What Being Jewish Means to Me
By Samantha Goldstein ’19
This is the second of two blog posts written by students who spoke during the Rutgers Hillel Kol Nidre service for Yom Kippur.
In the Jewish community, the holiday Yom Kippur represents a time to reflect on the bad deeds and choices you may have made in the past year. And while this may seem like more of a grim observance, it really allows reflection on who you are as a person and how your mistakes will influence your decisions in the coming year. And for me, a few important words come to mind when I think of Kol Nidre. One of the terms I always associated with Kol Nidre was reflection, the idea of looking back on how you’ve lived your life and trying to understand your choices. Growing up, Kol Nidre had always been a special night of reflection for my family. One of my favorite moments as a kid was listening to the congregation around me singing together, everyone swaying and muttering their own tunes with the prayers, and wondering if they had the same mindset as me. And there was one person in particular who I always knew understood the meaning of reflection.
As a kid, I always knew how much Kol Nidre meant to my grandfather, whom I called Poppy. He had his own special melodies for each prayer, melodies he had learned from his father before the Nazis invaded his hometown of Krakow and took away his community and way of life. After experiencing the camps, his family was gone, his childhood was dust, and his mind would never recover from the horror he witnessed; and still, he retained his faith. He kept a great respect for his religion, and his God, that he passed onto his children That connection to Hashem (God) that he held so dear has been passed onto me. This included his observance of Kol Nidre, where he would daven (pray) so loudly and with so much kavana (intent) that I couldn’t help but look at him in amazement. I would look up at Poppy and wonder how much he had to think of from not only last year but from all the years before. He appreciated that night as a moment of looking back on all he’d done and all the chesseds (kind deeds) he still wanted to do. Kol Nidre is a reminder of how much being a Jew meant to my Poppy and his faith, and how much of an impact one night can have when you are struggling to maintain your identity or even find it.
Identity is also a feeling that for me resonates with Kol Nidre because when you look back on your actions and choices, you are trying to figure out what kind of person you are and how you size up against your community. And in my opinion, no one really embodies the struggle of Jewish identity more than my mother. She grew up on a small settlement in the tropical country of Trinidad and, after working several different jobs in the US, made the decision to convert to Judaism in order to marry my dad. Even after making this decision, several family members disapproved of her because of her skin color and origins, doubting that she would be able to integrate into the Jewish community. However, being the strong woman she is, my mother persevered and learned as much as she could about Judaism, including going with my dad to shul quite often. When my sister and I started Hebrew school, she would listen to us talk about lessons and started throwing Hebrew and Yiddish words into her everyday jargon. But on Yom Kippur, she looks forward to Kol Nidre the most. This was one of the first holidays she experienced when she began learning about Jewish culture. Kol Nidre is separately special to her because of the dedication to tradition. I remember her whispering to me one year during the service that it was as if the room was filled with the good intentions of the people praying and their good deeds to come. I know it wasn’t easy for her, that she faced prejudice and wasn’t taken seriously, and that makes me even more proud of her. My mother gives me a sense of identity for Kol Nidre because when she was struggling to find a place in the community, she found a sense of warmth and understanding that meant so much to her.
Although there are so many people who influence me as a Jew, my mother and grandfather are some of the key people who instilled an appreciation for Jewish culture and encouraged me to learn as much as possible about my identity as a Jew. They inspire me to embrace my background and show pride in the fact that I am a Jew. And honestly, those are really at the heart of what it means to be a Jew in my eyes, that you show pride in your heritage, that you share that pride with your family and community. I consider being Jewish to be a staple of who I am because it has given me an amazing understanding of being involved in something so much greater than just myself. And on Kol Nidre, that special night where I am surrounded by a community who’ve come together to reflect with Hashem, I feel incredibly proud to be one of the voices singing along.