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My Reconciliation with the A-Word

My Reconciliation with the A-Word

By Justin Schnell

2014-03-13-381066_2796593354550_1117327019_nTwo months before my Bar Mitzvah, I secretly went to my computer and googled “don’t believe in God.” I was driven to Google when I realized that I just didn’t believe in any of the ideals I was memorizing. Little did I know, there were people who called themselves Atheists. I read about them and their ideas matched my own beliefs. I didn’t share my discovery with anyone. I knew it didn’t matter. As a Schnell, I always knew that I would have to become a Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t fight my inevitable ceremony.

Both my parents had gone through the passage of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and were excited to keep the family tradition alive when I turned thirteen. I hated it. As a kid, I didn’t know what to think of the ideals I learned in Hebrew school or at synagogue. Could there really be a God? Could there be someone who controls the world and is responsible for all the poverty, wars and deaths ? If so, why celebrate such a figure?  I fought going to synagogue whenever the time came, telling my parents that I shouldn’t have to go if I don’t believe in the Jewish ideals. Of course, my dad would say “You don’t have to believe them, but you have to be there with your family.”

I never listened. I thought it was stupid. As 7th grade approached, I began studying for my Torah portion, Mishpatim, or ‘Laws’. I hated writing my speech about pointless laws. The more I read and wrote, the more I felt like that A-word.  I got through it by refusing to relate to what I would be preaching and merely memorizing all of my lines so that I didn’t have to hear all the nonsense I was studying. This decision changed my life. Looking back, I reconciled with the idea that the ceremony was an acceptance into my new community and culture and not any kind of affirmation of my beliefs about the world. Now, when I go to synagogue, I don’t sit there thinking everything is stupid. I appreciate the fact that I am surrounded by hundreds of people with the same background as I, all who are glad to be a part of the Jewish community. Come Bar Mitzvah day, I got out of bed excited, performed beautifully in front of the supportive community and joined my friends at the party afterwards, completing one of the best days of my life.

To this day, I do not call myself an Atheist. I am a Jew who questions his religion’s ideals, but understands the importance of being a part of a community with a rich culture. I push my younger brother to read what he is preaching in synagogue and help him with his Torah portion so that one day, he will be a part of the same community. Had I refused this initiation, I wouldn’t be a member of the Jewish community. Everyone needs to feel at home somewhere, be a part of something bigger than yourself, and more importantly, have a community that acts as your second family.

Justin Schnell is a graduate of The Dalton School and is currently a freshman at The University of Michigan.

Cultural Combo: Bullfight and Bat Mitzvah

by Hannah Kliot

Imagine James Holmes, the man responsible for the Aurora shooting,  thrown into an Olympic-size stadium and stabbed by men on horses to the cheers of thousands of spectators. If that seems too brutal for someone who murdered twelve people, why is the massacre of an innocent bull worthy of a cheering crowd?

I could not escape this question in Portugal. I am a Portuguese-American – or, as some call me, the only Portuguese Jew that they have ever met. I was in for a shock when my cousin invited me to a bullfight while I was working in Lisbon for the summer on my own. While initially hesitant to witness the barbaric cheering of an innocent bull’s death, my curiosity and endless fascination with different cultures overcame my hesitation.

I met my cousin at the front of Campo Pequeno, the bullfighting arena, with my 10 euro ticket in hand. The plain-looking door belied what was behind it: a huge stadium lined with food vendors and excited spectators roaming the endless halls in search of their seats. It was the NFL or NASCAR of Portugal – people argued over seats and tickets and cheered loudly for their favorite cavaleiro, or horseback rider, before the fight.

The excitement was infectious; I could not resist it. I tried to imagine my mom at my age. She grew up in Lisbon and went to bullfights most Thursdays. For her, this tradition was akin to my family’s weekly ritual of exploring a restaurant in a different neighborhood. I probably inherited my innate distaste for bullfights from my dad’s side of the family; his mother is Australian and his father was Latvian. Both sides have inspired my perpetual thirst to understand different cultural customs. So naturally, I sat in the stadium consumed with a question: How can people watch the maiming of an animal as casually as Americans watch Eli Manning throw a football?

I came close to finding an answer to my question during the intermission. A young man no older than 25 approached and hugged my cousin. I immediately recognized him as one of the cavaleiros who had been fighting in the arena just minutes before. My cousin then spoke with an older man who looked strong and proud as the young man ran back to prepare for his second round of the fight. Later, she explained that the older man was the boy’s father who was a very successful cavaleiro when he was younger. Their families had an endless line of cavaleiros tracing back for centuries and it was a deep-rooted family tradition and a considerable honor in both their family and in their town to be brave enough to fight what was considered such a wild animal.

I looked at this alien young man in his gold embroidered costume and thought about how different we were. Then, with a wave of surprise, I realized that maybe we were not so different after all. I saw hints of myself in the young cavaleiro’s commitment to family heritage. I expressed this same respect for the other side of my family with my decision to have a Bat Mitzvah in honor of my grandfather. A Holocaust survivor, his Jewish lineage was of great importance to him and therefore to me, even though my mother is not Jewish.

A few months before the big celebration, my grandfather passed away. I chose to continue to study for my Bat Mitzvah – I knew it was what he would have wanted. In both scenarios of the bullfight and the decision to continue studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I gained a newfound understanding and appreciation for the cultures that make up who I am. While I am not going to be the next cavaleiro or a devout Jew, my appetite to probe and understand both cultures and society beyond normal expectations will continue to shape my identity.

Hannah Kliot, a 2013 graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Northwestern University in the Fall.

Hanging up the Badge

by Nicholas Jacobson

I glance at my watch. How much longer must I endure this crime against humanity? The repulsive noise tortures my ears. The simultaneous sound of Jewish prayer at Temple Emanuel cannot relieve the pain. I am the Serpico of gum, the chief of police of lip smacking, a ruthless tyrant in upholding this simple yet all-important law: “Thou shalt not smack thy lips when thou chewest gum.” The people even call me “Nick Castro” as I enforce the edict with an iron fist.

The time has come for me to fulfill my obligation to bring justice to this holy temple. For all I know, I am at a stable observing the cattle during lunchtime. Everyone knows that mastication obstructs tradition!

“Brian, for heaven’s sake, what are you doing? You sound like a damn mule. Try chewing like a normal person,” I whisper with the rage of a Trojan Spartan.

The eyes of my good friend Brian fix on me as he tries to incite fear. The duel begins. Silence prevails in the breathless vacuum that is the synagogue. The hostility of the showdown rivals that of a bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. However, in an instant, tension breaks as we both erupt into laughter, disregarding the Haphtarah in the background.

I once hated going to temple for the High Holidays with my family or to a bar mitzvah. It was easy for my attention to drift to my duty as the sergeant general of silencing horse chomping noises. I dismissed biblical stories as anecdotes with literary value, but was skeptical when rabbis imposed them as truth. It was mysterious to me that the members of my congregation turned to fairy tales as the guideposts of morality. I seemed to be the only one dumbfounded when my outrageous rabbi once tied a story of Moses to losing his car keys.

Despite my impatience with my rabbi, I can’t escape the influence of Judaism in my own life. My rabbi’s message struck me during his Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2009. “Religion and tradition are the backbone of discipline,” he said.

My subconscious immersion in Jewish culture instilled much of my discipline to achieve goals. I tamed myself to sit in services without looking for gum chewers. At 15, I forced myself not to bend my finger while playing a bar chord on the guitar. After six years on the football team, I no longer bit on play action calls as a linebacker. I now study Spanish vocab everyday for ten minutes instead of cramming for two hours before a test in my toughest subject. My discipline stems from the strong role of tradition in my life.

For years, I trained myself to endure the tradition of my family’s Sunday night dinner. The ritual includes my grandparents coming over for my mom’s home-cooked meals. My survival required the discipline to sport manners and respectful responses rather than go ballistic at times. The night begins with small talk about my sister’s horseback riding and my football team. Chat escalates to chaos in a matter of minutes. Conversation becomes a hazardous war zone. My grandpa asks me to play backgammon while my grandma interrupts to tell me about the seven different types of dipping sauces for the artichokes at Elio’s. “Excuse me” and “pardon me” are more infrequently heard than Mel Gibson’s blessing over the candles. Some people believe chivalry died in the twenty first century. I know it was murdered with an ice pick. Eventually, real debate ensues, ranging from Michael Vick to Rick Perry.

A few weeks ago, my sister was chomping the brisket at Sunday night dinner. The meeting of her lips created an earthquake with a loud sonic blast. Would I really allow my sister to distract me from the conversation over the debt ceiling? No, Nick Castro hung up his beret and put away his New York Gum Patrol badge a long time ago.

Nicholas Jacobson is a Freshman at Northwestern University and a 2012 graduate of The Dalton School.