Diary of a wandering Jew, now settling in

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Waterloo, Iowa, Sept-ember 2003: Rosh Hash-anah services in the town’s only synagogue are almost finished, but I don’t stay through the end. I walk, alone, through the dimly lighted hallway and outside to the parking lot, where I get in my two-door Chevy Cavalier and call my parents to wish them Shana Tova.

All that comes out is a sob.

They put me on speakerphone. Inevitably, they think something is horribly, terribly wrong, that I’m hurt or in trouble. A hysterical daughter interrupting their otherwise peaceful Jewish New Year is a sign of nothing good.

“I’m lonely,” I say. I don’t like celebrating Rosh Hashanah by myself, in a town where I have not a single friend, in a synagogue where I don’t know the congregants or the melodies. I thought praying would help, but it only made me more homesick. I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.

My mom reminds me it was my choice to accept a job writing for a newspaper in northeast Iowa.

I tell her I didn’t know it would be this hard.

Chicago, 2004: Thank goodness my friend Erica flew home to Chicago from California for Yom Kippur. Otherwise, I’d be stuck in Iowa, lamenting the lack of ruach in a congregation where 80 percent of those sitting in the pews need large-print prayer books. At least this year I have a few Jewish friends. They probably would have included me in their plans, although I still would have returned from celebratory gatherings to a quiet apartment, one that feels exponentially quieter during holidays.

Being with a family — even if it’s not my own — is well worth a five-hour drive.

We go to a Reconstructionist synagogue. I like it. Everyone sings with the cantor and the sanctuary swells with song.

We stand for Vidui. I tap my fist to my chest while I close my eyes to let the spiritual experience wash over me, embrace me.

Break-fast is a big deal, with neighbors and extended family. I eat bagels and lox and cream cheese and blintzes and fruit, and soon I am so full I feel sick. But I am happy.

Kennewick, Wash., 2005: Alone, again. This time I’m in the desert. I live in a town in the southeast quadrant of Washington, where cities develop out and not up, and going to a rodeo on Saturday is quasi-normal.

It is too far and too expensive to spend Rosh Hashanah in Cleveland with my parents. So, I go to Erev Rosh services in the region’s only synagogue. It is boring and depressing and I hate every moment of it. Of course, I take the next day off from work. But instead of going back to services, I put my gold Magen David around my neck, make myself breakfast and spend the entire day in my pajamas reading “The Modern Jewish Girls’ Guide to Guilt” and “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge.”

Reading Jewish stories is now my personal preference for holiday ritual. Why not tap into Jewish books instead of a community, if that community feels uncomfortable and stale?

I bring apples and honey to work the next day. Nobody has ever eaten such a treat. They think it is the most novel idea. “Such an interesting tradition!” they say.

I wish I wasn’t the only Jew in my office.

In limbo, 2006: I am moving to San Francisco! I got a job at the Jewish newspaper there. That means this is the last time (ever, I hope) I will have to celebrate the Jewish holidays alone. As I pack boxes the day after Yom Kippur, I daydream about next year’s holidays.

San Francisco, 2007: Next year is now this month. I scour synagogue Web sites, deciding what from the Bay Area’s Jewish buffet will make me spiritually full. I plan to go to services in a variety of places, with my new surrogate family: my friends.

Those lonesome Jewish blues will no doubt be a defining experience in my adult life. But I like silver linings. So if there’s a bright spot, it’s this: Being, feeling and living Jewish is important to me, and something I no longer want to sacrifice for the benefit of my career.

I’m grateful for the lesson — even if I had to learn it the hard way.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco and is a staff writer at j. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.