I used to love Purim when I was growing up. Mom always came up with the cutest Mishloach Manot for my friends, from candy-filled plastic hearts to sweet little ceramic Claire’s boxes. When the holiday fell on a Sunday, my parents would both be home and the table would look like a garden of cellophane-wrapped baskets. We’d stay up late the night before packing in an assembly line, and the next day I’d drive with Dad around the neighborhood to deliver the gifts. He’d lift up his windshield wipers and cover the tops of them with gloves. Then he’d turn the switch and the makeshift hands would wave. Instead of Jewish music, he’d play Led Zeppelin and drive up and down the neighborhood streets. The tunes shouted from the windows, becoming the soundtrack for the costumed families frolicking up and down the streets. I’d watch them through the window. They’d wave and smile as our blue sedan drove by.
The last Purim I celebrated was my freshman year of college. Interestingly enough, it was the furthest I had ever been from home during a holiday. My friends and I—Jewish and non-Jewish—dressed up and went to a huge carnival that Chabad was throwing. We were in the middle of Nowheresville but there was music, games, and all the food you could ever want.
It’s been a while since anything resembling that has happened on Purim. This year I stayed in and watched Mad Men reruns in my pajamas. Instagram fed me a slew of pictures of family and friends dressed up. In between Don Draper’s affairs, I double-tapped each one. Like.
Growing up in an observant home, I learned that being Jewish meant you just did certain things. I never questioned it. Shabbat happened every week and it was normal not to watch television or drive the car. Holidays were filled with beautiful traditions and family. But now that I live away from home, and am not sure I believe in religion at all, being Jewish doesn’t mean being religious the way it used to.
Without consciously deciding to, I drifted away from community and observance. Part of me is happy about that—even before I left, I knew I didn’t quite fit in. There was no one for me to discuss literature with or argue over the arts. I’d sit on the floor of used bookshops by myself while my friends hung out at the mall. As soon as school—our common denominator—vanished, so did our bond. And yet, another part of me feels bad that Purim came and went without a single sparkle of the delight and fun it once held for me. I’ve been on a religious roller-coaster for most of my life, and in my twenties—on the cusp of adulthood—it has become even more difficult.
So now I am faced with the task of redefining observance.
The meat of observance, for me, lies in two things: culture and community. What I believe, or don’t believe, about where the bible came from doesn’t have to disrupt my connection to Judaism. Realizing that I don’t have to practice religion the way my family does has helped me to reconcile my nostalgia for my childhood with my discomfort with traditional observance. If I want to, I can still spend Purim with my family, or call up an old friend and ask if I can latch onto her plans. Culture is about tradition and the group of people you belong to, and that has little to do with theology and faith.
In terms of seeking out a new community: I haven’t found one that’s quite right for me, yet. Many of the people I grew up with, if they left home at all, left for the Upper West Side or Washington heights. I chose the East Village. I don’t know where my generation of culturally-identified, secular Jews is going. But for now, I am coming to realize that despite the choices I have made, I can hold onto the parts I want and still call myself observant, without feeling like I am lying or cheating. I can create new traditions, keep old ones, and find new communities and friends. I can have my own garden of cellophane-wrapped baskets.
Daniella Bondar is a MFA Creative Writing Nonfiction student at The New School. Wandering New Yorker. Insomniac. She’s working on a memoir about her gold dress phobia. Follow her on twitter and find her writing at DaniellaRobin.com.
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