Why Tradition Is Meant To Be Broken Sometimes

I have told you guys before how I grew up in a fairly conservative Jewish household. As such, women are to light candles, keep the Jewish home, etc. Women, however, are not to read from the Torah, wear a kippah, don a tallit, or wear tefillin (though all of these have been revisited within the Masorti movement most recently, sparking endless debate). I never questioned these practices, nor did I ever feel restricted by them or felt any level of resentment towards the men in the family; it always felt right.

My grandfather on my mother’s side grew up in a very Orthodox household. His mother once had to be carried out in a chair during a medical emergency and walked in said chair home during the High Holy Days because she refused to break Halacha (Jewish law) and ride in a car (and yes, Halacha does say that medical emergencies supersede everything else, but here we are). However, despite all of this, at age 15, my grandfather went to his parents and cut off his peyot (sidelocks worn by Hasidic Jewish men). This part of the story was always so shocking to me, as my grandfather was still a very traditionalist man (albeit not keeping kosher, which I never understood why); as a WWII survivor, he was committed to and a big proponent of the State of Israel. He could recite every prayer by heart, would go to services, and would help his grandchildren with the D’var Torah for their bar and bat mitzvah whenever he could. I remember him calling me while he was vacationing on Switzerland a few days before his death to tell me that we would start working on mine as soon as he got home. He was a true force to be reckoned with; he had a presence that filled the room, a commitment to Judaism and tradition that could inspire anyone that would have the honor to share a space with him. It was his inspiration that lead me to live my Jewish life, and while my practice has changed today, it remains my source of inspiration. Looking back at the past few years, and seeing my own Jewish transformation unfold, I see how much his life shaped mine.

I have spoken ad nauseum about the NGF, and how it changed my life. It’s not just because I was able to take my first ever trip to Israel, or because I made lifetime friends there, but because it gave me a space to really dive deep into finding out who I am as a Jewish woman. The people at this Fellowship came not only from different parts of the world, but also, from different points in their Judaism. When you spend eight days with people, discussing what it means to be a Jew, and how it has defined your life, it is bound to give you a new perspective, and challenge your own preconceived notions and self-imposed barriers. On day two, one of the women mentioned that she would like to wear tefillin. As a Jewish woman in a conservative household, the thought of wearing tefillin had never crossed my mind; I had seen men do it all my life, regularly throughout the week and weekend. Not once had I even heard a woman even mentioning doing it herself. Yet, the idea that this was something that women did do in other places really struck me. Why couldn’t I, as a Jewish woman, practice something like wearing tefillin in order to feel closer to God?. We reached out to the Rabbi (who since then has become someone very special in my life and whom has guided me through some of the most difficult times in my life), and she graciously offered to help us through the process. The next morning, as we went to shacharit, I prepared myself to break down my self-imposed limitations, and with her help, crossed a barrier that I never thought I would. I had been preparing myself all night for this; feeling like I was insulting the memory of my grandfather, thinking I could never tell my grandmother or parents about this, that I was almost disgracing his memory! And yet, something in my soul kept telling me that this is something I needed to do. Once I was done putting them on, my body felt overwhelmed with this deep need to pray; not because I thought it would make the “situation better”, but because I had never felt this close to God before. It felt like finding and reconnecting my own Judaism, but not as it was traditionally taught to me, but how my soul felt it. I thought of my grandfather’s tallit, which sat in a velvet bag back at home waiting for my son to wear it; it wasn’t just for him anymore, but now it called on me too (since then, I wore the tallit for High Holy Days). The simple practice of wearing tefillin had opened up a door for me; a way of looking at my Jewish identity past of what was taught to me, but to practice as the way my soul intended it to.

I see the irony about how breaking tradition helped me feel closer to it. Part of being Jewish is to feel empowered. To find a fire within us that will help us go through a life that is sure to present myriads of challenges just because we are born Jewish. We see it every day now with the relentless anti-Semitic attacks flooding our streets, and the anti-Israel rhetoric that often takes over political discourse. We could have thousands of reasons to choose to hide our Judaism, or to put it to the side for survival purposes. Life is full of choices, and how we connect our soul to the divine is one of them. For me personally, I choose to connect to my Judaism more now than I did when I was living in a conservative household, mainly because it allows me to make my own choices, which, for the record, I was allowed to make them back then, but there’s’ a difference between making them as an adult and making them as a child living under someone else’s roof, respecting their wishes. Breaking this tradition made me realize that living a traditionalist life like my grandfather isn’t what will keep me connected to him; challenging that life and making it my own will.

I have been asked before how practicing within the Reform movement clashes with how I was raised. My answer has always been the same: I feel more connected to my Judaism now than I did before. My Jewishness is no longer defined by how I practice, but by how I feel. It is no longer defined by the role given to me by tradition, but by the role that I choose to give myself as a Jewish woman. I still don’t question or resent the fact that the conservative and orthodox movements have different roles for women, as I think the journey is a personal one, and that part of our Jewish identity is to discover and embrace our Jewishness on our own time, and within whatever place that may be within our practices.


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