Abby Taskier: Unified by faith or bound by obligation?

By Abby Taskier, Columnist
Published October 22, 2014

Over the summer, as I attempted to clean out my room and sift through the multitude of half-scribbled-in journals I’ve kept from my early years, I found one from the year 2000. In simple phrasing and rudimentary words, my 7-year-old self detailed the trip my family took to Israel. “Me and my sisters got off the plane and then we kissed the ground,” it reads. “My dad says it is holy.”

What I remember now from that trip is not that it was holy, but rather that I enjoyed picking oranges from trees and eating my distant Aunt Shoshi’s Israeli cheesecake. I haven’t been back since, and frankly, the main reason I would return is to claim my free Birthright trip.

I’ve struggled with my Judaism for a long time. Growing up, instead of joining the recreational soccer team that met on Saturdays, I went to synagogue. My dad, after many years of attending the tightly knit prayer group called Havurah, became central to the community. Every other Saturday, my sisters and I joined him to sing and chant antiquated Hebrew words. No prayer ever resonated with me, and during the silent portion of the service, when Jews individually spoke to God, I watched the clock tick and imagined the mounds of bagels that awaited me at the post-service reception. During the sermon portion of the service, where one person led a discussion about that week’s biblical text, I’d sometimes raise my hand to ask a question or provide an insight. My participation was purely motivated by the desire to intellectually impress my father and his peers, rather than comment on the text at large.

Despite my inability to connect with Judaism spiritually, at the age of eight I started attending Camp Ramah, a summer camp with conservative Jewish values. While many of my strongest friendships were formed during my summers at camp, I never felt particularly attached to the praying, the Jewish learning or the Jewish-themed activities I was forced to partake in. A fun free-time activity like jazzercise turned into Jewish jazzercise, and games in the lake were labeled along the lines of, take a splash in Moses’ parted sea! It felt almost cultish. Still, I held hands with my friends on Friday nights, singing songs that welcomed the Sabbath, and acknowledged the fact that our culture brought us together in a meaningful way. But, when campers’ eyes welled up with tears as we sang the solemn Hebrew melodies, I felt absolutely nothing.

Coming to college, I felt liberated in that I could begin to formulate my own Jewish identity without my family’s influence. I remember that at 16, one of my sisters told me she’d be extremely disappointed in me if I didn’t marry someone Jewish. Recently, when I posed the question to my dad whether or not he’d prefer me to marry a Jewish woman or a Christian man, he responded, “Jewish woman. Ha! Look at how progressive I am.”

As an incoming freshman, however, the only people I knew were, unsurprisingly, Jewish kids from Camp Ramah. While I endlessly appreciate the guidance they gave me as a stumbling, clueless freshman, they themselves subscribed to the life of the typical Jewish student. Following in their footsteps alongside other freshmen I knew from the Ramah sphere, I attended Friday night dinners at Hillel and joined a Jewish sorority. The only way I justified it was by repeating to myself and everyone around me that Friday night dinner at Hillel was free, and my sorority was made up of the “chill” Jewish girls. But after a month’s deliberation and a night with my head buried in the toilet during a sorority event, I quit and stopped attending Jewish events entirely.

My rejection of the mainstream Jewish institutions at the University, which are by no means the only Jewish institutions, was perceived as a rejection of my Judaism altogether. When I admitted to not having attended High Holy Day services at Hillel, my dad replied with a sigh and said, “I’ve failed you as a Jewish educator.” Last fall, I ran into a kid I’d known during my freshman year, another Camp Ramah alum, and he asked, “So you’re basically not into being Jewish anymore, right?” A unifying culture can’t justify perpetuated sameness.

Even more problematic was that as I drifted away from the social institutions that were so inextricably linked to Judaism, I began to drift toward very left-wing thinkers who perceived religious Jews to be Zionists, and Zionists to be oppressors. Last December, when the pro-Palestinian student group, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, put mock eviction notices in residence halls in order to highlight the evictions of Palestinians from their homes, I was outraged — not because of their radical performance of activism, but because of the attitude members of Hillel took. Jewish students felt personally victimized, which I’m not discrediting, but suddenly the situation took a complete 180. No longer was the conversation centered around the Palestinian refugee situation, but on how Jewish kids attending the University of Michigan felt uncomfortable. Well, wasn’t that the point? When Jews dip parsley into salt water during Passover to symbolically taste our enslaved ancestors’ tears, isn’t the point to feel sad and uncomfortable? Or do Jews only sympathize with our own kind?

This summer, during Israel’s ground assault in Gaza following the discovery of Hamas’ tunnels, a Jewish student at the University published an article challenging the intentions of left-leaning Jews, arguing that all Jews should without question support Israel in its time of need. But, by that same logic, Palestinians should blindly follow Hamas, a definitive terrorist group, because they are the authority in power. The point is not to not support Israel, because in this case, Israel's decision, not its methods, to take an active stance against Hamas' refusal to terminate the onslaught of rockets into Israeli cities can be justified. Instead, the point is to think critically and never blindly follow something because of your heredity, religious or cultural roots.

I am Jewish. Although I don’t feel spiritually connected to prayer, have never spoken with God other than during a shroom trip, and don’t feel a deep bond to Israel, I am Jewish. I am proud of the culture Judaism has created and developed, the moral code it promotes, the level of perseverance amidst endless persecution that Jews have endured. But I am both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. I am disturbed by the homogeneity of Jewish institutions, especially those here on campus, that subsequently produce homogenous, uncontested thought. I am unwilling to subscribe to the archaic belief that marrying within my tribe is the only way for marital success. But most importantly, as a Jew, I will never let my religion identify me too completely, so much so as to isolate me from the amazing souls that don’t happen to be Jewish. And, as I continue forward, I will try to stop rejecting aspects of my Judaism, but rather use them in a way that religion should be used: as a guide to becoming a better person.

Abby Taskier can be reached at ataskier@umich.edu.