When I was 35, I divorced my husband of 12 years and began my life as a single mother of three young children. I was a tenured community college professor by then, I had a Ph.D., a stable income, a house, and my family around to support me. I was in a pretty good place. For extra income, and for the challenge, I took on the teaching of an adjunct course in addition to my regular schedule–a graduate literature course entitled, “American Identity.” It’s embarrassing to admit it now, but the class was taught every Saturday morning.
While I was teaching the course, I told my students that my identity was precarious. I didn’t really know who I was. I appeared Irish or Scotch, and I had sort of adopted that identity as a matter of convenience (it helped that my married name was Murphy). Religiously, I admitted, I was “spiritual,” but I could never believe in Jesus, even though my family celebrated Christmas as an American holiday more than a religious one. I said, somewhat prophetically, that I often “felt Jewish,” because I believed in G-d, but not Jesus. About a month later, my lone Jewish student approached me and invited me to the Purim party at the small synagogue 20 miles away. I politely declined, “I don’t want to appropriate anyone else’s traditions,” I explained, “even if I do ‘feel’ Jewish, I am not Jewish.”
“I understand,” she said, probing me with her eyes, “it is easy to be afraid of new things.”
“I am not afraid,” I stated, straightening my back and smiling heroically. “I will be there.” So, I packed up my three kids and drove up the hill for the Jewish holiday of Purim. We were all dressed in costume, and, although I was feeling very uncomfortable, I entered with my head held high because I didn’t want to give my children the impression I was uncomfortable. Then something happened when I walked through the door, something that had never happened to me before in a house of worship: I felt instantly comfortable. It was weird . . . unmistakable, but weird.
On the way home in my van, I spoke to my oldest child (he was nine): “What did you think of that?” I said, looking to validate my feelings.
“It was weird,” he said, “I felt really comfortable, like I belonged there.”
When I got home, I called my mother. “Mom, I had the weirdest experience,” I said.
I explained what happened, then she said something I will never forget: “Oh honey, you aren’t the first person in our family to feel this way. After all, my mother’s mother was a Jew.” [Cultural Aside: the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew–which means that if my mothers’ mother was a Jew, my mother is a Jew, and, consequently . . .
I am a Jew.
It was as if, in earning my Ph.D. I had read a library, then, one day opened a hidden door and discovered an entirely new library I had never knew existed. I learned everything I could. I was in the middle of nowhere, really, but I went on the internet in 1999, and I learned how to keep kosher, keep Shabbat, keep the holidays. I taught my children. We had deep discussions. I read and read and read.
- I had to unlearn all the holidays I grew up with and relearn new holidays.
- I had to unlearn the way I had learned to cook, and relearn how to cook kosher.
- I had to unlearn the way in which I dressed, the way I talked, the way I related to the world; and learn what it was to be a Jew.
I saw kosher labels on food I never noticed before, finally understood the difference between Haredi, Sephardi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. I learned what a minhag was, and then learned the rules of my own, lost, minhag. I learned to navigate the dangerous waters of personal relationships with family and friends who knew me as one person . . . as I was becoming another.
I had, and my children had, a strong identification with Harry Potter, who, at the age of 11, had learned he wasn’t who he thought he was. We read the whole series together, and grew to understand we would never be the same. It was scary and painful and hard, but I did this for me, for my boys, and for the great-great grandmother I never knew (when it was overwhelming, when I felt I couldn’t go one more step, I swear I could hear her in my ears, urging me on).
Then, I fell in love, over the phone, with a rabbi whose voice had lead me through it all. We met three times before he came to my house to propose. I married him, and had two more children. And now, in a new town with a new life–with three kids who, like me, unlearned and relearned the world, and two who will never know any other world–I live as a person I was always meant to be, but never knew I was.
I’ll be 50 soon, and my colleagues say, “How can you be so good at all this technology stuff? Why does it seem so easy for you to pick it up?” I smile a little when I hear it, because I know that it is not easy. It is a damn lot of hard work, but once you have begun the process of unlearning and learning, once you have faced it and conquered it, it isn’t so hard, so scary the next time. In fact, you can come to embrace the feeling of uncertainty with a strange sense of familiarity.
Yes, I might fall on my face in front of the class. Yes, that new tool from that new startup might disappear in the middle of the semester with all my student’s work — but it isn’t important whether I look clumsy using it, or whether I can’t get it to work at all. What is important is that I show my students that learning is all about walking into a strange place with your head held high, full of fear and uncertainty, and finding yourself weirdly comfortable.