During my stint interning in China last year, my Liverpudlian friend remarked during Friday night drinks (ironically enough) that I was “the keenest Jew” he had ever met.
This took me by surprise. Compared with most of my friends and relatives, I had viewed myself as decidedly average in terms of religious observance and Jewish enthusiasm. (Like my amusing ex-classmate, minus the bacon. See her blog for a giggle.)
It’s been quite the crazy year.
I spent my 21st birthday in Tel Aviv, the Jewish new year in Shanghai, Chanukah in Cambodia and Passover in Toronto.
This jet-setting chaos has added to the additional chaos of graduation, my family’s cross continent move and my near reaching of the wise, old age of 22. These milestones call for some religious reflections (everyone’s favourite kind…).
I think they come at a critical time, since the media is filled with negative articles about religion.
Some articles explore how millenials are dismissing religion, with over a third of young people report having no religious affiliation. As The Atlantic examines, this secular crop of young people is particularly problematic for Jewish leaders.
So, in a conscious attempt not to get too bogged down in politics or despair, I thought I’d explain why my experiences this year have made me so proud to be a Jew.
1. The food
It saddens me to no end when every person I speak to avoids carbs like the plague and where ‘gluten-free’ dominates supermarket aisles to worrying extents. Thankfully, Jewish food is as carb-heavy as it is comforting.
It’s hard to pin down what exactly it constitutes, since it’s shaped by different cooking traditions of the Jewish diaspora worldwide (but think Russian, Middle Eastern and North African influences aplenty). This list gives you some idea, as will visiting Israel, which boasts falafel and shawarma on every street corner.
From the ever-present bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese to spicy, eggy, tomato-ey Shakshuka to everyone’s favourite plaited Challah bread, there’s truly something for everyone.
My friend recently asked me if I was about to be executed, what my last meal would be. My response spoke volumes about Jewish cuisine passion – who wouldn’t choose their mum’s chicken soup and roast chicken?
2. Religious flexibility
OK, there are some aspects of Judaism that are non-negotiable, well, unless you want to find yourself family-less.
Determination at its finest? Any Jewish grandmother’s attempts to get you hitched to that nice, 6 foot Jewish lawyer her friend down the road knows…
But, in terms of religion, there’s a surprising amount of options out there.
As a keen feminist, I dislike the way in which Orthodox synagogues prevent women from active participation in the service, even seating them physically far from the Torah.
Luckily, a few years ago my family moved to an egalitarian Masorti synagogue and never looked back.
Judaism really does cater to societies complex and changing needs. Liberal, reform communities have no problem with female Rabbis, families sitting together and Bar and Bat-Mitzvah obligations being the same for both genders.
Case in point: my sister recently told our lovely Rabbi, over boy chats, that I was dating a Pakistani guy. He was, in her words, “amused but not judgemental” and treated her to coffee.
Could you name a cooler religious leader?
3. Networking opportunities
It’s no secret that Jews seem to do pretty well in terms of ‘respectable’ career paths. Without resorting to stereotypes, I can look around my social circle (spanning multiple cities and two continents) and safely say that a large proportion of Jews have jobs in banking, law and the media.
Certainly, there are various critiques that can be levelled at this amount of influence. For instance, the pro-Israel pressure group, AIPAC, wields significant influence over US politics. With 100,000 members, 17 regional offices and many, many donors, there’s no doubt it’s one of the most powerful lobbying groups in America.
On a more mundane and less contentious note: a Jewish connection, even if tenuous, is a useful one.
Judaism can partially claim responsibility for why I’m on such good terms with one of my bosses. Our ‘Tribe bond’ is cemented weekly with a cheery ‘Shabbat Shalom’ email sign off. (Of course it helps that he’s my former next door neighbour’s, daughter’s, husband’s friend. I kid you not. Oh, Jews).
Google ‘Jewish LinkedIn groups’ and witness the networking phenomenon for yourself.
Or just believe me when I tell you that a good half of my friends here in Toronto are due to my father seeking them out via distant Jewish LinkedIn connections…
4. Lavish social functions
Symbolic smashing of a glass at weddings, making comedy out of shiva (the Jewish mourning process) and manic dancing on chairs to jovial Israeli music.
Any of the above sound familiar? You probably know more about Jewish functions than you think, thanks to countless Hollywood films that depict them (the Wedding Crashers, Fiddler on the Roof, This Is Where I Leave You etc).
And it’s no surprise, since Jewish simchas (festive occasions) are simply the funnest. The fab food has already been explored, but add in cringeworthy speeches, gossiping Jews at every turn and A LOT of wine… you get the picture.
Am I already excited for my youngest brother’s Bar-Mitzvah, despite the fact it’s not for an entire year? You betcha.
5. Its global support system
Picture me in December: a Jewish traveller passing through Cambodia’s capital during Chanukah. One could reasonably assume that tracking down Kosher meat or Jews my age might be pretty problematic.
Not so, thanks to the ultra orthodox but ultra welcoming Chabad movement: the largest Jewish organisation in the world.
Its achievements are vast. Their centres of learning number over 3,000 and they’re located in over 65 countries.
Admittedly, their motive is to engage you more with your faith and get you to marry a Jew (the usual). There’s no denying that I was admonished for chatting to my Muslim friend, as opposed to flirting with Israeli men, during Shabbat dinner in Phnom Penh last year.
But, really, how can you complain? To be welcomed wholeheartedly with a traditional Shabbat dinner anywhere is no small feat, let alone amidst the poverty and chaos of Cambodia’s capital.
There’s a lot of dedicated Jews out there, and their work is amazing.
There’s plenty of problems regarding Israeli society and politics, in fact probably too numerous for another million blog posts. But, the country’s achievements (yes, even with US help) remain outstanding.
When looked at in comparison with the rest of the Middle East, Israel is the only democracy, and boasts the highest average living standard in the region. But even not compared to its neighbours, it’s pretty impressive.
Economically, it’s second in terms of number of start-up companies, third in terms of the rate of entrepreneurship and the only country that entered the 21st century with a net gain in it’s number of trees.
Not bad for a country under 70 years old, built on a desert.
From a tourist perspective, it’s ideal. You can cross it in just a few hours, yet there’s diversity in abundance. From the mountains in the north, to the Red Sea resort of Eilat down south, the nature is gorgeous.
As are the cities – from Tel Aviv on the beach (one of the top party cities, cheers Lonely Planet) to spiritually superb Jerusalem, I would urge anyone to visit.
7. Close-knit community
I arrived in freezing cold Toronto in January knowing not a soul. Thank goodness Jews tend to have a keen sense of duty. I was greeted at the airport by my grandpa’s second cousin’s family (you can’t make these things up) as if I was their daughter, as opposed to random, jet-lagged girl they had never met before.
Fast forward several months, and I have a home away from home. I moved out, but ring them more than my actual family, often spend Shabbat at theirs and couldn’t feel more settled in the city, thanks to them.
Family is a big deal in Judaism. And, usually, it’s lovely. (As a teenager not allowed out on Friday nights, Shabbat restrictions were tough to handle. Now I have moved out, I can appreciate them more. And also follow the rules at my leisure…)
There’s no denying how much Jews care. The over-bearing Jewish housewife is the one constant in my life, found forcing leftover meatballs on their 25 year old son or over-zealously encouraging use of J-Swipe (Jewish Tinder). Crazy Jewish Mom is a thing for a reason!
But, their hearts are in the right place. The Jewish community, wherever you are, is always a comfort.
8. The festivals
If you have ever found yourself lacking structure in your life, post school or uni, the Jewish calendar is here to help.
-How would you remember to feel smug about your faith without the reminder that Chanukah is eight times as long as Christmas?
-How could you fulfil your desire to dress up as something completely unrelated to Judaism without the festival of Purim?
-How would you know it is the start of the academic year without the yearly Rosh Hashanah reminder to eat apple and honey for sweet new year celebrations?
Jesting aside, even the least pious Jew will have countless childhood memories based around the Jewish festivals. These are more ingrained in me than most, since my birthday often coincides with what has to be the worst festival: Passover. (Eight days of no bread or pasta. Sob.)
Festival-wise, I may have spent last Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) hungover and guzzling water, instead of avoiding it for 25 hours like I should have done. But, I did celebrate the new year with Chabad, plus over 100 others, in a glitzy hotel in Shanghai.
This is what I love about the festivals. They are where Judaism’s great flexibility (and food) come into their own. Everyone celebrates the festivals to whatever extent they want, but everyone celebrates them together.
9. Opportunities for learning
You can speculate all you want, as to why Jews, um, win so many Nobel Prizes… (Apparently, they win 22% of them, and it’s because we’re oft-repressed, perpetual outsiders with a David v. Goliath Syndrome. Jolly read.)
But, it is nice to see what a high priority Jews place on continual learning.
There are countless example of Jewish events that serve this purpose, but one that comes up time and time again is Limmud (could every family friend I talk to REALLY have met their spouse there?!).
With the simple aim of being “dedicated to Jewish learning in all its variety”, I still arrived at Toronto’s Limmud expecting to be mildly brainwashed, at the very least.
But I lived to tell the tale, and was not! The day’s incredibly varied program of panel discussions and lectures covered topics as diverse as interfaith identity, fertility treatment and feminism. Hearing Jewish takes on these issues was impressively progressive as well as pretty darn interesting. Full marks.
10. Jewish pride
The small population is very proud, and for good reason.
From producer Steven Spielberg to author Franz Kafka, Jews have had a massive impact on culture worldwide. And on education too – thanks to Freud, Einstein and even Jesus (but shh, we’ll let Christians claim him as we’ve got enough to boast about).
Judaism has also given the world countless strong, independent woman. To name but a few there’s Golda Meir (the fourth Prime Minister of Israel), Betty Friedan (American activist) and Elena Kagan (Supreme Court justice).
On a more personal level, the religion has provided me with my very own role model. I grew up watching my mum participate in the women’s Megillah reading at Purim. I saw her sing in synagogue, contribute to the community and and do everything that men do in the religious service.
This had and still does have a big impact on me.
For this, all the reasons above, and many more, I’m grateful to my religion for so much.
Keenest Jew ever? Maybe I am.