Reclaiming a Jewish Childhood as an Adult

A young Ilana smiles behind a small menorah, lit fully on the eighth night of Hanukkah. (courtesy)
A young Ilana smiles behind a small menorah, lit fully on the eighth night of Hanukkah. (courtesy)

Before I write this column, and before you read it, I think it is only fair that we establish some ground rules. I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I bake challah every week for our Shabbat dinners. I grew up lighting the menorah for eight days every winter and I remember vividly having a wind-up dreidel that (although being made from plastic) insisted melodically that I had “made it out of clay.” I teach at a Reform Sunday school in downtown Tampa. I still think about the apple turnovers I had at my local shul when I went on occasion. No bakery will ever live up to them. I am very involved in Jewish life on campus and off campus. I am the student president of USF Hillel. I work for StandWithUs as an Emerson fellow for this academic year. All of this to say, dear reader, I am Jewish. That is not up for debate. I am living a very Jewish life, happily. Although this? This is not the life I lived growing up. 

It is difficult for me to imagine my mindset just a mere year ago. I did what over-thinkers and over-organizers do: I categorized. I put “Jewishness” into a hierarchy. I did mental gymnastics trying to place myself within those thickly-chalked lines. I am even now hesitant to tell you that we did not keep Shabbat. I did not have a bat mitzvah. I did not go to a Jewish summer camp. I knew no Hebrew and the Yiddish I had picked up was few and far between, from conversations I overheard from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I felt as though this culture was mine and not mine. I even had an internal conflict before dying my hair blonde, afraid that it would further de-validate any visual connection. I was “enough” in some ways, but embarrassingly deficient in others. The stories I tell my sixth graders are not all stories I grew up hearing. They are stories I love now, but there is a shame within me that these were not my stories to tell. My mom always taught me I was Jewish and told me the history of our family and how they truly exemplified what it meant to be Jewish immigrants in America in the early 1900s. And I heard her, but I felt that this identity was separate from me, in a sense. 

I have held some frustration about these facts, especially as I become increasingly involved in our Jewish community. I wish I had that Jewish American childhood that seems to be the context woven so deeply in so many conversations I have with peers, that honey-and-challah sweet, Judy-Blume-written childhood. But my childhood was wonderful. And I was Jewish. Just because I grew up living an alternate experience to many of my friends does not de-validate any of it. I was a Jewish little girl growing up in a town where I did not have that same example or opportunity for community that I have now. 

There is a Jewish value you may be familiar with called Tikkun Olam: meaning “repair the world.” And while many people take this and run with it through big ideas and tzedakah (charity), I hear it differently. The world I am repairing, dear reader, is my own.  

If I am not happy with something in my life it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to turn it into something beautiful – something I am proud of. This culture is my culture to learn, to have and to love. 

I’ve learned to bake challah from scratch, much to the delight of our weekly Shabbat patrons. I have picked up quite a few Hebrew words and I am teaching them to my mom each time I learn something new. I listen to Israeli music and advocate unabashedly for a country full of my people and my ancestors. I wear Stars of David and evil eyes and hamsas and I have claimed jewelry as a beautiful way to express my heritage. I have a framed picture of my great-grandparents, the people who I view as having set the example for how I see successful and loving Jews, in my dorm and I look at it every day while I get ready to face a campus that may not be quite as loving as they were. 

I learn the stories that my students learn, I learn the prayers and now I feel as though a Friday isn’t a Friday until I have been at Hillel and the air is warm with the glow of Shabbos candles. Over the summer, even when I go to my dad’s house in England, I will be keeping Shabbat. I want to learn more Hebrew and collect Judaica. I want my bookshelves stacked haphazardly and full of stories about our history and our tribe. I want to learn how to make bourekas and shakshouka. I want to write up a Jewish recipe book for my own children. Make challah for them every week and light candles in our home. I want to send them to a Jewish camp over the summer. Just because I did not always have something, does not mean I cannot create it for myself. 

Judaism is special. Special in many ways and for many reasons, but the one I love most is that we are a religion of action, not of faith. Being born Jewish and choosing to be Jewish each day are entirely different. I already have an invitation to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, so why not explore everything it has to offer? I have learned, also, that no one in the universe gets to tell me I am not Jewish enough. That hierarchy I built up for years in my head simply does not exist. We are not linear. We move and we change throughout time. We grow. 

My Jewishness grew up alongside me. And isn’t that such a beautiful thing?

About the Author
Though originally from London, Ilana resides in Florida and is a sophomore at the University of South Florida, as well as the Student Body President of USF Hillel. Ilana is a Jewish student on the front line fighting to combat antisemitism and support Israel. She loves to read and to write, and is the author of her Hillel's weekly column, 'B is for Boobah'. She is an Emerson Fellow for StandWithUs and is very passionate about being Jewish!
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