An unexpected answer

18-year-old Cheryl with Aunt Ruthie and cousin Ellen
(along with Uncle Sam and cousins Ricky and Allen)

At last night’s Women’s Passover Seder, the leader posed the question, “Which woman/women from your life had the biggest influence on you (Judaically speaking)?” The first participant spoke about her mother. Pondering the question for myself, my mind turned to my own mother. No doubt, she has influenced me in many ways, the vast majority of which I’m truly grateful for, but she’d be the first to tell you that she had little to do with my present-day observance of Judaism. The next participant spoke about her grandmother. And so my mind turned to my 95-year-old Gram from the Bronx and my Grandma Lil, who I only knew for a few years before Alzheimer’s transformed her into a stranger. I learned a LOT of Yiddish from Gram; I didn’t realize how much I knew until I started having regular conversations with Jewish people outside my family. “You probably don’t know all these words I’m using. They’re Yiddish,” an older someone from my community once said. “Actually, I do,” I responded in surprise. But how? I thought to myself. And then I remembered how my Gram, when I was younger, would give me a rough English translation after every Yiddish word and phrase she used. Eventually – unknowingly – they became part of my vocabulary. According to my dad, I would have learned equally as much about Jewish cooking from my Grandma Lil, but by the time I was old enough to understand, let alone appreciate, the meaning of her keeping a Kosher kitchen, she was too far gone for me to learn from her. She did take me to synagogue for the very first time, but I was so young that the only thing I remember about the experience was the Stella Dora cookie I ate there. Her sister, my great-aunt Rose, popped into my mind next, as I remembered that her kugel was the first one I ever tried. Aunt Rose, Uncle Arnie, and their daughter Barbara gave me my first taste (that I can remember) of Jewish observance, as I watched Barbara’s oldest son, who wore a kippah (yarmulke), wash his hands and say a blessing before our meal. Would my answer then be my aunt? Or would it be my Great Aunt Ruthie or my cousin Ellen, both of whom introduced me to the rituals of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? As I discussed it with Hubby later in the evening, I realized that while these strong Jewish women were definitely influences, my answer was surprisingly not them.

We’re on a camel!

The woman who was the biggest influence on my Jewish identity was a young college student who was virtually a stranger to me. Last minute, Rachel was “randomly” placed as my third roommate on our Birthright Israel trip. Nervous about accidentally offending our other, Orthodox roommate with my lack of knowledge about Judaism, I relied on Rachel to answer my questions about keeping Shabbat, which she did with the utmost patience and respect, never once making me feel as stupid as I was afraid I sounded. At services, she explained the unfamiliar prayers that I now say from memory every weekend. She unlocked for me what I thought could only be accessed with a key given to you at Hebrew school.

Rachel and I remained friends after we returned to the States. Continuing to live Jewishly together on the University of Florida campus, Rachel helped me host my very first Passover Seder, guiding me through the foreign rituals, and helped me navigate the dining hall so that I didn’t accidentally eat anything I shouldn’t. After college, Rachel introduced me to Temple life, and years later, I was by her side as a bridesmaid in her Jewish wedding, as she was by my side at mine.

Had I had a roommate who was not as open as Rachel, not as patient and understanding and nonjudgmental, I might not have had the same Jewish experience, might not be living Jewishly the way I do today. And so it is to Rachel that I raise my Manischewitz, with sincere gratitude for her selfless sharing of knowledge and the hope that I can pay it forward.

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