For someone raised outside the Jewish community, I’ve been amazingly lucky in my ability to reconnect with, learn about, and live that heritage. Several conversations with Jews and people of Jewish decent who weren’t so lucky has kind of brought that home to me lately. So today, I want to share some resources and ideas for Jews and people of Jewish decent who haven’t been so lucky.
First, let me share a bit of my history.
I began my journey back to Judaism as a teenager when I visited my birth family for the first time. I came home fascinated by the little I’d seen and learned of Judaism, only to be immediately discouraged not only by my adoptive parents, but also my then-shrink who was a Reform Jew and felt free to speak badly of my birth families more traditional observance. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my shrink was going along with the wishes of my adoptive parents. Even if she had legit concerns about Orthodox traditions being healthy for me, there was much she could have done to support me in learning more about the Jewish people and our traditions/history/practices.
It was several years before I visited my birth family again. That visit rekindled my interest in Jewish practices, but it was several more years before I felt comfortable exploring.
I started with what for me were easy things — lighting the shabbat candles and cutting pork from my diet (I pretty much never ate it anyway). That was nearly 20 years ago. It is only in the last couple years that I can say “I am a Jew” and not feel like a bit of an imposter. It was a long journey, but absolutely worth it.
The Aleph-Bet Shabbat
Relatively early in my journey, I read a story from the Baal Shem Tov (‘Master of the Good Name’). The Baal Shem was (iirc) the founder of the Hasidic movement and a gifted storyteller. Many of his stories are remembered today.
There was a farmer who was coming home late from the fields. The sun was setting, and it was time to celebrate the start of Shabbat. The farmer knew he wouldn’t get home in time to start Shabbat properly, so he stopped where he was, looked up to Heaven, and recited the aleph-bet (alphabet). Then he said “Lord, I don’t know the prayers, so I am sending you the letters. You can put them together yourself.”
Since I first read this story, I have found two other versions of it, radically different in place, time, and people, but always the same in the central idea. We do our best, whatever that best may be, and trust God to make something beautiful of it.
It’s okay if you don’t know the prayers or the traditions. It’s okay if you don’t understand what ‘tefillah’ means or don’t have candles to light for Shabbat. Do your best what you do have or do know.
Two Jews, Three Opinions
To steal a line from polyamory, ‘there is no one right way to be a Jew.’
For every question, there will be multiple answers. That isn’t to say there will be multiple radically different answers. A few things there is a fair bit of concurrence on (for instance, being a member of the Jewish people is hereditary, all others need to go through an official conversion). But there will still be a lot of variety in the specifics (does ‘hereditary’ mean matrilineal, patrilineal, or both? What does the conversion process look like? etc).
So don’t take the first answer you get as a be-all, end-all. You, as an individual, as responsible for making your own decisions or what is right or not. A rabbi, mentor, parent, etc can offer guidance or greater knowledge. But they can’t give you the ‘right’ answer.
Start with a Clean Slate
I know it’s hard — believe me, I KNOW it’s hard — but as best you can, drop all the ideas and assumptions that come from growing up in Christian society. There is no hell. There is no ‘sin’ as society and Christianity understands it. No ‘devil’, no ‘Lucifer’ — and that’s the easy stuff.
What you believe doesn’t matter. Something like a third of Jews in the US are atheist. Including yours truly. Except not really ‘atheist’ as most folks understand the term. Nor does ‘agnostic’ really fit, because it’s not that I’m uncertain if God exists. I simply don’t care. Ditto life after death and everything associated with it.
“My job is to do my best here-and-now, to be the best person I can be. What comes next is God’s problem — and if God doesn’t exist, then God’s really got a problem.”
Other Jewish folks usually get this. “Yup, that’s it.” “Exactly.” So have a few folks from other ethnoreligious traditions.
Christians and secular atheists from Christian cultures? They’re brains explode. “But that makes no sense! How can it be God’s problem if God doesn’t esist? What does that even mean?”
These are geared towards Ashkenazic traditions and practice because that is my own heritage and chosen culture. English language resources for Sephardic traditions are available but hard to find. For other branches of Judaism, finding English language resources is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The best single resource I’ve found (on or off the web) is Chabad. Chabad’s whole ‘thing’ is helping secular Jews return to Jewish life and practice. They are Orthodox, leaning toward Ultra-Orthodox, so they won’t be a comfortable fit for everyone. But everything they do is geared to helping people learn about and reconnect with Jewish practice and culture.
My Jewish Learning is another good resource (online only).
If there is a synagogue in your area, it likely runs events for learning more about Jewish traditions and practice, don’t be afraid to reach out.
The Gates of Shabbat: A Guide to Observing Shabbat was the first book about Judaism I ever bought and I recommend it to everyone. I seem to remember there being a whole series of similar books about the different holidays.
If you are ready to really dig into to the ideas grounding Jewish thought and practice, Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath is an amazing read.
HebCal is an online Hebrew calendar that (in addition to the usual calendar stuff) will give you info on when to light Shabbat candles, info on all the major and minor holidays, etc. Can be difficult to navigate at first.
Jewish Virtual Library for information on history, ideas, people, and places.
Sefaria has literally thousands of Jewish texts, many of them with English translations. Save this for later when you are ready to dig deeper.
Please avoid looking for info with random YouTube or web searches. A great deal of what you will find is from so-called ‘Messianic Jews’. And just… no.