Thoughts After Pesach 2020

the author on Pesach 2020

I am a Jew.

I am a Jew who wasn’t raised in a Jewish home. Nor were either of my parents, or their parents, or their parents. Judaism in my family was left in the dark a very long time ago. If my grandmother had not told me her stories, the understanding of familial roots, would have gone to the grave with her. Her memories opened a door — but a door I stagnated myself from actually walking through for a long time. Drawing a sense of self that comes from a place, I do not exist in.

Now — I must ask myself a very important question.

What is Judaism to me? In a time of isolation. When I can’t go to services in person. When I have relied so much on community, to show me what it means to be Jewish. When I am still in the stages of building a sense of self and place here, in this tradition, feeling alone in it now. In this fragile space. In this insecurity of Jewishness, because it is still being understood, felt, and made comfortable. I have to be honest with myself on what things are causing this insecurity.

What was Judaism to me, before it was deduced into a percentage on a world map? Before it became something that felt like it could never be whole. Before it was a percentile memory, and not a living reality. Before it felt locked in a name, photo, or a registry of the past. Before I was sinking in ancestral roadblocks, unanswerable questions, painful stories and so much death — not seeing the Life and Light here.

It was a journey of faith. It was me finally coming Home to every part of me — but I stumbled off the path for a while. It became something it wasn’t supposed to be. I was desperately running toward some notion of purity that just doesn’t exist. I can not rewrite history, I can not control what brought me into this world, and how it all happened. Who they were, what they believed, if they were loving people, or not. If they were all Jews, if some were, if none were. I can only control if I will continue to let that matter as much as I do.

I was spending more time on ancestry websites, than reading Torah. I was looking through family photos searching for lingering hints, instead of working on my Hebrew studies. I was allowing the loneliness of being the only living Jew in my family, cloud the journey. I observed Shabbat, but I wasn’t reading my books about Jewish identity and history. I was relying on a percentage to feel whole. Of course, it was unsustainable. I was not allowing my Jewishness to come from me. I did not see myself as a Jew. At best, not a “whole” Jew. I am a Jew, with a very long list of footnotes. Focusing so deeply on the footnotes, and not the content.

I was searching for my Judaism in a broken past, and not a nourishing present, and an empowering future. I was standing on Sinai — looking back at Egypt, focused so much on what brought me here, that I was not turning toward Home. I was scared to come down the mountain, into what was Promised, because the mountain was where the call happened. The mountain felt more sacred than the destination. But it was not where the journey was meant to end.

I am a Jew. A Jew who comes from Jews. And from Irish Catholics fleeing famine. And Russians who perished in WWII camps. And Scandinavian, Lutheran farmers. And many others. Most of my family in the last few hundred years have all been Christians of some form. I come from the oppressors, and the oppressed. Those who caused pain, and those who felt it. I exist in the space between them.

Am I allowed to kindle this small flame?

Can I be of all those things, and still be a Jew? “Of course” I can, but can I “let myself”? Will I continue to not let myself feel a part of something, because I didn’t start here? Desperately reaching for validation of roots. That where I am now, has purpose — only, because of where I come from. Forcing upon myself a belief that I am a guest here, in this tradition. In this peoplehood.

The first night of Pesach, I decided to watch one of my favorite childhood movies after the Seder. I snuggled in with my cat and another glass of wine, and turned on Joseph King of Dreams. Ironically, perhaps I was unconsciously telling myself something I was not acknowledging. I seemed to decide sitting with what happened before Deliverance, what brought us to Egypt to begin with, was important. Perhaps, because Deliverance is kinda scary. It pushes you into a place, where you have to sit with only you. Who you are now, apart from where you come from. That can be uncomfortable, a sense of purpose not being handed to you. Who are you amidst the complexity? When the comfort of simplicity is stripped down.

So I sat with Joseph. And I sat with myself.

Who are you, when you are a gift child to a barren woman? A miracle and blessing? Who are you, when you are banished? Who are you, when you are sold into slavery in Egypt? Thrown into prison? Hate Gd for plaguing you with dreams? When your aggressors return, asking for food during a famine — and you repeat the trauma onto them by throwing one into prison? Who are you, when you forgive them? Forgive yourself? Who are you, when you heal the circle and come Home to your father, your people, and yourself? Who are you when your relationship with Gd, yourself, and life is complex. When you exist at the crossroads of a struggle. Wrestling with yourself, and with Gd.

Later. I sat with Moses again.

Moses had to split the sea, and lead us home, through the in-between. He left a piece of himself behind in Egypt. He knew the suffering that was happening on both sides — he was a part of both sides. He was not raised Jewish — that was hidden from him. Did he mourn not having childhood Jewish memories like I do? Did that disconnection damage his Judaism like I am letting it do for me, or did it strengthen his understanding of Gd and Judaism itself. Did he too, feel like an outsider among his people — solely because his beginnings were complicated, like I am letting myself? Did that complexity make him any less Jewish?

Joseph existed in that space between Gd’s voice through dreams and humanity. He knew the pain of feeling cut off, unable to be fully whole in the communities he was a part of. A stranger in a foreign land. Both marking him. A foot in multiple worlds. In struggle.

Perhaps, what I am learning — is that struggle is not new. It is the essence. It is written into the fabric of the Jewish faith, its lineage, and its history. It is wholly Jewish, to exist in the in-between. The struggle. What I am working on now, is drawing a sense of self from the in-between struggle now, not a percentage of the past. I am a Jew, because I engage with the struggle, not solely because some of my ancestors once did as well. Their Jewishness doesn’t make me Jewish. I am Jewish, because I am a Jew. I am working on getting better at believing that.

Is Pesach about going Home, or finding Home — in ourselves. Our intersecting realities, lineages, histories, and futures — as Jews. It is about Deliverance. Whole Deliverance — from the things we are letting weigh us down. Deliverance from feeling deduced into pieces, and not Whole. It is Gd showing us that when He strips us bare, to our essence — He will split the sea, lead us through the middle way. He will lead us Home.

He will show us, the struggle did not end with Jacob. He will show us that Israel, the people of Israel — are those who question, those who struggle in between. In that space between ourselves, and Gd. With ourselves. With Gd.

And there, in that holiest space, we will find ourselves. If we keep asking the questions. If we keep peeling into ourselves. If we remember to remain looking forward. Toward Home.

wordsmith, activist, and artist. She is the author of the collection "This Void Beckons". www.ajkodonnell.com