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I Was Once An Ignorant Jew

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I was born into a Jewish home but given no Jewish education as a child. Judaism to me was no more significant than a series of cultural artifacts – the blue and silver-covered Maxwell House Passover Hagaddah (the contents of which I didn’t begin to understand), gold Chanukah gelt in mesh bags and gefilte fish.

When I was a child, my grandmother served me rectangular-shaped slices of ham, which I stacked and ate with a fork and a knife. I knew somehow that it wasn’t appropriate to ask for a glass of milk to go with my plate of ham slices, but I had no idea why. I intuited that Jews used mustard on their deli sandwiches and non-Jews used mayonnaise.

The year my brother was born (on what I now know was the 21st of Kislev), we got our gifts on Christmas because my mother was still in the hospital over Chanukah. When, seven years later, that same brother was asked to recite the Four Questions in Hebrew at one of only two Passover meals I can recall from my entire childhood, I had no idea what the significance was of what he had done or why everyone was praising him.

I was never taught to recite the Four Questions.

When I was in college and I went to a friend’s home for Rosh Hashana, her married brother perched his toddler daughter on the table and coaxed her into saying, “L’Shana Tova!” Everyone clapped and smiled and kissed her.
I had no idea what she said or why everyone was so delighted by it.

These are the kinds of thin threads from which my Jewish identity, such as it was, was pasted together. I was never explicitly taught anything about Judaism.  Everything I knew, or thought I knew, about Judaism was my own conjecture, based on cues I didn’t fully understand.

Until I was in my mid-20s, I was an ignorant Jew, lacking the most basic understanding of Jewish traditions. Being Jewish was about as important to me as having green eyes or being a middle child. I knew it was a fact in my biography, but it carried no sway whatsoever.

Which is why my life today is so astonishing.

Today, I live as a Torah Jew in Israel. The small porch on the back of my apartment overlooks Jerusalem, facing the Temple Mount. I am married to a rabbi. I study and teach Torah regularly and live in a wholly Jewish calendar, moving from Shabbat to Shabbat. My months are seasoned by Jewish holidays and my language is peppered with Jewish idioms.

Judaism went from being a footnote in the story of my life to its central, defining characteristic.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

It’s very humbling to start learning about Judaism as an adult. I was a competent adult in all other areas of my life, but I had so little foundation, I basically had to start learning about Judaism from the very beginning.

Which is why I related very much to this story about the great Rabbi Akiva.

At the age of 40, the man who would become Rabbi Akiva was an ignorant Jew. He worked as a shepherd. Though he was religiously observant, he knew no Torah and couldn’t even read the Hebrew alphabet.

One day, as he was out tending his flock, he took note of drops of water hitting a rock. Over time, one drop at a time, the water had carved out a hole in the stone. He reasoned to himself that if something as soft as water could leave an impression on something as hard as rock, how much more so could Torah leave its mark on his heart?

From that point on, Rabbi Akiva began to learn. Blessed with a God-given ability, he eventually became among the greatest scholars in all of Jewish history and had up to 24,000 students. He died in the beginning of the second century.

Recently, my husband and I went for a short vacation to Tiveria (Tiberias) where Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, is buried. She is well-known for encouraging her husband to learn, at great personal cost to herself. Rabbi Akiva gave great honor to his wife for all she sacrificed so he could learn Torah. He reminded his students that any merit they or he have earned by studying Torah is all due to her self-sacrifice.
I’m no Rabbi Akiva, but I recognized in his story the importance of being humble and admitting when I don’t know something. That’s how I have learned about Judaism, one step at a time.

The Torah is so vast and deep that I know I will never conquer it. Even decades after I first began my studies, I'm profoundly aware of how much I still don't know about the rich heritage into which I was born.

But that's okay. Because the Torah is compared to the vastness of the ocean.

And I am no longer completely ignorant.
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