I feel lost, without a Jewish habitat to call my own

If I squint my eyes and focus really hard on the tiny holes in the crocheted separation curtain, I can almost make out faint shadows of the scene below — the holy books, the Star of David decorations, the praying men.

I’m at my grandfather’s hazkarah, or memorial, in the female quarters of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, a hallowed place untouched by women’s liberation movements and sexual revolutions.

Here, men and women don’t mix.What is the purpose of this semiquarantined existence, I wonder, tugging at my demure, elbow-covering cardigan. Is it to keep me out or to keep them in?

Although the bra-burning feminist in me wants to cry out in frustration, I sit back and listen to the familiar, soothing Sephardic prayers.

This is how my grandfather would have wanted it, I think. This is a place of religious devotion without distraction. What does it matter if, for this small fraction of time, I am separated by a thin white veil? Am I here to pray or to mingle?

A few weeks later, I am back in San Francisco, attending a bar mitzvah in a progressive Reform synagogue. The entire service is led by two women — a female rabbi in a tallit and a kippah, and a woman with a guitar, singing folksy renditions of the blessings.

I’m dressed in pants and seated with men. My elbows are bare. I’m comfortable in this air-conditioned holy place, but something is missing. This surrounding is so different from the synagogue of my youth that I have to remind myself that I am in a temple.

I feel like a Jewish chameleon, forced to redesign and reinvent my Jewishness according to my surroundings.

I feel lost, without a religious habitat to truly call my own — a place where I can lay down my bags, slip on some comfortable pajamas and not worry about fitting in to some other guy’s living room-couch patterns.

Is there any synagogue in the world where my Jewishness can harmoniously merge with my childhood memories, my traditions and beliefs, and my values?

Maybe, maybe not.

These answerless questions are not new to me. They are simply additional steppingstones on the long road to defining myself as a Jew.

When I was a little girl in Israel, being a Jew never seemed so hard. Judaism was all around you — kosher meat, Jewish boys, and Hebrew.

You didn’t have to find your Jewish self, you just were.

If we went to synagogue, it was my grandfather’s Orthodox synagogue, but, back then, the male/female separation wasn’t an issue. I was a child and I could sit wherever I wanted.

Here, in this vast Silicon Valley diaspora I now call home, I am far from the enveloping, taken-for-granted Jewishness of my youth. I’ve come a long way from home, I’ve matured, and I’ve become a more complex individual.

For example, I love calamari but shudder at the thought of pork on my plate.

Hypocrisy? I don’t think so.

For me, being Jewish has become a constant questioning, evaluating and redefining. Do I feel more comfortable in an Orthodox or a Reform synagogue? I still haven’t figured that one out.

Back at the Reform synagogue in San Francisco, the bar mitzvah boy is up on the stage, carefully enunciating the foreign words of the Torah in his sweet, lilting, 13-year-old voice. Hearing the familiar Hebrew, even if it is in an unfamiliar place, soothes me and makes me feel Jewish again.

Suddenly it’s just like in the Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem — only with a touch of an American accent and a man in a T-shirt sitting to my right — and I can sit back, relax and feel Jewish.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].

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