When I was a little girl, I ate Matzah because I was Jewish, and my mother sent me to Hebrew school once a week to understand that I wasn’t Christian. My classmates went to day school together, and I only saw them once a week, and they had last names that included a ‘berg, a ‘stein, a ‘gold or sometimes all three! And my last name was Livadas, which is Greek. Needless to say, I couldn’t help but feel like the odd-one-out.
I celebrated Hanukkah, but I also celebrated Christmas. You see, my mother is Jewish, and my father is a strong Christian. In Hebrew school, I always felt like I didn’t belong, and I wasn’t even sure why I was there and why I was supposed to care about any of this in the first place. I’m sure you’re catching on that my relationship to my Judaism has been a bit confusing since the beginning.
I have always been a person who needs a reason–a reason to believe, a reason to support, a reason to follow. While I have always felt a sense of internal pride for my Jewish Identity, I still needed this whole Jewish thing to make sense to me, or I was never going to truly care and make Judaism a part of my life. Yet, I had my Bat Mitzvah, and as many Jewish Americans, I viewed this as a graduation into American teenhood, and not a right of passage.
As time went on and I started high school, my curiosity towards Judaism stayed present, but I still didn’t understand it, so I kept it at arm’s length. All the while, my mother was in my ear telling me that one day my Judaism would matter to me, and one day I would want to marry a Jewish man. I looked at her and said, “oh, like you did?!” And in true Nicole fashion, I told her I didn’t care about any of those things–especially religion and that I would marry whoever my heart fell in love with.
So, I go to college, I know Birthright Israel exists, but I didn’t apply, because honestly, I didn’t care. Then, at 23-years-old I was working full time, and felt like I needed a break, so I decided to apply, but I sent my application in towards the very end of the deadline, and it turns out there were no more trips available, and my application was rejected.
That instance helped further the narrative that I was not part of the Jewish community, and I didn’t need to care about my Judaism.
Over the next few years, while I didn’t seek out Judaism in any specific way, I did feel an increasing pull to incorporate Judaism into my life. And one day, someone I knew told me Birthright Israel had extended its gift to the age of 32. I was 32. I knew that it was now or never – I needed to take this chance and see if I could find the answers to the questions I have had since I was a child in Hebrew school; do I belong in the Jewish community? What does my Judaism mean to me? Why should I care?
So I applied to a Birthright Israel 27-32-year-old trip.
I was accepted, and, of course, I went! I could never have imagined what happened on this trip. I was expecting to have fun, meet some decent people, eat some hummus, and learn a few things. But there’s something magical about the Birthright Israel experience that I can’t quite quantify that made me fall in love with the land of Israel. I made best friends, had the time of my life, saw myself in others, and learned things about myself I would never have any other way.
There were two main experiences on my trip this summer that provided me the answers I have been seeking all of this time.
The only thing they don’t schedule on these trips is sleep. So seeing a 9 AM speech on the itinerary was certainly not something that gave me a big sense of joy. Yet, the hour I spent listening to Avraham Infeld speak turned out to be one of the most profound moments of my life. If you don’t know Avraham Infeld’s work, I suggest you look him up. Avarham says that the Jews are a peoplehood, not a religion and that there are so many ways in which a person can be Jewish. For instance, Judaism can be looked at as a 5-legged table; a 5-legged table does not need all five legs to stay standing; it can still stand on three. Thus, if a person practices three of the five legs of Judaism, they are part of the Jewish community.
For the first time, I realized I wasn’t the “Bad Jew or “Jew-ish” like I kept thinking I was. At that moment, I was able to see myself as a Jewish person within the beautifully eclectic Jewish community, the community that I have always had, and I always will. And I finally understood that my Judaism was something I owned, and it could grow and change and evolve with me.
And so two questions were answered.
On the last day of the trip, we took an impromptu walk to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Towards the end of the visit, our wonderful tour educator, Amir, gave us some free time to explore. I decided to take a walk over to the sculpture garden I saw when we arrived. It was a very hot day, but the moment I entered this garden, I was provided cool shade from the tall trees and a breeze flowing in. I was completely alone in the garden, and it felt like bashert.
I saw this massive structure shooting out of the ground on a hill overlooking the city. I was captivated, so I decided I would spend the rest of my time there contemplating what this piece of art meant to me.
It was roots.
Silver, seemingly proud roots, reaching towards the sky, but so clearly strong in its determination to stay rooted. What I learned from this piece of art is that my roots are deep, yet they are exposed. I am tied to my people by our shared memory. The way in which I see this world, the way in which I move in this world and the way in which I react to this world are all deeply impacted by the history of my people. I’ve always known this, but my hands are now and will forever be, grasping the roots of my people tighter than ever before.
My roots are deep, but they can be seen in all that I am and all that I do, and, of that, I am proud.
My last question was answered.
When I got home from my Birthright Israel trip, I called my mother. I told her that my Judaism, marrying a Jewish man, and raising a Jewish family will now be the most important things in my life, and we cried.
Lastly, I’m ecstatic to announce that two months ago, I was able to marry the man that my heart fell in love with, and he just so happens to be a wonderful Jewish-Israeli man. We are happily working towards building our Jewish family.
Birthright Israel gave me a gift, a gift of understanding myself, and I will cherish this gift for the rest of my life.