At the peak of my third-grade rebelliousness, I devised a genius plan to avoid attending Hebrew school. Instead of getting out of the car, I grabbed the seat with both hands, began to cry and screamed through the sobs: “I’m not going. You can’t make me.” My mom, flustered, told me I had no choice, and I ultimately gave up the fight. But this year, I — like many of my freshman peers — find myself in an entirely new situation: choice.
The past 18 years witnessed my involuntary assimilation into Jewish culture, though my personal religious freedoms did increase as I matured. At home, religious school attendance was an expectation, high holyday meals a given and Jewish traditions an inseparable element of life in the Posner household.
Now, the independence of college life will force me to confront the role of religion in my personal development, and I must decide the role religion will play in my future. Though we don’t all wrestle with whether to hang a mezuzah or celebrate the Sabbath, incoming Yale students, especially students from religious backgrounds, will likely all face similar situations.
The question is more than whether we believe in God. Our religious identity is tied to a few separate issues — spiritually, morality and tradition among them. When we decide to choose a particular religion, we don’t just opt into a faith, but also personal values, ethics, even customs and traditions — the latke, the Purim carnival, the bat mitzvah and the catchy Hebrew tunes. In questioning my own faith, I have found myself at odds with much of my religion’s spiritual components. But as a Jew raised in the Reform enclave of Palm Beach County, I am unspeakably attached to our traditions.
The challenge, then, emerges when we need to reconcile our religious background with our current beliefs. If I don’t believe in God, am I in the wrong to say prayers at Rosh Hashanah services? Or is my recitation of Hebrew verse just another expression of my devotion to Jewish tradition?
But after two decades of religious life, the interconnectedness of my personal identity and my Jewish identity complicates this choice. It can be nearly impossible for those of us raised in religious households to distinguish the religious and cultural elements — the Torah teachings and the bagels — that fostered our development. I frequently wonder how much of my character has been shaped by Judaism — just as I wonder how much has been shaped by the fact that my mom is a high school teacher. My moral beliefs likely carry the imprints of my rabbi’s witty Shabbat sermons; my veganism may be the legacy of the conscientious eating condoned by the biblical laws of kashrut. My bat mitzvah may have marked my transition to Jewish adulthood, but the self analysis that my newfound independence demands feels far more like a step into maturity.
Though matters of religion can be highly personal, my journey in college doesn’t have to be a solo trip. I know where to look for peers who share my particular struggles — it’s the building with the big “Shalom” flag on the outside. After all, religion revolves around community, and this fall, Yale will have no shortage of freshmen, from many faiths, looking to figure out their own religious identities.
Together we can work on our first problem set of religious questions: Should we fast on religious holidays? Where can we find a dorm-proof menorah? To pray or not to pray? I’m no expert on the customs of other faiths, but I know that we can all benefit from turning to our classmates to help find answers.
Caroline Posner is a fresh- man in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum. Click here to continue.