Ilana Hamer
Ilana Hamer

Learning to Love My Jewish Self Again

Last week I set out to enjoy a few hours of Shabbat observance. I took my book and sat in the grass in Central Park under a light drizzle. It was an atypical and joyful Saturday afternoon. But I’ll admit… I rode the Subway to the park, violating the Shabbat rule against transportation. And I stopped at a cafe outside the park and paid for a glass of lemonade. And okay, I checked my phone a couple times to keep track of the time. 

But if Shabbat is about taking a break from your weekday life, about not just doing, but being, I did that. 

Earlier that week, I had listened to a podcast episode about the intersection between happiness and Judaism. Two of my favorite thinkers, Dr. Laurie Santos, who hosts the Happiness Lab podcast, and Sarah Hurwitz, head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama and author of the book Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), discussed Jewish lessons about mindfulness, making time for yourself, and gratitude.

Sarah spoke about her experience attempting to maintain a rigorous Shabbat observance while working in the White House. Though her colleagues were supportive, after a few months, the practice became too intense. Sarah offers some advice to those of us who don’t observe a religiously rigorous lifestyle, but who find meaning in and want to honor the tradition of Shabbat: your Shabbat does not have to resemble an Orthodox practice to be meaningful, nor does it have to be ‘perfect.’ 

Many people, Sarah says, set themselves up for failure by believing that a genuine Shabbat observance must be an ‘all or nothing’ practice, that if one does not follow all the rules (no transportation, no electricity, etc.) for all 25 hours, it’s not worth doing at all. But the point of Shabbat, she insists, is to ‘gift’ ourselves intentional time that is distinct from the rest of our week. In short: the quality of the Shabbat practice is more important than the quantity. 

By this measure, my Shabbat was perfect – for me. And that’s what made it perfect. 

I’m in a constant process of finding comfort with my Jewish practice and expression. Growing up, I was deeply involved in my Jewish community but never found personal meaning in observing Shabbat or keeping kosher. Nor did I have many close friends who led a religiously observant lifestyle. When I began college at a Jewish university, however, where I had to abide by Shabbat and Kashrut restrictions in the dorms, I discovered that many of my new friends didn’t want to go out to bars with me on Friday nights, preferring to attend Shabbat services. I learned that buying challah on Shabbat made it unkosher, and felt ashamed when I mentioned that I had just purchased our Shabbat dinner challah and was met with concerned looks. Suddenly, I was nervous to lead prayers I had known by heart for years. I felt confused, inadequate, and unsure about how Judaism fit into my life.

Navigating this newfound insecurity in my Judaism was tough, and it led me to largely disconnect and feel bitter. So, at the end of my freshman year, a reminder of what my Jewishness once meant to me caught me by surprise.

As we were packing up for the summer, a friend perused the bookshelf in my dorm. She picked up my Siddur, which I had received at Jewish summer camp years before. I’d attached a chain of letter beads to the front cover that spelled out: “love your Jewish self.” I had been so in love with Judaism, and my own Jewishness. I had wanted to hold on to that feeling forever. 

My friend read the beads on the front cover of my Siddur. Having discussed with me for months my feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, she said: “Hmm, love your Jewish self. Ilana, you should do that.” 

Her comment struck me. An academic learning curve in my Jewish studies courses, constant exposure to new Jewish practices, and a pervading sense of imposter syndrome had pushed me into feelings of inadequacy and confusion. But being taken back to a time of love and gratitude for my Jewish identity pushed me to refocus my energy, lean into the discomfort and explore new Jewish practices. I challenged my preconceived notions and learned to love Judaism for what it means to me, and not for anyone else. 

Sarah and Dr. Santos reminded me of the joy and meaning that Jewish practice can bring to my life. Perhaps I’ll maintain a practice of Shabbat observance for a small part of Saturday, or perhaps over time, I’ll incorporate different kinds of Jewish customs into my routine. My Jewishness may at times manifest in Jewish learning, in communal gatherings, or in prayer or at a dinner table. What I know is that I’ll move forward in the process of loving my Jewish self by embracing Judaism in a way that works for me. 

About the Author
Ilana Hamer is a senior in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She was the Summer 2021 Goldman Fellow for American Jewish Committee's Washington Regional Office.
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