During this Hanunkkah, student kindles personal light of Judaism

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday celebrating Jewish resistance, willpower and undying hope in the darkness. And once again, I am celebrating it alone.

I decided to convert to Judaism when I was 10, but I didn’t start converting until I was 13 or 14. Every Sunday I would go to a virtual hour-long Hebrew lesson with my synagogue’s rabbi and read from kids’ Hebrew books or from the prayer book. On Wednesdays, these classes would only be 30 minutes, but I would have to go to an hour-long Judaism 101 class to learn more about the culture and religion itself. The Judaism 101 classes were also attended by my brother who is three years older than me, and for a while by this college student in her older twenties and someone who was a part of the administration of Cedar Falls High School. 

Considering what I was up against, I was not good at these classes.

In my experience, converts to Judaism are very pressured to be perfect. Every bit you don’t know, every bit you mess up, every time you aren’t happy is going to be scrutinized and used against you. The Jewish community wants to make sure they have people who really care about the religion and can handle the complex philosophy and can handle the alienated and sometimes dangerous experience of being Jewish. 

But this often just makes divides between the born Jews and the converted Jews. The born Jews don’t trust that converts truly care about the religion and don’t view them as smart, not letting them speak and alienating them from the community, and converted Jews view born Jews as rude and more privileged within the community and feel unappreciated and silenced.

I dreaded every lesson to a point where I would ruin my week every week. In school, I’m a good student who gets A’s and B’s, but during these Hebrew class and Judaism 101 when I was too drained from school and I was moody, I didn’t do homework so I wouldn’t have to think about class. I would never match up to the educated adults in my class. 2020 was extremely hard for me, and I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone, so when I started to get depressed without any explanation, I was viewed as an irresponsible, angsty teen who could be great if they weren’t so lazy. People saw me making mistakes in prayer or my negligence to prayer as sinful. I was constantly berated about not being motivated enough, not looking deep enough, never being enough.

Sometimes I would enjoy monthly services. My favorite service was the Hanukkah service where I ate latkes for the first time, and I played dreidel with an actual group of kids instead of with my brother. (Dreidel is really not for two people.) 

But for every service like the one Hanukkah in 2020, there were five services where I was left alone during the dinner/lunch—left to watch everyone else talk to their families and community while I was lamenting how I’ll never have a Jewish family and I will always be an outsider.

After a long summer break, I realized how much happier I was without the classes. My brother gave up Judaism, and I decided that I wanted to wait until I was more mature to continue converting, so I quit too. 

I still consider myself pretty Jewish in my own way. They say every Jewish soul was at Mt. Sinai when Moses got the 10 Commandments, and some souls ended up landing in non-Jewish bodies. I have a Jewish soul. I believe in most of the religion, and I have been immersed in Jewish culture for about four years now. I may never fit into the mainstream Jewish community, but I will always fit in with the convert community. 

I recently got invited to be a part of a steering committee for an LGBT+ Jewish event. I seek out info on whatever Jewish thing is interesting to me at the moment. I spend bootleg versions of the holidays alone, and I’m lacking a lot of the religious part of being Jewish, but for the first time in years, I feel like I’m truly enjoying being Jewish, and I have hope that I will be able to be a part of a synagogue that embraces me and be able to actually celebrate holidays.


Happy Hanukkah,

Eden Davis

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