I was recently invited to a luncheon hosted by a Jewish women's organization called “Lions of Judah”. (Reminded me a little of the Women’s Missionary Union in the Baptist Church):
"The Lion of Judah program has brought together women of all ages and from many walks of life in order to play an essential role in creating social justice, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, preserving human dignity and building Jewish identity."
As I am hopelessly WASPy, being raised in the Episcopal Church, I felt a little (okay, a lot) out of place. I have to say, though, that in a previous life I must have been Jewish, because Judaism has been a part of my life since I was a freshman in high school.
My first best friend in Manila was Susan Roth. I spent a lot of time at her house in Parañaque, and by process of osmosis, learned a lot about her family’s faith. It was never an issue to me; most TCKs are accepting of others’ differences, and, indeed, curious about them.
So it wasn’t strange to me that one of the first boys to show an interest in me in Manila was actually Israeli. He had a ridiculously cute accent and his English was filled with mistakes that I thought were adorable. He had dark curly hair, and taught me how to say, “I love you” in Hebrew. He talked about the fact that he would probably be required to serve in the Israeli army someday. It was a reflection of our school’s “internationality” that the group he ran with included Arab and Jewish kids alike. When his family moved back to Israel, another Jewish family in Manila took him in so he could finish high school. It was remarkable to me how the Jewish community in Manila took care of its own. Later on in life I read about how many Jews from Germany and other places in Europe sought refuge in Manila in the late 1930’s, only to find themselves in the clutches of the Japanese. The hardships that the Jews experienced during the war were indescribable. Deplorable, tragic, incomprehensible.
In the first frenetic, exciting days of college in San Antonio,Texas, I met a cute boy who was from Staten Island, New York. We had both ended up at a school that neither wanted to attend; he had been wait-listed at Stanford, and I had desperately wanted to go to William and Mary in Virginia. My parents were in Singapore, his in New York. The attraction was immediate and powerful. And yes, you guessed it: he was Jewish. I fasted with him on Yom Kippur, and listened to his stories about being Bar Mitvahed in Israel. We bonded over our common (gefilte) fish out water-ness.
We dated for nearly 2-1/2 years in college, then for another year after we graduated. It seemed inevitable that we would be together always, but he broke up with me so he could concentrate on his medical career. In a very long, anguished letter, single-spaced and double-sided, he wrote that “It wouldn’t be fair to make you wait for 10 years while I finish my training.” (I thought it was because I wasn't Jewish, but that wasn't the case). Heartbroken, we continued our lives without each other, never forgetting our bond and our connection. Today, due to serendipity and fate, destiny, kismet, whatever you call it, we are married and ridiculously awestruck at this fact. His mother once joked about the “not making me wait 10 years” comment. “It’s not fair that you should make her wait ten years; but it’s okay to make her wait THIRTY years?”
After college, I moved back to Baton Rouge, where my parents had settled after their international days were over. One of my mom’s good friends, Beth, who was closer to my age, became my friend as well. Beth came from a Jewish family in New York; she was a self-proclaimed Jewish American Princess. Beth and Mom used to host the most amazing (and delicious) Passover Seders. Mom celebrated and respected Judaism as if she had been raised in the faith. After my sister died, Mom had given up on God and religion: the whole matzo ball. In her job as an editor at the Graduate School at LSU, Mom met a lot of people. One of her clients was the daughter of the Rabbi at Beth Shalom Synagogue, as she, the daughter, was working on her Masters’ thesis. One day, for whatever reason, the Rabbi himself appeared in her office, and, they began to discuss faith. Mom said, “Oh, Rabbi, I gave up on all that ‘god’ stuff a long time ago.” The wise Rabbi replied, “Well, you should come join us then!”
When I married my first husband in 1987, Beth was one of my bridesmaids. I can only imagine how she felt, standing in the huge Episcopal Church, surrounded by Christianity in all its glory. But she was my friend, and I wanted her to be there for my big day.
Over the years I made several Jewish friends; we seemed to bond in a mysterious way that I never understood, but which I celebrated.
It wasn’t until I attended the Lions of Judah luncheon the other day that I got it.
The speaker at the luncheon was a lovely, dynamic woman named Susan who is a convert to Judaism. She is also an ordained interfaith minister. I had heard about her from my in-laws and have long wanted to meet her. She talked about a 613th commandment (and you thought there was only ten!): “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:19). Susan elaborated that while many Jews see this as a literal writing of a Torah scroll (and many do have actual decorative scrolls written and illustrated), it can also be a commandment to share your own gifts, to contribute to your own community, to preserve the Jewish identity for the generations to come. Susan asked each person to reflect and then share what our personal “gifts” are that we can contribute to our community, to write our own figurative Torah. (Ugh, I thought, I’m only a guest here! Does she really expect me to talk in front of all these strangers?)
When it came my turn, (and thanks to a glass of champagne to calm the nerves) I said that I had grown up moving internationally often and had never really had a true home; that I felt my gift was to reach out to others who grew up like me, homeless, in a sense, to reassure them they are not alone.
Then she said something amazing. She said, “Like the Jews who wandered for 40 years in the desert, without a home to speak of, you offer that sense of ‘home’ to others who have wandered like you. That is your contribution to your community: by sharing your experiences, you share your meaning of home. Your community is your home.”
I would never in a million years pretend that being a TCK should in any way, shape or form, be compared to the tribulations of the Jewish people over the millennia. But going back in history to those days when the Jews lived in the desert, wandering from pillar to post, waiting for a new generation to evolve before returning to the Promised Land, I can see a parallel. It wasn’t the Jews’ choice to be in the desert. What sustained them all those long, dry years was the sense of community, and the continuity of their People. Their community was their home, even if their physical “home” was non-existent. Like the Jews, TCKs find their sense of “home” in the community of others like them.
It all makes sense now.