Categorized | Jewish Religion, Middle East, USA

Scholar of religion tells her Jewish journey

By Jenn Lindsay

Jenn Lindsay

Jenn Lindsay

ROME, Italy –I was recently asked to tell the story of my Jewish journey. I think of this journey in terms of steps: discovery, exploration, commitment, deepening, challenge, compromise, and simplicity. Until now I restrained myself from writing too explicitly about my Jewish journey because it has been a circuitous path, perhaps subject to much misunderstanding. It has been enough for me to hold and balance these questions in my own heart. But I have come to understand that every person, if they are very honest, lives a life full of doubts, subject to misunderstandings and inconsistencies. It is a favor to each other to tell our strange stories, our stories about how strange and unusual we are, because it is the only way to feel normal.

My Jewish journey, my journey toward truth, has made pit stops in Christianity and Buddhism and Islam, and the many truths I found in these eddies coalesced into an overarching demonstration that “truth” is comprised of a deeply ambiguous, complex kaleidoscope of experience. Thus I find that the most honest spiritual position I can adopt is one of devout agnosticism, with an identitarian mantle of halachically-sound Jewish belonging. I have a primordial confidence that Judaism is a place I can rest and return to no matter where I stray.

Discovery began when I was 13 years old. My good school friends were Jewish and as their B’nei Mitzvot unfolded I felt like I was on the outside looking in. My family was academic, eclectic, broadly secular but open to religions. One day I found the book Introduction to Judaism: A Source Book by Lydia Kukoff and Stephen J. Einstein, and read it breathlessly. I did not know that religion could be presented in such practical, obvious, historical, ethical terms. In this book I read of tradition, music, family, history, culture, the best ways to treat other people. I was invited to develop my own spiritual narrative, and I was not coerced to accept things I found unreasonable, impractical, or downright impossible. When I told my mother that I was interested in Judaism she told me that there was a possibility that my grandmother was Jewish. My grandmother had spoken fleetingly of her origins, and her tales of life in Poland before the war were shadowy and unclear. She had certain habits, uttered certain phrases, and made certain foods that seemed culturally Jewish. But they also could have been syncretized, part of life in the Polish working class. We do not know for sure. But the possibility of my Jewishness thrilled me because it meant that I had something to belong to. At an age when I needed concrete community, I was discovering aesthetics, I was asking questions about reality and about God, I was craving logical coherence—I found Reform Judaism. I responded to the clarion call of Jewish pragmatism, the radical particularity of its aesthetics, the challenge of the steep Jewish learning curve, and the nativeness of the Jewish worldview to my own mind habits (as opposed to the naïve magical Christianity that had surrounded me in my peer group).

Exploration began when I enrolled in an Introduction to Judaism class at the local Reform synagogue. I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, and the youngest member of the class. I started to learn Hebrew and I decided I was Jewish. At the time I was also learning that somebody couldn’t just decide that they were Jewish. You’re either descended from Jews or you undergo conversion. My heritage was a possible entry point. But conversion was also available to me.

Commitment. I was 17 and I read Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff. It seemed to me it would be best to clear up any misunderstandings if I officially converted. So I made a meeting with the rabbi at the local Conservative temple and I informed him that my grandmother might be Jewish, but in any case it was time for me to undergo the Jewish conversion process, since I lacked a Jewish upbringing and I wanted everything to be official. He didn’t turn me away, which I’m grateful for because it saved me time and spiritual confusion. But I know that I would have re-approached him, because I was a dogged teenager, and because I already felt Jewish—I just needed to make it quite official. After several more months of intensive study he me he deemed me Jewishly educated enough to go before a Beit Din at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The three ancient rabbis of the Beit Din asked me to promise that I would marry a Jew and raised my children Jewish. I entered the mikveh and said the Shema. My mother who had accompanied me bought me a prayer shawl and a tiny golden chumsah to wear on a chain around my neck. When we got home, I asked my father what he thought of me converting to Judaism, and he replied: I think it is excellent for you to commit to an ethical community—but you’ll have to decide what you think of Israel.

Deepening. I went off to college and became involved with Hillel. I took some Jewish studies and Hebrew courses. I attended every holiday observance and began to lead services for children. I wrote a play about my grandmother’s escape from Poland and staged it with support from the local Jewish communities and the Jewish Studies Department. The play was mounted by A Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco. I was true-blue-Jew. Being a Jew gave me a community, an identity, and a world of skills to build. Everything seemed to be going well for my Jewish development. But then I went to Israel.

Confrontation. I accepted a free trip to Israel with a right wing Zionist group, which I did not know at the time and would not realize for years. We spent 10 days going around Israel being encouraged to connect to the land as if it were our own, to consider making aliyah so we could strengthen Israel with our presence. The trip leaders told stories of military triumphs and victories over former land grabbers who were still threatening the stability and health of the Jewish state. I listened to these tales of victory and patriotism while staring through the bus window. I saw barbed wire, electrified fences, signs describing Palestinians as dangerous to the lives of Israelis. I saw wealthy, fancy Jewish homes with sprinklers and pools, next to Arab shacks with near-empty water cisterns and dwindling amenities. We went to settlements where Zionist people justified their choice of neighborhood using the Bible in the dogmatic, magical way I had seen Christians using it, paying no mind to historical contexts or humanitarian realities. I feel the incredible tensions in the Old City of Jerusalem, and I could not tear my eyes away from the huge assault weapons on the shoulders of many Israelis and every soldier. For me, on a gut level, Israel was a terrifying place. And all of the rhetoric about how beautiful and victorious it was, about its miraculous origins, left me cold. The Zionist words did not match the suffering and hostility I saw with my own eyes. The patriotism started to feel sinister to me. Because all I saw was distress and iniquity, and all I felt was danger.

When I left Israel, I felt infected by fear and confusion. I never wanted to go back. Did that mean I wasn’t really Jewish? Did it mean I could never really be a Jew? For years I felt I had a secret. I moved to New York City after college—which would’ve been a great place to be Jewishly involved—but I was so sure that everybody had clearer affections for Israel that I wasn’t able to participate contentedly. When I attended services or Jewish events, I felt lost and alienated. I knew I could never speak freely. When I attended synagogue I would always stop reading when I came to the lines in the prayer book about longing for Israel. I tried doggedly to reinhabit my Jewish enthusiasm but my efforts were ghostly and mechanical. As a music director at a pluralist Jewish summer camp I taught kids about Jewish culture and music, but felt cynical in my heart. I worked in the development department of a synagogue in Manhattan, but avoided Israel events. I attended Shabbat services in Brooklyn, but I hung to the margins. I had a deep feeling of non-belonging. And I did not know what to do. Because my initial attraction to Judaism was my intuitive momentum of deep and natural belonging.

I began to wonder if I had chosen Judaism too young. Can a 14-year-old child really know who she is, can she really make such a commitment? Why did those rabbis let me make any sort of promise about who I would marry, and how I would raise my children? I wondered if I hadn’t given the religion of my father’s side a fair chance. Christianity seemed repulsively illogical and unstable to me, housed on miracles and the strange language of sacrifice and resurrection. But I also sensed that my resistance to Christianity was grounded in ignorance. So I decided to be flexible. I applied to a masters program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and then I applied to a masters program at Union Theological Seminary, a historically Protestant seminary in Manhattan that is presently the home of many denominations of Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, and all the sorts of seekers you might expect an urban place of spiritual learning. My decision was made when I received a full three year scholarship to Union Theological Seminary. I followed the open door, without explaining much to anybody or even pressing my own decision. There was an opening and I passed through it.

Over the next three years I pushed myself to face the scary, sometimes violent and bloody language of the cross. I considered the metaphors of radical rebirth, contemplated miracles and the limits of material reality. I began to correlate my understandings of human transformation with the metaphors of Christian texts. I pushed myself beyond the constraints of stubborn pragmatism and logic that had secured my interest in Judaism. I worked to overthrow my attachments to understanding, and to recognize the limits of my perceptions. I began to see that context and interpretation determine much about one’s claims about the universe and its nature. I began to see that even ethical norms and moral systems were socially constructed. Vipassana Buddhist meditation, which was taught by a few different professors at Union, also aided my spiritual explanations and helped me to understand my own egocentrism and my resilience.

Compromise. After spending a decade and a half in Jewish community, and then suddenly studying for three years with no other Jews afoot, I found that my Jewish identity was stubbornly resilient. I was a Jewish ethnographer among the Christians. I took pride in not belonging, in understanding what I am through the deep study of what I am not. I started to realize that my deep penchant for pragmatism reflected that my spirituality had an intellectual side, a hunger for knowledge and coherence, and that my most natural spiritual practice would be scholarly. At the same time I had a deep curiosity about human stories, relationships, expression, and experiences. So I decided to become an anthropologist of religion. I entered the PhD program at Boston University’s Religion Department and I continued to study about religious communities and religious relationships. My academic questions were also the questions of my life: questions about boundaries and spaces in between religions. How do humans reconcile their differences? What happens when they fail? What is love? How do we do it? What do we do with hate? What does religion have to do with all this?

My current research on community-level interreligious activity is based in Rome, Italy. I also conducted extensive field research on healing practices in Hindu and Christian Scientist communities in Boston; on secular humanist Jewish communities; about the Muslim headscarf industry in Jogjakarta, Indonesia; on the religious souvenir industry in Rome; about American mid-western monastic eco-spirituality movements; and about the role of religion in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I conducted ethnoastronomy fieldwork with indigenous communities in Northern Peru, charting how locals syncretically combine Pachamama spirit imagery with imported Catholic images to interpret celestial phenomena such as constellations, eclipses, and weather patterns. I listened to religious stories and songs, prayed with people, and tied to understand what made them tick.

As I developed my anthropological approach to multiple religious contexts, I also taught the bar mitzvah program at a secular humanist Jewish cultural community in Boston. I felt right at home with their platforms of social justice and their environment of open questioning that was underpinned by a fundamental commitment to ethical behavior and broad human flourishing. In that community we were all held steady by the container of Jewish identity, and we filled it with all the music, song, food, ritual, debate, and historical learning of the Jewish tradition.

Armed with a deepening knowledge of the religions of the world I returned to Israel, this time with an interfaith group of Christian and Jewish seminary students. This time my fears were buffeted by more personal maturity and an intellectual grasp of the political situation. I also bore a more articulated spiritual commitment to humanitarian values of nonviolence and the cessation of suffering for all peoples.

This time in Israel was different. I still saw the barbed wire and the assault rifles everywhere. But there were Jews and Christians suffering with me. I learned from those fellow Jews that “Zionist” and “Israeli” and “Jewish” are not synonyms. Nor are they monolithic terms. I think that there are many Zionisms, and I think some of them can be moral and just. I believe that Israel like many countries has a right to defend itself and that it was rightfully established in a time it was desperately needed. That is one brand of constrained, circumspect Zionism that I am okay with. But as soon as action in the name of Zionism involves displacement and land theft, harassment and psychological intimidation, child abuse, untrialed imprisonments and home demolitions, stereotype/fear-mongering, disproportional retribution, racial segregation, and very very negligent and solipsistic neighborliness….Zionism becomes immoral.

Zionism itself is a category containing great breadth and variation, so much that it can almost be regarded (to an extent) as intrinsically neutral, like language or technology or religion. As I stayed in Bethlehem with this interfaith group—and would return over the years with other mixed communities—I developed a commitment to a Zionism that loves, supports, and enhances the wonderful aspects of Israel, its cultural richness and collective genius—and that advances Israel’s efforts at self-determination in a humanitarian manner that does its darndest to do no harm. I found confidence in my newfound Zionism by meeting Jewish peaceworkers, people involved with Jews for Justice for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), the Hagar Bilingual School in Beersheva,  the Parent’s Circle — Families Forum, and the Tent of Nations. I also developed deep friendships with many intelligent, kind nonviolent activists of Palestine. I learned from their strength and their immense capacity for forgiveness that Judaism must embrace and protect all people, not just Jews.

I began to relax and trust Judaism. It is big enough to hold me and my journey and all my questions and side trips. And there are other Jews like me that I can walk with.

Simplicity. With my exposure to so many contexts and worldviews I’ve had to learn to hold conflicting ideas inside my heart. I have to know when to draw on which language sets. Now I think of my Jewish identity as a sort of seatbelt, a name tag, that holds me in place in the storm of swirling epistemologies and interpretive lenses I’ve collected.

Now I see that it is not enough to merely say: I am a Jew. This was indeed an important step for my Jewish journey, to find my solid Jewish ground of being. But it eventually became imperative for me to further discern what kind of a Jew I am.

There is a Jewish legal caution against studying other religions; these concerns, and the confusing pressures of encountering multiple traditions, are well detailed in such narratives as Milton Sternberg’s As a Driven Leaf and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. Despite the confusion of holding multiple perspectives, however, altogether these encounters have invited me into a deeper acquaintance with the kaleidoscopic, impermanent, shifting, fluid nature of existence. I came to understand that I have a Jewish ground of being that I cannot escape. Though at first I felt my Jewish identity to be threatened by my non-Jewish learning, I have come to see that the particularism of Jewish belonging does not have to be in tension with the universality of my ethical leanings. In fact, with a solidified Jewish identity, my presence adds another note to the symphony of universal human representations. But I have also found in Judaism, in various modern and liberal enclaves, a place for love and commitment to all people regardless of group belonging. In fact, I feel quite responsible to carry forward a brand of Judaism that is concerned about all human beings.

Questions of legitimacy are applicable to all of us. Inferiority complexes are endemic in every academic and professional environment I have inhabited. There will always be someone who is more Jewishly skilled than I am, whose Hebrew is better, who knows more about Israel, who is more committed to its advancement for coherent reasons. But a Jewish identity is a legal Halachic declaration, a container, that is then nuanced with self-determined content. It is not something that can be taken away unless it is explicitly denounced. It awaits construction.

I understand Jewish identity to be a self-constructed narrative. It may be a negative construction whereby I understand who I am with reference to what I am not. But it can also be a statement of empowering proactivity, to declare a positive identity comprised of both Jewish credentials and investment, and also to multiple social investments. Mine is a reconstructionist, naturalistic, humanitarian Jewish identity appreciative of and reasonably conversant about the Jewish tradition. In some ways my Jewish story has reflected its murky foundations, and my own temperamental affinity for ambiguity and complexity. My Jewish journey was not a departure from one tradition toward another. It was my first moral, communal commitment. It was an instinctive embrace of an ethical, aesthetic system which also happened to entail a complicated political burden and historical survival tactics that give primacy to the in-group. My curiosity, need for belonging, and irreverent affinity for struggling to the heart of human questions, groups, and forbidden places let me to the heart of Judaism.

For many years in Jewish community I was as vague about my Jewish choice as my family history is about the shadowy possibilities of its origins. But over time I’ve become more comfortable with this choice, as I’ve seen my native Jewish friends having to confront the very same choice in moments that demand commitment. I’ve even become more comfortable, perhaps paradoxically, declaring my Jewish identity while my very notion of identity has grown more elastic, fluid, indeterminate, and self-consciously constructed. Because Judaism is my chosen starting point and part of my story for a long time now. It is a home base for my exploration of variegated religious contexts and truths.

Some days being a Christian seems simpler, clearer, more in line with my family history. But my values, investments, identity, and gratitude to Judaism as my first spiritual home—and its many resources and my community ties—keep me bound to Judaism. When I say that I am Jewish, or that I have a Jewish ground of being or a Jewish bottom-line, I set aside philosophical critiques of the intrinsic fluidity and constructedness of identities. Of course, my Jewishness is legally sound. It is also an act of Nietzschean agency. It is also linguistic (years of learning Hebrew and Jewish religious and social concepts), corporeal (two decades in Jewish contexts), and spiritual (instinctual gravitations). It’s okay if these are constructions, because they are solid enough to stand on. I’m not enlightened enough to live beyond the constraints of law, socio-history, will, language, my body, or the compelling vagaries of spiritual momentum.

However, I am confident that the aggregate of these forces secures my Jewish identity and justifies my proclamation of membership in Jewish community. Moreover, I am equally confident that my questions, doubts, and adventures will continue to beset me with great debates in my heart about the constraints and boundaries of Judaism. Some would say this is, indeed, rather Jewish of me.

Jenn Lindsay, who grew up in San Diego, is now researching in Rome for her doctorate in religion from Boston University.  Your comment may be posted in the space below.




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One Response to “Scholar of religion tells her Jewish journey”


  1. […] * Jenn Lindsay, who grew up in San Diego, is now researching in Rome for her doctorate in religion from Boston University.  Here is a link to a story about her personal Jewish journey. […]

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