July 3, 2008
Confessions of a Sunday school dropout
My family is secular humanistic Jewish, which means we embrace the cultural aspects of Judaism while downplaying the more traditional and formal religious components. My mother was raised with no religion, and my father was raised with what he considered too much religion, so they met halfway in raising me as a secular Jew.
I attended a nontraditional secular Sunday school called the Sholem Community, starting in the Bagels & Blocks class for preschool kids until becoming bat mitzvah at age 14. I had a secular bat mitzvah ceremony in which I gave a speech about how the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising connected to and impacted my Jewish identity.
But following my bat mitzvah, my family and I decided the Sunday morning schlep across town was just too much driving (from Eagle Rock to Culver City), so I became a secular Sunday school dropout.
Besides attending Sholem-sponsored Kol Nidre events and Passover seders, as well as Workmen's Circle Rosh Hashanah services, I hardly participated in Jewish activities during high school.
This is largely because I attended Eagle Rock High, an overcrowded and under-funded public high school in northeast Los Angeles. In my senior class of 400, I am the only Jew. I have one friend who is Jewish because her mother is, but she never practices in any form. Thus, my pride about being the only Jewish student has led to my reputation as the token Jew at school. Anything and everything Jewish is always related back to me.
A few weeks ago we were doing a unit on satire in my AP English Lit class, and we read articles satirizing many religions and ethnic groups. The article about Jews told the story of how a drawing was held to decide on the next chosen people, and the Jews were chosen once again. Not one person in my class understood. They literally turned to me and said, "Nadine, explain."
There are countless examples of how my peers have singled me out as a Jew. Some have been positive occasions, like when I taught a boy sitting next to me that the bagel he ate every morning before class was of Jewish origin. Others have been more negative experiences, like when one ignorant classmate asked me if I spoke "gibberish." I smiled tersely and said, "You mean Yiddish?" before calling him a putz.
Ultimately, my status as token Jewish girl has had an impact on my classmates. The same uninformed classmate, when told of my college plans, gave me an enthusiastic "mazel tov" and a hearty pat on the back. It was a very proud moment for me -- realizing that being proud of my Judaism and sharing aspects of my culture had resulted in someone learning something.
Outside of school, the majority of my other friends are not Jewish. I have christened them "Jewwish," because they have become so interested in my cultural Judaism that they come to family latke parties and Purim celebrations. From spending time with me, their vocabulary is peppered with several Yiddish phrases, and they are able to understand and appreciate Jewish humor.
However, my overall lack of connection with other Jewish students during my adolescence has made me think about how I wish to shape my post-high school Jewish identity. I am eager to meet other Jewish students when I attend UC Berkeley, join Hillel and participate in various events, and take advantage of the Taglit-Birthright program to travel to Israel.
This summer, I will embark on what will be the most Jewish-themed summer since my days spent at Malibu's Camp JCA Shalom in middle school. I will be interning for the West Coast division of Heeb Magazine, helping to plan a music festival in Oakland. I will also be living in a Jewish co-op. This summer might be the start of my evolving Jewish identity, but my instincts tell me I will continue to be a proud secular Jew. No matter what happens, I am eager for the next phase. L'Chaim!
Nadine Levyfield graduated Eagle Rock High School and will attend UC Berkeley in the fall.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the August issue is July 15; deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.