I often wonder what the catalyst was that sparked my return to Judaism. I mean the real catalyst. I can name you the month and the year when I took the first step to where I am right now — mitzvos observant, Shomer Shabbos, a baalas teshuvah just out of the nest. It was June 2001 to be exact, just four months before the defining moment of 9/11, when our whole world changed.
Oh, I know what crashed open the door for me. A Jewish forum like this one was my gateway to frumkeit, having conversations with people like my now-husband Eliahu about Judaism and what it really meant.
It all started with an argument. Don’t many beginnings? I was adamant I was just as much a Jew as any Torah observant Jew. I used the argument I’ve often heard from other Jews determined to defend their secular way of living. You know the one — “Hey! I’m just as much a Jew as you are. They would have made me wear a yellow star just like you.” As if Hitler was the arbiter of who is a Jew. Interesting that we do that — use fiendish Nazi policies to defend our Jewishness.
But I think my journey started long before those internet conversations that fascinated and ultimately ensnared me.
I graduated from my predominantly-Jewish public high school and forayed out into the world carrying a massive block of Jewish granite on my shoulder. Was it guilt? Was it fear? Was it defiance? Was it self-protection?
Virtually the first words out of my mouth at college were, “Hi! My name is Melanie and I’m Jewish, so there. If you don’t like me, I understand.”
I was expecting rejection, and made it easy for them.
I was always very worried I wouldn’t be accepted out in the real world, having gone to a Jewish but secular parochial school and then public schools that were 80-90 per cent Jewish. Pretty well all my pals growing up were Jewish, although I did have one good Catholic friend. The black rosary beads on her dresser and the crucifixes on her wall were repugnant and fearsome to me, yet we were great buddies.
This “I’m Jewish, so there” attitude was understandable. I grew up knowing about the horrors of the Holocaust and was fully indoctrinated into the “we Jews are different” worldview. I was well aware we were the object of much hatred and derision. And so I maintained this attitude, always fearful that I would be rejected because I’m Jewish.
This attitude underscored and permeated all of my friendships and my conversations. I’d stridently argue for Israel and rail against anti-Semitism. I ended friendships if they hinted at anything less than total support and empathy. I stopped talking for years to a friend when, during a conversation he said to me, “Oh you Jews and your Holocaust hobby horse. Why don’t you get over it already.”
I realize now that, as immersed as I was in the secular world, I never felt comfortable. I was always holding my breath, waiting to be found out.
I once had a summer job during college packing schoolbooks in a warehouse. I turned myself into a pretzel trying not to appear Jewish to this warehouse full of uneducated goyim. One day, I got busted. It was the year of my sister’s wedding and I was so excited. I was blathering on about her Sunday wedding and suddenly there was dead silence. “Sunday? She’s getting married on Sunday?” someone asked.
Stammering, I said, “Oh well, yeah, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a whole weekend thing.”
Not one person was convinced.
Sometime later that summer, the same lady piped up and said, “I always knew you were Jewish.”
“How?” I asked. “Your nose,” she said.
Over the years, I came to realize that everywhere I went, no matter what the situation, I always looked for the Jew in every crowd. And found them.
I had a GPS System for spotting them. I kept a mental roster, a who’s who of Jews in any particular situation. At my college. At my tennis club. At work. Everywhere I went.
And I think that is what really has kept the pilot light burning in me, waiting for the right trigger to turn me on. This cultural identification. The knowledge that out there are people like me with a connection dating back 3319 years to Har Sinai.
I first struck out on my own when I was 21. It was 1978 and I had taken a summer internship on a newspaper in the northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie, just across the St. Mary’s River from Sault, Michigan.
There were less than 15 Jewish families in a population of 40,000, and it was all pretty well French, Italian and Indian. A most Catholic city.
Here I was, all alone for the first time, far from home. I was so green you could have planted me.
I had been given the name of a woman to call so she could show me around and have me over for a meal with her family. I was too shy to call, and so I went out hoping to find the one synagogue in the city.
I found it, with Hashem as always guiding the way. It happened that all of the Jewish women in the community were there that day preparing for their Hadassah bazaar. I was very homesick, and it was wonderful to run into these 10 or so Yiddische mamas. It gave me the boost I needed to settle into the job that would launch my career. Sitting in Helen’s kitchen, looking at Manischewitz matzoh meal in her cupboard, was just like sitting in my mother’s kitchen.
I puttered along for the summer, and one day, I stumbled on a plaque near a small church. The plaque said, “Ezekiel Solomons, the First Jewish Settler in Sault Ste. Marie-Among-the-Hurons.” I just about fell down in astonishment.
A Jewish fur trader? Here? Yep.
It just goes to show you how small and connected the Jewish world is. You can find us anywhere. In every crowd