By Anya Sczerzenie
Throughout my life, whenever the subject of Judaism came up, I always said, “well I’m Jewish… sort of.”
I wasn’t sure whether I was allowed to claim to be Jewish, or whether I was even allowed to feel like I was. Like many people, I was born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father– both excellent parents.
My dad grew up Catholic, my mom Jewish, but when I and my sister were born they decided to raise us almost entirely non-religious.
The one exception was Hannukah, which we celebrated every winter– alongside a secular Christmas. We went to Passover Seders only a few times. I never had a Bat Mitzvah, but went to both my cousins’.
My first encounter with a Synagogue service was at my oldest cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. When we were at my cousins’ house one time, I mistakenly thought that ‘Kosher’ meant ‘you can’t have cream cheese’ (which was probably the most wrong assumption I’ve ever made) and that my cousins were trying to trick me into eating it to get me in trouble. I vividly remember that I put butter on my bagel that morning.
My mother passed away when I was quite young, so my second time in a Synagogue was at her funeral service. We only went back to that Synagogue once, then never again.
And for years I didn’t really think about my Jewishness at all. I felt left out because a lot of my friends were Catholic, and always talked about youth group and church retreats and getting confirmed. Some of them weren’t exactly excited about those things, but still– they had them.
When I was a teenager I thought that my lack of a Bat Mitzvah made me a non-valid Jew– like when you fail to pass the MCAT so you don’t get to be a doctor.
Fast-forward to my senior year of college, when the pandemic was making normal activities inaccessible for me. I am a journalism major and was looking around campus for someone to interview for a story when I saw the Jewish VCU table. I went up to them just to talk, and ended up signing up for their email list.
I felt sort of sad that I hadn’t jumped on the first opportunity to have Shabbat dinners back when we didn’t all have to sit six feet apart with masks on. I could have been doing that for three years! But freshman year, I didn’t feel like I would have belonged there, so I never took the initiative to join.
Rosh Hashanah Dinner
I went to the Rosh Hashanah dinner (a holiday I’d only celebrated once before), and immediately realized that not only had some people grown up just like me– without much Jewish knowledge in their lives– but no one cared that I didn’t know anything.
I still got a box with an apple and challah and honey, and I said the blessing along with everyone else, not getting the words exactly right. I was in.
But now what?
I kept going to activities, like Yom Kippur and Sukkot services in the tent in front of the Student Commons. I got free snacks, and met people, and when Chana Friedman (the wife of JewishVCU’s Rbbi) offered to give me Hebrew lessons, I jumped at the chance.
Not only did I want to learn something I’d never learned growing up, but I wanted to learn to read another language. I had tried to do that with French in high school, and I barely remember “je mange une pomme,” so maybe being taught one-on-one would work better for me.
We began lessons on Wednesday mornings, and I learned the letters within about two sessions. The vowels took a few more. Soon, I was reading words. I didn’t know what they meant, of course, but I could read them.
The lessons began to be something I looked forward to, a social interaction in the time of pandemic and a chance to learn something new. More than that, it was something that belonged to me. Even though I’d never learned it before, it wasn’t too late to try.
Chana also answered a lot of my questions about things that were not Hebrew letters, like what a lulav is for and why Jewish people omit the ‘o’ from the word G-d. They were things I’d never asked anyone before, but I felt like it was okay to ask questions– since I was there to learn, anyway.
One conversation I had with Chana during a lesson is something I recall very well.
That day, we were reading Hebrew from a prayer book. I was reading the phrase “b’mitz votav” and I stopped.
“My mom always read this like ‘b’mitz vo-sav’” I said. “I remember that from when she read Hanukkah prayers with us when I was really little.”
Chana was surprised that I remembered that. She explained to me that the Hebrew letters ‘sav’ and ‘tav’ can be pronounced the same way. How people pronounce it is often just a matter of what they grew up hearing.
“Okay, let’s read it your mother’s way,” she said when I went back to read over it again.
I went back to the page and kept reading. I couldn’t explain it, but at that moment I felt really connected to something.
Even though I only have one more semester left after this one, I plan to go to as many Jewish VCU events as I can. I wish, of course, that I had joined it three years ago.
But I have learned that it’s never too late to start.
Editors Note: Anya Sczerzenie is a native of Leesburg and is in the Class of 2021 at VCU.She is a staff writer with the school’s Commonwealth Times and a digital journalism major.