Cel­e­brat­ing the ties

Grocott's Mail - - SOUL FOOD -

As one of the few Jewish stu­dents at Rhodes Univer­sity and one of the even fewer ob­ser­vant Jews, I of­ten get asked many ques­tions re­gard­ing my re­li­gious iden­tity and choice of faith. No mat­ter how lu­di­crous the ques­tion is, you can bet I have heard it.

Through it all, how­ever, I am cer­tain that my re­la­tion­ship with Ju­daism is a defin­ing part of who I am. De­spite re­cent trends of many Jews in­creas­ingly dis­tanc­ing them­selves from their iden­tity, I stand proud with my faith and re­li­gion.

In the past 30 or 40 years, the global Jewish com­mu­nity has seen more young Jews as­sim­i­lat­ing into the non-Jewish world.

A 2013 poll run in the US found that 58% of young Jews (71% in non-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties and 45% in the com­bined Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties) had mar­ried out the faith, two-thirds did not be­long to or at­tend a syn­a­gogue reg­u­larly and one-third put up a Christ­mas tree in their homes each year.

These sta­tis­tics are a huge jump from the 1960s and 70’s, wherein ap­prox­i­mately only 17% of Jews mar­ried out of the faith and putting up a Christ­mas tree in one's home was a com­plete no-no.

While these fig­ures speak to the ne­ces­sity for the Jewish re­li­gion and Jews alike to be ver­sa­tile and adapt to modern times, it says a lot about the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process of younger gen­er­a­tions of Jews.

I do not mean to judge or look down upon any­one, be­cause the rules of love and mar­riage are fuzzy at the best of times, and it is nei­ther my place to judge how of­ten some­one at­tends syn­a­gogue (heaven knows that mem­ber­ship fees have sky­rock­eted in re­cent times). But why does this topic res­onate so deeply with me?

Af­ter all, try­ing to be an ob­ser­vant Jew far away from my fam­ily in a place such as Gra­ham­stown where there are no Jewish fa­cil­i­ties or com­mu­nity to speak of, is hard.

We re­cently cel­e­brated Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kip­pur (the Day of Atone­ment), both aus­pi­cious fes­ti­vals on the Jewish cal­en­dar. We are also in midst the fes­ti­val of Sukkot, or Taber­na­cles, which be­gan at sun­down of Wed­nes­day 4 Oc­to­ber and ends at sun­down today (13 Oc­to­ber). Fes­ti­vals are tra­di­tion­ally times re­served for cel­e­bra­tions with fam­ily and friends, which leaves me in a bit of a predica­ment within my Gra­ham­stown bub­ble.

Since my first year, I have ha­bit­u­ally trav­eled to Port El­iz­a­beth over fes­ti­vals and most Sab­baths dur­ing term time so that I may ob­serve these days prop­erly.

As an Ortho­dox Jew, cel­e­brat­ing fes­ti­vals in­volves ab­stain­ing from the use of elec­tron­ics (cell­phones, com­put­ers and tele­vi­sions in­cluded), driv­ing and work­ing. In­stead, we spend time in syn­a­gogue and with fam­ily and friends, and have many de­li­cious meals – which I can’t do in Gra­ham­stown. Here, I find my­self in an en­vi­ron­ment which leaves no room or pos­si­bil­ity for my re­li­gious prac­tices, even it's also a bit dif­fi­cult al­though at home or in Port El­iz­a­beth.

I don’t deny that it was hard grow­ing up in an Ortho­dox home: it sucks hav­ing to miss out on so many ex­pe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries due to seem­ingly never-end­ing fes­ti­vals or the Sab­bath, and grow­ing up in a Kosher home meant hav­ing to pass up many din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

As a young Jew liv­ing in the 21st cen­tury, I thus un­der­stand how hard it is for peo­ple to iden­tify and stick with a re­li­gious iden­tity, par­tic­u­larly one as strin­gent as Ju­daism.

Yet if I think about who I am and the many puz­zle pieces which make up my iden­tity, my re­li­gion has in­flu­enced me be­yond what words can de­scribe. Be­ing part of Ju­daism made me part of a global com­mu­nity of peo­ple who de­spite any dif­fer­ences in level of ob­ser­vance or faith, ac­cepted and sup­ported me in my growth.

The word ‘re­li­gion’ comes from the Latin word ‘re­li­gare’, which means to tie or bind to­gether. I could not think of a more ap­pro­pri­ate et­y­mol­ogy be­cause this is es­sen­tially what a faith sys­tem does: it binds peo­ple to­gether with their be­liefs and prac­tices as com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors.

There are other com­mu­ni­ties or be­lief groups which one can be­long to other than Ju­daism, in­volve­ment in any of which plays a crit­i­cal role in the iden­tity for­ma­tion of the peo­ple in­volved.

An­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies have clearly linked re­li­gion to iden­tity for­ma­tion in all com­mu­ni­ties and en­vi­ron­ments. It thus pains me to see how young Jews are in­creas­ingly opt­ing to turn their backs on their re­li­gion.

If you asked my late grand­mother, she would tell you that be­ing Jewish is not some­thing you do, but rather some­thing that you are. A Jew dressed as Santa Clause eat­ing a cheese­burger in McDon­alds on Yom Kip­pur is still a Jew, no mat­ter the de­nials.

I would like to think that the same goes for peo­ple of other re­li­gions or be­lief sys­tems. This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that one has to whole­heart­edly agree with all parts of the be­lief sys­tem. It’s also im­por­tant to con­tin­u­ously en­gage with one’s prac­tices in or­der to en­sure that they stay rel­e­vant to the times.

But I think it is sad when peo­ple choose to com­pletely walk away from their re­li­gions be­cause in do­ing so they are walk­ing away from a part of who they are as well.

For my part, I would like to pay homage to my com­mu­nity, my par­ents and my an­ces­tors be­fore them, for in­still­ing in me a deep sense of iden­tity and be­long­ing.

• Aviva Lerer is a third year Writ­ing and Edit­ing stu­dent at the School of Jour­nal­ism and Me­dia Stud­ies.

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