As far as religion goes, I'm interested in the food.
Matzo balls? I can eat 14 in one sitting. (Personal record, set when I was 7.) Challah? I can bake it and twist it and egg it with the best of them. I can even down cold, slimy gefilte fish without gagging. I'm a Jew pretty much exclusively in the gastronomic sense.
But we weren't kosher. We never went to temple. I never had a bat mitzvah. I barely know a lick of Hebrew.
So it was a culture shock when my mother started dating an orthodox Jew and turned our world completely inside out. Friday nights were no longer movie nights. They were Shabbat. No more Christmas trees in our living room in December. And bye, bye, bacon!
I think I was justifiably angry.
Adapting to this new idea of Judaism was exhausting. It meant being kosher. Different pots and pans for meat and dairy? Only washing one set in the dishwasher at a time? No more cheese on tacos and parmesan on spaghetti and meatballs? It was scandalous. Food
was my religion, and I was losing it.
My Newer, Jewier 'Hood
Slowly, other things started to disrupt my everyday life. We moved into an orthodox neighborhood in our town where everyone followed Jewish law. As you can't use electricity on the Sabbath, this meant a lot of walking. The men walked in stiff suits and hats and the girls walked in long skirts and long sleeves.
I live in Florida. It doesn't get below 80 degrees here on a good day. Deduce from that what you will.
So many of the laws made no sense to me. What did it matter if I had bacon in my sandwich this afternoon? What if there was a special on TV on Saturday morning and I wanted to watch it in the living room? So what if I put a meat plate and a dairy plate in the dishwasher at the same time? Would the world end? Would God seek out my cheeseburger-filled stomach and strike me down with a lightning bolt?
I'm not usually a jogger. (Like a good amount of short Jewish women, I carry the majority of my weight in my chest. Anytime I exercise, I wear one or two sports bras.) But one afternoon, in a fit of secular rebellion, I threw on some jogging shorts and a sports bra and went for a run. I took the route which connects our neighborhood to the temple.
Like every day, there were people on their way to and from temple. A group of girls around my age saw me coming and one pointed unabashedly at me before the other slapped her hand down. For a moment I panicked. In any other neighborhood my attire might not have been shocking, but to these girls I probably looked naked. I'd seen women from the temple jogging this mile before -- only they usually wore long skirts over sweatpants and sweaters.
A part of me wanted to pound my chest and scream, "HOW DO YOU LIKE IT, HUH?" But, as I jogged away from them, I felt guilty and embarrassed. Because despite the nonstop soliciting to join the temple, banning bacon from my BLTs, and having to conduct an hour-long pray-a-thon before even tasting the challah -- my neighbors and stepdad proved to be genuinely good people.
Being My Own Kind of Jew
Despite my neighbors' views on my wardrobe, they offer their friendship more often than you'd think. In Jewish law, after someone passes away their body isn't allowed to be left alone until they're buried. A mother of three kids in my neighborhood volunteers to sit and pray with them overnight. I think there is something overwhelmingly comforting about knowing there'll be someone with me until the very end. (Torah-thumping or not.)
I don't know how far I'm willing to take my Judaism just yet. I don't know how many prayers I want to learn or if I want to be married in a temple or off the godly campus. Whether I'm looked at as nonreligious or Jewish, I suppose I'm always going to be a little unorthodox.
Ilana Jacqueline is a Lemondrop contributor and devout fan of "The Nanny."