I attended public schools all my life, but sensing a cultural connection, I gravitated toward other Jewish kids as friends. In the tenth grade, though, I became friends with Kyle, a handsome and engaging senior. We enjoyed talking about books, politics and life. We often had lunch together, sitting on the grass under a shady tree. One day Kyle seemed a little nervous, then stammered a bit before asking me to go out on a date. At fifteen, I was so young and naïve that his question shocked me. In my mind we were just buddies and could never be anything else. Kyle’s family was Italian-Catholic, and despite my family’s lack of ritual observance, I knew I could never date a non-Jew. Anyway, I was too young to date.
Kyle reacted to my refusal with anger. Religion was nothing more than tribalism, he fumed, accusing me of bigotry. My heart pounded during his tirade, but with every word Kyle reinforced my certainty that my Jewish identity was non-negotiable.
How had I developed such a strong sense of self as a Jew? It was by no means inevitable. My two sets of grandparents were polar opposites: the Cohens were religious immigrants from Europe. The Rosenfelds were atheist-agnostic, and their home didn’t feature a Kiddush cup, even as a cultural token on display. My grandparents influenced me greatly in different, though equally formative ways. I loved them all. Given my Cohen grandparents’ somberness, particularly my Nana’s perpetual anxiety over life’s dangers, rejecting their religiosity could have been tempting. Following the path set by my livelier, secular, eclectic Rosenfeld grandparents had definite allure.
Still, when I watched Papa Cohen chant Kiddush on Friday night in his elegant Shabbat suit, I felt glimmerings of holiness in the air. I was touched as he sang “Maoz Tzur” after lighting our family menorah, standing next to our four-foot-high wooden star of David that my mother wrapped in shiny aluminum foil, a string of shimmery blue and white letters spelling Happy Hanukah! taped to the mantlepiece. I knew so little about our history and our laws, but I sensed eternity within them.
The Conservative shul we attended also fortified my Jewish identity. After my older brother died in a car accident when he was seventeen and I was nine, grief hung like a dark cloud over my home life. The kind teachers, staff and rabbi made me feel socially and emotionally nurtured for the rest of my formative years: as a student in Hebrew School, a USY member and later, youth group leader, assistant teacher and stalwart member of the high school drama club. I didn’t know much Torah, but I equated Judaism with warmth and fulfillment.
In my teen years I saw how assimilation was pulling most other young Jews I knew away from whatever slivers of Jewish tradition their families practiced. I began to share my Cohen grandparents’ anxieties about assimilation. Papa Cohen had emigrated from Poland from an Orthodox home and became a highly respected rabbi in the Conservative movement in the U.S., devoting his life to Jewish education, scholarship, counseling and even serving on in the Conservative Beit Din. I felt his pain at seeing this slippery slope, the pain of realizing that the liberalized Judaism he was sure could have staying power in a tantalizingly free American society was failing.
In my senior year at UC Berkeley, I came home to Los Angeles during Sukkot and went to shul with Papa Friday night. At the kiddush afterward, Papa steered me from where I was standing on one end of the sukkah to the other end, stopping in front of one of his friends.
“Meyer, this is my granddaughter. She is the editor of the Jewish newspaper at Berkeley!” Papa, a prolific writer for Jewish newspapers himself, made this announcement with such a beaming expression and bursting pride that I became choked up. I was the only one of his four surviving grandchildren involved in Jewish life. I was driven to pursue Jewish journalism out of my own ambition, but it was also deeply important to me to show Papa that I would continue to carry the light of Judaism forward. I would not let him down.
Five years after Papa died, I was a newly married baalat teshuvah, committed to a level of Jewish observance that would have appalled my Rosenfeld grandparents but thrilled—if not startled—my Cohen grandparents. Despite my overwhelmingly positive Jewish involvements, choosing a Torah life was the most wrenching decision of my life. I feared the constraints of so many mitzvot, even of losing my individuality. Yet having experienced the compelling truth and joy of this life, I voted for a level of Jewish observance my Cohen grandparents had left in Europe.
My grandparents now have fourteen great-great-grandchildren, eleven of them being raised in Shomer Shabbat homes. Two—Dov Ber and Chana Ettil—are named after Papa and Nana Cohen. Their dedication to Yiddishkeit lives on. Each child adds another light in our family’s figurative menorah. Each child has been named for an ancestor, fulfilling the fervent hopes and dreams of those who came before.
Judy Gruen is the author of several books, including The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith. Her next book, Bylines and Blessings: Overcoming Obstacles, Striving for Excellence, and Redefining Success, will be published in February 2024. She is also a book editor and regularly featured columnist for the Jewish Journal.