My hidden spark: one womans Jewish awakening

When I was little, I used to stare at a framed photograph of an old Jewish man in Russia. He had a big white beard, worn black coat and hat and a tallit wrapped around his shoulders. His eyes looked sad. I thought he was God.

When I wasn't wondering where God was or what He looked like, I was in nursery school at the local Orthodox day school. I thought the world of my morah (teacher), and enjoyed naptime and playing with my little boyfriend, Simcha, the rosh yeshiva's (principal's) son.

But my parents, who were secular Jews at the time, couldn't afford to send me to yeshiva anymore. I was soon enrolled in public school. My mother recalls that one day I came home from kindergarten and announced, "A lot of my classmates go to special classes on Sunday mornings. I want to go, too!"

They were catechism classes.

My innocent query landed me in Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue. I went there for two years and learned how to read Hebrew and sing songs like "Shabbat Shalom." But soon I was uprooted from my new Jewish education. We moved to a more Jewish neighborhood five minutes away.

We joined a nearby Conservative synagogue. At my new Hebrew school, things were different. I had missed confirmation the year before and wasn't given my own siddur. I didn't learn the prayers, the teachers didn't discipline us and socializing took precedence over learning. The only connection to Judaism that I found there was singing in the choir and practicing my haftarah.

But God had not forgotten me. One day I came home from school and my mother smiled at me and said, "How would you like to go to Israel for your bat mitzvah?" Three months later I chanted my haftarah at the Wall with my whole family present.

But when we returned to America, I lost interest in Hebrew school, so I dropped out. For the next seven years, the only connection I had to Judaism were nice meals on Friday nights, Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

When I was a college senior, I moved home and transferred to a new college. My parents were delighted I was home. But things had changed since I'd been away — my parents had become observant Jews! They went to a place called shul on Shabbat and wanted to keep kosher! I thought I had landed a new set of parents.

On Shabbat, I would do laundry, watch TV and cook. They would return from shul and say, "Turn off the TV. You're ruining Shabbat for us." Bickering ensued. "What's Shabbat," I thought, "and why do they suddenly care about it?"

In my senior year I started to care. A Native American classmate was discussing her ancestors' plight when she stared coldly at me and said, "You Jews took the land of Palestine from the Arabs long ago. You should know that! Haven't you read the Bible?"

Everyone calmly awaited my rebuttal. In my imagination I flipped through the pages of the Five Books of Moses. But I wasn't just a teacher searching for the perfect answer. That day I realized that even though I was a Jew, I knew nothing of my heritage.

That humiliating moment awakened something in me. They call it the pintele yid, the Jewish spark hidden in every Jew. The spark in me grew into a fire. I was sick of being ignorant and was determined to know what it meant to be a Jew.

A young rebbitzen at my parents' shul came up with the solution: private tutoring. Once a week we studied the Chumash (Torah and haftarah) with notes from Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator. It changed my life. I found that this "blueprint of the universe" unlocked the door to my past — the past of every Jew. But a Jew is responsible for fulfilling the 613 mitzvot, not just studying them.

My parents' new love for Yiddishkeit inspired them to kasher the kitchen. I was devastated. How could I live without my dad's homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs topped with grated pecorini romano cheese?

They say a bit of Hashgachah protis (Divine intervention) goes a long way. Soon I had no desire to eat out, and after studying about animal rights, I stopped eating meat. Slowly, I had become kosher. But studying the Torah and keeping the mitzvot were not enough! Tefillah, service of the heart, was next.

One Saturday morning, I dressed up and walked with my parents to shul. Men davened on one side of the mechitzah, women on the other. That didn't bother me — something else did. Everyone was concentrating on the prayers. They knew their order and how to read them and I didn't. Suddenly everyone stood up, grew quiet and read for a long time. I opened up a siddur and began reading, too. That was the first time in my life that I read the Shmona Esreh, also known as the Amidah. At that moment, I felt like a child. I was learning from scratch.

There is a Chassidic saying, "The end is always wedged in the beginning." A few months later, I became a teacher's assistant at the very yeshiva where I went to nursery school. In the classroom next door was my morah, still teaching.

Now I, too, was called morah. But I wasn't only a teacher — I was also a student.