Some of us take on the challenge of choosing or altering their religious affiliation. My recent podcast guest, Oliver Bradley, and I have done just that. Our Jewish journeys underscore the many ways of entering and living a religious identity and practice.
Oliver and I were both raised within interfaith – Christian and Jewish – families, though his family was actively observant, while mine was not. We met in Germany, where we were both living – and were deeply affected by that experience. When Oliver moved there in 1991, he was not particularly religiously engaged. His time there coincided with the recent reunification of East and West Germany, which opened a tremendous hunger among East Germans to learn about German Jewish history. Joining this throng awakened his own latent German Jewish identity inherited from his mother.
My encounter with Jewish life in Germany was quite different. By the time I arrived in Berlin in 2009, my Jewish identity and practice were established, and finding a synagogue was key to my planned move from America. Being single and a freelance worker, the synagogue set a critical social anchor for me in Berlin. Moreover, helping to rebuild a living Jewish community in Berlin was rewarding. The community had surely grown since the Holocaust, but that period of destruction remained palpable. Monuments were frequent reminders, as if that was necessary.
Oliver had witnessed the growth of active synagogues since arriving, but even in 2009, it took effort to find a congregation. The community was still small, certainly in relation to pre-war years, but there were synagogues open and services one could attend. That said, the armed police presence felt both off-putting and comforting. Needing to have that level of visible security was a sad reminder of the murderous German history and the ongoing reality of anti-Semitic attacks.
However different our paths, we each went through a process arising from a desire to answer questions of belonging. Learning, experimenting and evaluating led each of us to a Jewish denomination and practice. As a young child, Oliver did not know he was Jewish – as a Holocaust survivor, his mother hid her Jewish identity – and he participated in the Christian Science church services with his father. He felt a connection to Judaism quickly upon learning her truth. “Somehow I felt a connection right away, even though I knew nothing about it.”
“Somehow I felt a connection right away, even though I knew nothing about it.”
All that changed once he lived in Berlin. He availed himself of the bookshops full of German Jewish history and developed his own Jewish identity and practice. He was introduced to different synagogues by a friend and an aunt, and found that he enjoyed those experiences. “I Inched my way into, I would say, the Orthodox stream. Although I don't like to call myself Orthodox, I don't like to call myself anything ... I like Jewish tradition.” He began slowly incorporating Jewish practice and ritual, such as fasting on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and avoiding non-Kosher meats (treif) on the sabbath. It was a gradual and self-directed process.
“I Inched my way into, I would say, the Orthodox stream. Although I don't like to call myself Orthodox, I don't like to call myself anything ... I like Jewish tradition.”
I likewise spent years learning and experimenting, though my process was much slower. My journey began in the 1980s when I was in college; I took classes in Jewish and biblical history and started attending services. After joining my first synagogue, a Reform congregation, as an adult in 1998, I was Bat Mitzvahed – a ritual girls usually do at twelve. With this ritual, I became a publicly recognized adult in the Jewish community, achieving a clarity of identity long desired. I shifted to a Conservative synagogue about 10 years later and have continued to deepen my knowledge of the holidays, Torah, Jewish history and Hebrew so as to more solidly inhabit my practice. A recurring question has been about balancing the different aspects of my life – i.e. how much time to devote to Jewish topics vs. other areas, or how to balance Hebrew, Torah study, service attendance and volunteerism at the synagogue. Like Oliver, I have directed this process myself.
Oliver values the individual prayer experience in traditional Orthodox services where each person is quietly reciting the prayers at their own pace. While it sounds like a jumble, perhaps even out of tune, it allows him to focus on his connection to God rather than with his neighbor. In contrast, I cherish the communal expression of devotion such as voices joining together in harmony to praise God. I also value the egalitarian aspect of men and women sitting together as opposed to gender segregation, the norm in Orthodox services. Oliver, while feeling the separation unnecessary, is content to pray in such a situation. It was eye-opening to hear his comments about the various arrangements used in Modern Orthodox services held outside of official sanctuaries.
Talking about our paths into our distinct Jewish observance and identity allowed us to articulate what we enjoyed and why. Hearing about Oliver’s observance and Jewish identity offered me a new way to think about my own prayer experience and how it could be enriched. Hopefully Oliver left with something similar.
Click here to listen to Oliver Bradley’s episode.
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli