After one week of living and working in China, with three more weeks to go, I came upon the sight I had been waiting to see, and felt my heart skip a beat.
It wasn’t the Great Wall, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
It wasn’t Tian’an Men Square, where blood was shed in the quest for democracy.
It wasn’t the Water Cube, where swimming superstar Michael Phelps made Olympic history.
It was the sight of a curly-haired woman, searching for the community-led Kabbalat Shabbat service being held in the Capital Club building in Beijing’s bustling Chaoyang District. It was another wandering Jew. And for the first time since I had flown 8,000 miles away from New York, I felt like I was home.
As I took my seat in the community room and picked up my siddur, I knew that I wanted to sing each and every one of the Shabbat songs that I rush through, or ignore completely, on Friday nights at home. My kids are always hungry, my husband is exhausted, and frankly, I’m hungry and tired too. But here, without anyone’s needs to cater to other than my own, I was going to fully enjoy the Extended Play versions of Veshamru, Shalom Aleichem, and Lecha Dodi. I was going to make sure that God heard my thank yous for the blessings of getting me to China safely, for watching over my family, and for bringing me to a community of my people so far away from my regular "my people". Oh yes, I was going to sing it, sister.
But as soon as I started singing, I started to cry.
Not the kind of wet, heaving sobs that erupt from me every single time I watch Terms of Endearment (that part when Debra Winger tells her little boy that she’s not going to live…I can’t even type this without starting to get choked up.) Luckily, it was a slow, silent welling of tears that I could pretend was the result of a week living in one of the most polluted cities in the world, and perhaps a little post-flight post-nasal drip. I could fool the fellow sitting next to me. But I wasn’t fooling myself.
I was overwhelmed. For a week I had been surrounded by a language I couldn’t speak, understand, or read. I was living in a culture that had social customs that didn’t make sense (spitting!) and constructs that made my life challenging (squat toilets!). I was out of place and out of my comfort zone. I was functionally and culturally illiterate.
I wasn’t crying because of that. Nor was I crying because I missed my family and my home, which I certainly did. I was crying because, as the first familiar strains of Shabbat songs left my lips, I realized that I knew how to be Jewish. And having spent the first 20 years of my life as a functionally and culturally illiterate Jew, this was no laughing matter.
Despite the fact that in my professional life, I coach and train Jewish professionals and lay leaders from synagogues and Federations to schools and agencies, I never felt Jewish enough. Sure, for my work, I speak about Moses’ leadership style, and share relevant wisdom from Pirkei Avot, and all that Jewish jazz. But I was raised without any formal Jewish education, and it wasn’t until college that I came to learn anything at all about Judaism. After college, I made a commitment to engage more actively in Jewish life, and as a kinesthetic learner, I chose to learn by doing. I did Shabbat, I did the holidays, I did kashrut, I did…I did…I did.
But just like first my week in China, I felt completely overwhelmed by Judaism. Learning to feel more Jewish was like trying to climb the Great Wall – insurmountable, enormous, endless. I was confronted by Hebrew, a language I couldn’t speak, understand, or read. I was living in a culture that had social customs that didn’t make sense to me. I recall visiting a friend who was sitting shiva for his mother, and he was sitting in a low chair, as is the tradition for those in mourning. If my expensive Columbia University Social Work education taught me anything, it was to "be where the client is," so I inadvertently took the low chair right next to him, to connect more closely. I didn’t know it was reserved for his sister, the other mourner. I didn’t know why I was getting strange, even hostile looks. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I was also faced with choices that made my life more challenging (what, no bacon? Shrimp scampi – out? Like, forever?). I was out of place and out of my comfort zone. Like living in Beijing, I was functionally and culturally illiterate.
All of my doing still never quite felt like "feeling," knowing" or even "being". At every synagogue service, as I struggled to read the prayers written in what looked to me like an off-price brand of aleph-bet soup, I wondered, "am I Jewish enough yet?" At every holiday, when my mother- or father-in-law reminded us "so, the tradition is…," I knew that I was the only one at the table who really needed reminding.
For a self-diagnosed know-it-all like me, it’s a daily struggle to live in a Jewish world where I feel like a foreigner — a phony native. It’s all relative, I realize. I know more than my parents know. But I know significantly less than my nine-year old twins do, who, by fourth grade at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County, can speak Hebrew like young Sabras, read Torah like I used to read Judy Blume, and understand everything my husband says to them in Hebrew when I suspect (hope!) that they are talking about what they’re getting me for Chanukah.
But. But when I helped my son Jacob with his Hebrew reading last month, and corrected him when he misread a word, I realized that my doing was becoming knowing. When I said, "look again, it’s a raysh, not a dalet" Jacob ‘s jaw dropped as if I just announced that I’d had a second, secret family for years, whom I’d been visiting on all my "business trips." "How did you know that?" he asked, stunned." Dunno. Just did. Now read it again" I brushed it off, acting like it was no big deal. It was a huge deal.
So here I was in China, culturally and functionally illiterate once again – at least in the eyes of the 1.3 billion people who live here. I couldn’t summon medical help if I got hurt, or yell for the police if I got robbed. Heck, I didn’t even know how to order bottled water in a restaurant. But I had made a point to learn to say "bu schiro" (I don’t want meat) at any restaurant so I could order vegetarian foods, avoiding trayf. I had found out where the Chabad House and the community congregation were, and where the one kosher restaurant was, in case I absolutely, positively, had to have some schnitzel. These small acts made me feel Jewish enough.
And apparently, I had learned enough to sing the songs that people sing to say thank you. Not just any people. My people. Last Friday night in Beijing, as I sang (and wept) in Hebrew, praying to a God I’m getting to know, and feeling like I totally and completely belonged there, I realized that my personal "Great Wall" wasn’t too big to climb. Even as I celebrate my monumental achievement, and look forward to the miles (and miles and miles and miles) of the journey ahead, I know that I am already Jewish enough.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at www.myjewishcoach.com or www.elevatedtraining.com.