Halfway through my “find yourself” experience, I found myself visiting the city of Jerusalem where, unfortunately, I did everything but find myself.
Jerusalem is the only city in the world where multiple religions find significant holiness and the only city in the world where I felt uncomfortable for not being Jewish enough. Although it’s important to note my short visit to Jerusalem was under religious pretenses, as I stayed in a hostel dedicated to teaching Jewish practices and ideals to young people who also need a cheap place to stay. I went to try something new, to expose myself to a different part of the extremely diverse and highly talked about city in Israel.
The hostel staff was peppy and just fascinated by my story, along with everyone else’s that attended to weekend getaway. I didn’t necessarily get a false sense of interest from the women meant to guide me through my Shabbat experience, but none of it felt particularly genuine. All of it felt like part of a bigger plan to get me to come back and keep coming back. They kept saying, “Now you’re family.” Somehow the statement felt more like a threat than an invitation.
After a long-winded Friday night dinner to bring in Shabbat, I tiredly found my way back to the women’s dorm for deserved sleep. My eyes were heavy with Jewish prayers and my mind cloudy from the mass amounts of food. I woke up the next morning and decided to take a walk through the streets of the historic Old City. My plan was to take pictures of the scenery because that’s what makes me happy. Observing through a camera lens helps me understand my surroundings and appreciate the view in front of me. One key problem here is that using a camera “breaks” Shabbat. Needless to say, walking around with the forbidden device dangling from my neck is anything but the norm, especially in areas not inhabited by tourists which also happen to be the best places to take pictures.
I felt a bit dirty as I made eye contact with the penguins (my term for religious men who wear all combinations of black hats, black suits and white shirts) and the reserved women walking through the streets. Their disdain was palpable. Or was it? Was this paranoia just a fiction of my imagination? Did they really care whether I was keeping Shabbat?
Some of them probably could care less, but some of them probably do. Either way, my morning was filled with anxiety and confusion over whether my unassuming, secular choices offended the people around me, and maybe more importantly, the man upstairs.
After another incredibly large lunch at a Kabbalist rabbi’s house, I wandered my way to a secluded rooftop overlooking the Western Wall. The view stopped time for me. I was in this tunnel of thought where I was finally able to understand the gravity of my location. I watched on as the “penguins” filtered in and out of the Kotel, making their rounds praying to the Wall that is said to be one of the closest places to God. Right next door, I saw the spectacular golden roof glistening on Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock stood tall and proud on that crisp, January day. Birds circled around the church towers ringing their notable hymns. I listened as the sounds of the daily Muslim prayers rang out. Three religions singing praise to “their” god and I was at the center of it all. I had this blanket of religion over me and even though I didn’t feel any more Jewish, and surprisingly I felt peace and calmness. I was in disbelief that the city didn’t implode on itself from this kind of religious coexistence.
I felt exhausted from just the single day I spent in Jerusalem. Ironically, the more I immersed myself in the “Shabbat experience”, the more detached I felt from Judaism. Everything felt so abstractly profound and inevitably irrelevant.
Who cares if I use pre-ripped tissues instead if tearing toilet paper. Will I feel better knowing that I ritually washed my hands before eating a Shabbat meal? Will God really care if I turn off a light, even if it’s to save the environment!?
All of it seems so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. All of these littles rules that work together to make you a better person in the eyes of God just make it harder for me to understand the main goal. And what goal is that? If it’s the goal to maintain a “good person” status as much as possible, something the Judaism greatly stresses, then I am on board. Thinking of others and being kind to anyone you meet, that’s the kind of rules I want and try to live by.
With this mix of religious guilt, beautiful scenery and utter confusion as to how Jerusalem actually exists, I have only come to one conclusion. I am much more confused about my Jewish identity than I previously thought. Choosing a religion is not as simple as the one you were born into. Religion is not as simple as the statement, “I am Jewish”. It’s not as simple as holding to customs and rules which are centuries of years old. Why? Because religion is something that should come from the deepest part of you, a part that I don’t even think exists in me right now and may not ever exist. For now, I am a surface Jew. I understand the protocol and agree with the values. I say the prayers and enjoy the culture. I even connect with my family through Judaism. But do I connect with that deepest part of me? My time in Jerusalem tells me no, or at least not yet.