Olivia Dye

Dec 17, 2020

8 min read

Religion in retrospect

Judaism In The Eyes of A College Student

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with an old friend and have a conversation about religion. Normally, this wouldn’t be a topic of conversation for us. However, this time there was a point behind it. I wanted to know what it was like for her to be a Jewish girl growing up in the United States. Aliyah Aaron is an 18 year old girl who grew up in a Jewish household and continues on with this religion. We went to elementary school together and stayed in contact when she moved away after fifth grade. I wanted to have this conversation specifically with her since I didn’t really understand when I was younger. Her responses to the questions I asked surprised me a bit.

Tell me about your story. What was it like growing up in your religion?

One thing I vividly remember from elementary school was my mom used to come in every Hanukkah and tell my class the story of Hanukkah and then we would play dreidel. It made me feel really special because no one else’s mom came in to talk about their holidays, but at the same time I think it kind of alienated me too because it did make me different than everyone else. Luckily for me, everyone at my school was very accepting and just interested in my religion so I didn’t run into any problems with anti-semitism. Another thing I remember about being a little kid was that every other kid thought if they weren’t good, Santa wouldn’t bring them any presents and I straight up thought that if I wasn’t good I wouldn’t be inscribed in the book of life to live another year because part of the High Holy Day services is a prayer which basically says our actions decide whether God will allow us to live another year.

If/When you have children, do you think you will pass your religion down to them?

If I have children, I will definitely pass on my religion to them. Being Jewish is a huge part of my life and I can’t see ever myself not going to services or being part of the beautiful community that comes with being Jewish. And I would 100% want my children to grow up with that too.

On a typical day, does your religion affect your interactions with others? How?

I don’t think being Jewish affects my interactions with people every day. However, when people find out I am Jewish, I tend to get a lot of questions, but I think this may be because where I grew up and where I go to college the Jewish population is very small. I really appreciate that people do ask me those questions though, because it shows they want to learn more about my culture and just educate themselves in general and I think that’s really nice. Another thing I personally run into is having to seeing a lot of Jesus-y chorus music which is pretty awkward, but I’ve gotten used to it over the years.

What sort of daily practice/observance do you keep? When/where do you participate?

I personally don’t worship every day. I think that’s more something Orthodox Jews do and I am Reform. (Reform being the lowest level of Judaism and Orthodox being the highest in terms of strictness with Conservative in between.) However my family tends to go to Friday services at least once a month and sometimes Saturday services too. I grew up going to religious school twice a week to learn about my culture and to learn Hebrew so I think that definitely impacted how important it is to me to go to services regularly — even if it’s not every week. It’s a nice way of staying in touch with this part of my identity.

What sort of challenges do you face in America today? Is it easy or difficult to practice your religion?

It’s fairly easy to practice my religion. I’m still a minority religion, but I do have a good number of friends who are Jewish and going to services isn’t difficult. The big problem I run into, is not getting off for the High Holy days. People don’t realise that the High Holy days are the most important holidays in Judaism. Rosh Hashanah, which comes first is our new year and Yom Kippur which is 10 days later is our day of repentance and mourning. It’s rare for school districts to give days off even though it’s the equivalent of asking someone who is Christian to come in on Christmas. Normally, teachers are very understanding. However I have had teachers give tests and expect to be there to take them and I have had mandatory rehearsals scheduled on those days.

Are you accepted in your community?

Luckily, my experience with being Jewish in a community with very few Jews has been very easy. I haven’t ran into any major incidences of anti-Semitism. However, I have experienced my fair share of pro-Nazi graffiti and anti-Semitic jokes. And many of my friends who lived in the same area as me, who I attended religious school with, had issues with people at their schools being really awful to them.

Are there particular element of dress that you wear?

As a reformed Jew there are no elements of required dress that I have. If I were orthodox, I would have to show no skin except for my face and hands (similar to women in Islam). Some incredibly religious orthodox women will even wear wigs to cover their hair.

What tradition do you look forward to the most?

I think my favourite holiday/tradition is Purim. Purim is kind of a celebration of life. It’s a giant party celebrating Queen Ester who was Jewish. Her husband King Ahashverosh give his advisor, Haman, permission to hang. all the Jews because Haman told him the Jews were disrespectful. What Ahashverosh didn’t know was Ester herself was Jewish and she managed to convince him to save the Jews and hang Haman instead. Something I find really cool about it is it’s one of the only stories that we have proof actually happened. And the whole thing is just great. It’s basically Jewish Halloween with dressing up and eating sweets (particularly cookies called Hamantashen) and the general goal of the holiday is to get drunk as hell (which is not something my family does because we’re too young).

Has your religion ever helped you to overcome a hard point or a challenge in your life?

Being Jewish has definitely helped me get through a lot of stressful times in my life. When I moved in fifth grade, it really kind of flipped my world upside down and freaked me out. However, going to services and religious school was something that stayed consistent throughout the whole time and gave me something to hold onto. It’s also helped with starting college. Finding my fellow Jews here and doing stuff with Hillel has been wonderful and when I went back home for Yom Kippur both of our rabbi and our cantoral soloist said hello and welcome home to me while walking the Torah around (which for reference is the most important part of the service so you’re not really supposed to be talking during it). And that just made me feel really special and loved and it was really nice to know I have somewhere I really belong no matter where I am geographically.

What is one of the most important things you want people to know about your religion?

I wish people understood how important the High Holy days are. They’re not just an excuse to skip school, they are the most important holidays that exist for us. Also, Hanukkah is not just Christmas for eight days. It’s a celebration of our religion and people surviving and winning the war after the Greeks tried to destroy our temple and eliminate us. It’s a celebration of our survival, which I guess most of our holidays are.

I had one of the most amazing experiences sitting down with Aliyah. I think that being able to speak with her about something so important to her really brought up closer and made me realise how exactly she gets through things that are really difficult for her. However, with Judaism comes the horrendous past of persecution. The most well known: the Holocaust. During World War II, six million. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others were exterminated by German Nazis. throughout Europe in concentration camps. Due to this history, I did have to ask her about the horrific past that those before her encountered.

How do you feel about the history/previous treatment of those who practiced your religion before you and how do you practice in order to allow their memory to live on?

Obviously the Holocaust is one of the most well-known genocides in history. However, Jews had been scapegoats for centuries before then. It’s really saddening to me that we’ve been persecuted for having different beliefs by other religions, especially when Christianity grew out of Judaism. Nazism gives anti-Semites today something to base their hatred around, terminology and symbols to use and it’s honestly terrifying to see the rise in all of that as tensions have been growing in our country. I think all Jews feel the impact of what has happened to us in the past today and we have a special holiday: Yom Hashoah, to honour those who passed away in the Holocaust. I am proud of being Jewish and I won’t shy away from that fact no matter how people react and I think in being proud of who I am and practicing my religion, I’m living the memory of those who had to hide their practices and beliefs to survive.

Learning all of this about Aliyah was something that really helped with World Religion class as well. I was really able to relate everything to what I learned in class and when she brought up holidays, I knew what she was talking about. It was nice to know terminology while talking to her because not only was I able to talk to her more smoothly, she was also very surprised that I knew what she was talking about. I was very surprised to find that she looked forward to Purim the most. I think that for me, I always thought that Hanukkah would be the favourite holiday since Christmas is mine. However, I should have expected that it wouldn’t necessarily be Hanukkah since when it comes to other holidays/religions, Christmas isn’t always the favourite. I don’t think that any of my perceptions really changed. However, I do think that it really showed me an inside to the Jewish religion and gave me something to go off of. The real thing behind a conversation like this, however, is tension between a religious practice and the world around them. For Aliyah, there isn’t really any tension. However, for so many people, there is. We need to learn how to exist in a world without conflict. We need to let there be peace.