Finding my religion

As I remember them, Shabbat dinners at the Jewish Religious Center were a case study in Williams diversity. It was not atypical for the kosher meal to be prepared by JRC board members in conjunction with the South Asian Students Association. I often had the pleasure of consuming the meal with a liberal Muslim to my left, a liberal Protestant to my right and an atheist across the table.

Having put up a typical anti-religious rebellion in my teenage years, the tolerant and inclusive Jewish community at Williams gave me the opportunity to slowly become comfortable with myself as a Jew again. Obligations were few to those who would rather not take them on, and the benefits of simply showing up on Friday night were abundant. I came to the JRC to have a free meal, enjoy the company and to participate in the service. Then I could spend most of the day on Saturday sitting at the coffee shop on Spring Street, sipping my latte and staring at my computer screen, waiting for genius to strike.

That there might somehow be a contradiction between the Friday night meal and Saturday morning work didn’t occur to me. On a reading of my behavior in accordance with Jewish law: Of course, Saturday is the Sabbath, a day of rest, on which I should desist from “work” as defined by Jewish law, which, among other prohibitions, includes not making use of any electronics – there goes my precious computer – and not purchasing anything – there go my precious lattes. I had adopted a “pick and choose” approach, a behavior characteristic of many Jews who, like me, were raised in non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. These denominations are open to new interpretations about the relevance and meaning of Jewish law to contemporary life. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on whom you ask, such openness has also left room for considerable assimilation.

I was rather attached to my latte ritual, of course, and I had no special desire to relinquish it in the name of some kind of misplaced piety.

By the time I left Williams, the Jewish community there had become a place that felt decidedly congenial and comfortable. Outside of the Williams world, however, there was no institution to compel my friends of other religions to spend their Friday nights with me eating kosher Indian food. What was the actual backbone of this convenient coming together of people, and how could I sustain such a community out there in the world?

Driven by sincere but inchoate good intentions, I applied to Yeshivat Hadar, an intensive eight-week program of Jewish textual study and prayer that was adherent to traditional Jewish law but was also committed to the equal participation of women.

The inter-religious diversity I had come to know at Williams gave way to an intricate tapestry of intra-religious diversity at Yeshivat Hadar. There were young people of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds with years of Jewish textual study experience and no textual study experience at all; there were artists, writers, converts, Americans, Israelis, rabbinical students and college students. The yeshiva’s model of prayer and practice burned itself into my mind as a compelling and eminently possible way of life. I began to ask myself the questions that serious community membership requires: Should I wear the Tallit, the traditional prayer shawl, and the Tefillin, the phylacteries worn by both women and men who take on the full gamut of the Commandments? A decade earlier, at my Bat Mitzvah, in full accordance with the “pick and choose” approach, I had donned a Tallit (because, well, the prayer shawl was pretty), but I had never put on Tefillin.

Rewarding as my experience at Yeshivat Hadar was, it also felt at times a little like walking a tightrope. I hesitated to overstate the nature of my past commitment to the tradition for fear of misrepresenting myself and making promises I would not be able to keep, but I hesitated to be too frank about it for fear of poking holes in the strong but ambiguous commitments to certain ideals of observance that glued the yeshiva community together. I considered the issue of wearing the Tallit and Tefillin, and determined for myself that it was too soon to know where, exactly, I would come down.

When it comes to my expectations of myself for taking on obligations of whose actual meaning I am often just learning, I try not to be too self-critical. I am the product of more than one secular community of common impulse and habit. I do not need to apologize for this fact, but I do need to consider what it means for my expectations from and offerings to the Jewish communities of which I am a part.

For now, my Saturday latte ritual seems to have gone the way of the dodo. What’s more surprising, however, is that I don’t even miss it.

Joanna Korman ’07 is a research assistant in the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. She lives in New York, N.Y.

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