school, Sunday school, Hebrew school, and Hebrew High School (it was a Tuesday night program) there, but I never considered myself a strict Jew by any means. Before I was Bat-Mitzvah'd I would go more often, but since then I would go on the High Holy Days and only when my parents really, really wanted me there. I don't really do anything that relates strongly to my religion in college, unless you count receiving a large amount of emails from Hillel. I think it's so interesting and great that you have carried so much with you and are continuing your traditions.

  • At 3:11 PM, Blogger Kara said…

    I am from a very small town in a large Catholic community. Just to give you a visual; my graduating class was over 500 people, two of which were Jewish. There is one temple about twenty minutes away from where I live. I know very little about Judaism and love reading your blog and learning all about your beliefs and traditions. I really admire you for your strong beliefs and how you have continued to keep them throughout college. I have always been very religious, but admit that since at college I have not been as observant. I just read your comment about Seder and would love to know more details. I apologize if some of my questions seem stupid, but I really know very little about Judaism but am anxious to learn. I was also wondering if you could explain what being Kosher is like. You also said you observed Jewish law. What are they?

  • At 5:32 PM, Blogger Shayna said…

    Thanks for the comment. I am going to explain keeping Kosher in my next post. And Jewish Law is pretty much every rule about everything in your life, which is layed out in the Torah and which Rabbis have helped adjust since biblical times to apply them to daily life. They tell everything from laws about keeping Kosher to laws about sacrifices (which we haven't done since 70AD) to laws about living your daily life (like there is even a prayer you are supposed to see when you see a rainbow or when you wake up in the morning thanking G-d for letting you do those things). And like I said, there are different levels of observance so there are even many laws that I don't practice.

  • At 8:41 PM, Blogger reenaa said…

    1) I like your blog. Even though I am not Jewish, I can relate to some of the things you say. I see how you say that youth groups serve a different purpose for Jewish kids. I am a Hindu and although I am not part of any religious youth group, we do have different forms of community gatherings, ways of meeting people with similar interests and forming connections. I understand where a lot of this commonality originates. Can you tell me something about your religious texts? I have heard from a friend about a book called “Sefer Yetzirah”, and that’s about it. We have soooo many texts in Hinduism, I do not know of a single person who has read all of them. It’s like a gigantic library.

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