Thursday, May 6, 2010 | return to: columns, the column


I’m learning to spell Judaism my way, and it starts with j.

by emily savage, staff writer

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emily_savage_200Next week marks an exciting anniversary for me: I will have been working at the j. for two years. Though many of you may not recognize my face just yet, some may know my name from our conversations about event listings or photos. This is because, along with writing the occasional arts story and my Jewish music blog, Jew Tunes, I also am the paper’s calendar and photo editor.

In my 24 months here, I’ve learned more about Judaism than I likely did in the entire decade before it.

That’s due in part to my own interfaith struggles with belonging — and in part to a tremendously stubborn and close-minded adolescence.

Raised both Catholic and Jewish, in elementary school I made the choice to attend Hebrew school, but I continued to feel plagued by an unshakeable sense of otherness. After my bat mitzvah, my synagogue life all but ended.

And then came rebellion — in the form of dyed pink hair and noisy afternoons spent listening to bands with names like Bikini Kill and Dead Kennedys. I thought nothing of my Jewish heritage during that teenage angst-filled punk rock pity party I threw myself during high school and college.

Thinking outside my mosh pit–filled world was beyond my mental capabilities. I showed up at my aunt’s Passover seder with patches safety-pinned to my sweatshirt and dozens of rubber bracelets on my wrists.

I still listen to those bands and maintain friendships with people from that scene — it’s just that my mindset has expanded in the past few years to grasp an updated understanding of Judaism, one I’m less scared to let in.

So what have I learned at the j.?

There are the customs I knew nothing of, even during my Hebrew school years. At my Reconstructionist Orange County synagogue, we weren’t taught (or perhaps I just wasn’t listening) about many customs my co-workers and I cover for this paper.

I can’t recall ever receiving information as a youth on such essential rituals as being immersed in a mikvah, wrapping tefillin or participating in a minyan. The latter was clearly something I’d never heard of before — my editor has repeatedly fixed my stories that include references to Jewish “minions” by mistake.

Then there are smaller nuances, like proper pronunciation.

The word “Shavuot” comes to mind, as I recently wrote a story on an event celebrating the holiday. I felt my cheeks turn warm and pink during interviews while I butchered the word, not knowing the correct pronunciation and mumbling my way through. My co-workers clarified that the word can be pronounced either as “Shav-u-ose” or “Shav-u-oat.”

Until coming to the j., I’d never even known about the holiday of Shavuot — or Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remem-brance Day) or Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), for that matter.

By interviewing people for my articles, I’ve grown to understand Judaism as an active part of my life — not out-of-touch history. And I’ve learned what it means to have a deeper connection to your co-workers than a shared love of bagels.

There also are the experiences I’ve gained. I’ve had the chance to preview art exhibits before they open to the public, pick the brains of world-renowned Jewish musicians and taste-test the foods of local Jewish street food vendors (for more on those vendors, check out my cover story on page 24).

I’ve gone to a feminist seder, a rock ’n’ roll Rosh Hashanah service and a lively discussion on the importance of Jewish album covers at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I’m participating in Jewish life, but I’m doing it my way.

While I can’t turn to a lifetime of background knowledge on our complex religion, working at the j. has given me a much-needed crash course. And who knows where my spiritual journey goes from here — check in with me in two years and perhaps I’ll have a clearer answer.

Emily Savage lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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