Written by Gloria Mills, New York
After a 20-year lapse of doing anything, remotely, culturally, Jewish; and a 30-year gap of attending any kind of religious service, one day I found myself walking into a Torah Class taught by Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, founder of the Jewish Renaissance Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Looking back, I can definitely say that cosmic intervention was how I got to this particular place, and class; however, what is more important is what I took away from that first re-entry back into Judaism and the 10 subsequent years that have followed.
Having been brought up in a conservative home we participated in only a few Jewish ‘things’; like going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and celebrating the first night of Passover. Around the time I turned 7, my parents decided I needed to go to an after school Hebrew Program once a week, to learn enough Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah; which basically turned out to be when my Jewish education was over. Thereafter, it was mostly the memories of Jewish food that kept me gastronomically connected; like lox and bagels, brisket, borscht, rugelah and my favorite, gribenes. If you’re not familiar with ‘gribenes’, it’s cooked chicken skin fried in chicken fat; which, when fried up with some yellow onions, is basically Jewish crack. Chicken fat always sat in glass jars on the stove in my house and was so important to our cuisine that we had a designated fry pan, warped from years of melting fat and frying up chicken skins; as well as a designated wooden bowl for chopping the liver and eggs which got drizzled with said fat and gribenes. For years my primary way of identifying myself as Jewish was by discussing chicken fat and gribenes and then looking anxiously around for any nods of familiarity.
When I graduated college I chose my career over going to synagogue on the High Holidays and I completely lost my affiliation to anything, but my paycheck. And although I still inherently believed in G-d I was more apt to use words like ‘climbing mountains’ and ‘dealing with one’s Karma’ to express my belief that ‘something’ was out there watching my actions and as such I had a responsibility to keep up the self-growth and question the meaning of life. Yet with all my lingo and rhetoric about mountains and karma, I didn’t feel like I was close to finding any purpose or enlightenment; instead, I felt a void, and for years I couldn’t understand why.
That first day in Torah Class, I left thinking ‘wow’; this is the cheapest therapy session I’ve ever had! I felt spoken to; and so I returned the following week and basically every week thereafter. At the time, I couldn’t identify the reasons I wanted to keep attending those classes. I was definitely curious and befuddled by the women who attended, and Torah was intriguing to someone like me, who was fascinated by humans; but… the yearning and desire I had to keep learning, that which should have sounded so familiar, but was completely new, I can only attribute to the Jewish spark inside of me being re-ignited after years of dormancy. And when I started to wake up, I realized it was time to determine if I had been, in spite of my absenteeism, on the right trajectory in my life and if not, what changes did I have to make.
Perhaps you grew up with supportive parents and teachers who always told you, you were special and could do anything. My parents were always telling me to try harder. Their favorite thing to ask me whenever I was struggling was whether I’d like to be a ‘big fish in a small pond’; said while their heads shook an earnest no, or a ‘little fish in a big pond’, as they nodded up and down. Throughout my youth, I wasn’t the best student, but everyone said I had potential, so my teachers always placed me in ESP (Extra Special) and AP (Advanced Placement) classes. It was really hard to keep up but at least I was hanging out with the big fish!
It wasn’t until I went to college that I saw first-hand the pitfalls of growing up thinking you are the big fish. To this day I have no idea how it happened; but I got into a college, that accepted less than .5% of the applicants or about 75 students. It didn’t take me long to see that I had once again been placed in a very big pond filled with a lot of very special fish. But what was really interesting to me was that a lot of those fishes landed up crying in the bathroom, quitting or blaming the teachers for their bad grades. It was really confusing because these were really good students who got high grades in high school, great scores on their SAT tests; and had a lot of confidence. That wasn’t me, I was stuck with the label of ‘fish with potential’; so I just kept working hard. When I graduated, I was feeling pretty good about getting through college and happy to be out of the educational pond; only to realize that the workplace pond was even bigger. So eventually it was I who cried, and blamed and then finally quit to start my first business; because it was time to be a big fish.
Looking back, stepping into my strength was both powerful and debilitating. Yes, I had a lot of accomplishments, but I never felt validated. I soared and then crashed many times and I had this gnawing feeling that I was constantly searching for self-validation; because no one else seemed to notice my hard work. And this continued…
the day I learned that it’s not our parents or our teachers or our accomplishments that define what makes us special, it’s G-d; and that even before we are born, our life’s journey, including all the failures and successes, are pre-determined and we just had to pay attention, stay on the path and fulfil our destiny. Now that was interesting! It was not only a huge relief to know that I wasn’t singularly responsible for my failures, but it was also enlightening to know that my successes were also planned just for me, and me alone. It was also very soothing to know that everything that was meant to happen to me, had; and that all along, behind the scenes, G-d had been helping me to become the best fish, I mean person, I could be…
There is something magical that happens when you’re certain that you have a unique and special role to play in the universe; and that your input in balancing that universe is equally important; suddenly everything you do in your life has meaning and purpose. Every defeat becomes a reason to search deeper and discover more; ever obstacle becomes a path to empowerment; and every success, accomplishment, job well done; good deed becomes more relevant because you finally feel you are on the right path.
A few months ago, after hearing a short D’var Torah I shared at the end of a Jewish Business Networking event, I was asked by Debra Brunner from the Together Plan to write a blog for her website. That day I had spoken about the 3 times the Jewish nation was counted in the desert; when we left Egypt, after the golden calf, and at the time of the tabernacle; and the significance of these countings. I shared the common consensus that those countings represented G-d acknowledging that as we were building a congruent nation, he was acknowledging that we are individuals with unique attributes. Nice idea, but how do we internalize such a profound thought; when we so often feel disconnected not only from ourselves but also from others? What I have come to love about my returning to Judaism, is the obligation to internalize what we learn. I’ve now gone through 9 cycles of Torah and each year I learn something new that relates to my life. When reflecting on the countings, I’ve come to personally understand that the exodus from Egypt is the spiritual crossroads we all encounter, when we get to decide if we’re ready to step into the unknown and trust that there is something worth journeying to. That the golden calf is the coming to terms with any destructiveness we may have created, and that can be anything from treating someone else badly or dwelling in negativity or self-doubt; and then remembering just as G-d did, that we need to be forgiving to ourselves and in turn be more forgiving to others when we feel we’ve been slighted. And lastly, just as the tabernacle was built as a dwelling place for G-d and carried throughout the desert, we need to trust that G-d is always walking alongside us and also dwelling inside us wherever we are on our journey.
Although my generation had made it a legit thing to ‘go find yourself’; when I walked into that Torah class 10 years ago, I soon came to realize that I had twisted ‘go find yourself’ into ‘go prove yourself’; believing that I, and I alone, was at the epicenter of everything that could, should and would happen. Torah has helped me to understand that not knowing what I was running to, or running after, was the root of my immobility. Now, I never worry about which pond I fit into because I get to swim in the sea of Torah; and I no longer have to prove myself, or wonder if I’m special because just by having been given life, everything I do adds value to the meshwork of mankind. And when my forefathers made the journey from Egypt, when they stood at Mt. Sinai and when they made a covenant with G-d, they guaranteed that generations later I could proudly acknowledge that, yes, I count!