The Chanukiah the author lit in her apartment in college.
The Chanukiah the author lit in her apartment in college.

Rachel Lanis writes about her Jewish journey and observance.

As a Jew I was always taught that there were three levels of observance (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox). In my early life, I thought of myself as a Conservative Jew, as my mom called us. Growing up, I went to a Jewish day school, and I learned the Hebrew blessings and the Jewish customs and the meaning behind them, and I would go home and talk about them with my family to the best of an 8-year-old’s knowledge. 

Rachel Lanis
Rachel Lanis Anna Frenkel Photography

I was excited to have a Passover seder and remember being 7 years old and making my entire family sit for the full length of the seder as I read from the Haggadah. I remember their faces as they watched me read the Hebrew words that were very unfamiliar to them, and I watched them beaming, like adults often do when they are proud of their kids. 

I remember being so excited about Jewish customs and holidays and thinking that all Jews ate fruit on Tu b’Shevat and lit the candles on Friday nights, or at least aspired to. After I graduated from Jewish day school at 13 and went to a public high school, I was in for a big reality check. I realized that in our fast-paced world, every Jew has their own level of observance. Each far too varied to simply categorize under one name, such as Reform or Orthodox.

Finding My Path

I set out to find the right level of observance for myself, and that has been more of a challenge than I thought it would be. I have had many interesting, humorous and jaw-dropping experiences along the way.

In high school, like many other teenagers, I wanted to fit in. I ate pepperoni pizza at lunch, and I ate shellfish at seafood restaurants. I would go to see a movie whenever I had the chance and never passed up an opportunity to do something with a friend, no matter what day of the week it was. I would celebrate the Jewish holidays at home with my family, but sometimes I would forget about a custom or two because I was studying for AP U.S. history or going to the mall with a friend.

Occasionally, a non-Jewish friend would ask me a question about a Jewish holiday, and I would rack my brain and try to remember what I learned in school and how to answer that question. I was sometimes left wondering, how do I represent my religion to someone who knows nothing about it, and do I even represent it at all? Then, I went away to college and moved into a dorm, and something changed in me.

A Change of Heart

Maybe it was being far away from home that made me miss lighting the candles every Friday, which were not even allowed in my dorm. Or maybe it was the need to find what I stood for when everyone else seemed to already have it figured out.  

My freshman year of college I found myself wanting to become more religious. That year I started with the small commitment of not eating pork and trying to avoid mixing meat and dairy. It was challenging, but not impossible in my dining hall with a wide variety of choices. Then, I stopped eating shellfish and decided to go to the shul on my college campus for the High Holidays. It was right around the block from a fraternity village, and I recall seeing a football match take place in the front yard of a fraternity house as I was going to a Shabbat dinner.  

I remember my first time explaining what it meant to be Jewish to a non-Jewish friend and feeling happy with my explanation. I told her being Jewish is believing in only one God, and that you should do good deeds whenever possible. Though she was not very religious herself, I could tell that she was intrigued by what I had said. That made me want to explore my own religion further. 

Throughout college, some of my fondest memories included lighting the Chanukiah in my apartment with my roommate and accidentally having a candle fall out, and her grabbing it off the table in the nick of time. Or going to one of my favorite ramen restaurants on campus and always asking the server to switch out the pork broth in my ramen with miso or fish broth and to substitute the pork belly with fried tofu or chicken. I remember eating my dessert first, followed by the main course, because dairy can be eaten before meat in Jewish religion, but dairy cannot be eaten right after meat.

Ramen served up without pork.
Ramen served up without pork.

Though college life might not have made it as convenient, I’m glad I walked through the rain to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and fasted on Yom Kippur in my dorm.

Friday Nights

After college, I decided to make Friday nights a time when I unplugged from technology, spent my time at home with the people close to me or had a game night with friends instead of going to bars and clubs. Clearing my Friday evening schedule from work proved to be a bit more challenging than I thought it would be. For starters, my boss looked at me funny when I tried to explain to him that Friday evening was my religious day of rest and that I wasn’t just using that as an excuse to party.  

After I explained to him that I was Jewish and couldn’t work Friday evenings, he still wasn’t convinced that my observance was the reason that I couldn’t work.  This made me realize how especially important it was for me to uphold my beliefs when celebrating a holy day that has been observed since the beginning of my religion. 

I found a different job and continued with my goal of observing Shabbat in a society where my religion is in the minority. Every week I do my best to make Friday evenings a time for conversation, board games and relaxing, or spending time in nature. I can’t say the people close to me have found this easy, but everyone who has joined me has found it rewarding in some way. To me, showing someone else the benefits of taking Friday nights to rest from the trivial tasks of this world is worth standing by my beliefs a million times over.

I have been asked many times, mostly by my Jewish friends, how observant I am when it comes to my religion. I haven’t been able to give them an answer. In this world where we use so many labels on everything we do, why not see being Jewish as an opportunity that exists each day for every Jew regardless of level of observance. An opportunity to try a new recipe, to walk into the nearest shul or Jewish gathering or to simply rest. An opportunity to try a new experience at one’s own level of comfort, free of judgment and expectations. 

Rachel Lanis lives in Metro Detroit.

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