In first grade a boy asked me, “Are you Catholic or Jewish?” Because my mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic, I told him I was both. “You cannot be both,” he said. My parents had always told me that I could practice more than one religion, but now my religious beliefs were being questioned. As a timid first grader, I nervously replied, “Well then I am neither.”
Growing up in a predominately Jewish community with a “Christian” last name raised a lot of eyebrows. I became frustrated because everybody else seemed to have their religious path laid out for them. My friends all went to religious school weekly, spoke Hebrew, and celebrated their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at age thirteen. However, I was the girl who went to temple for the “High Holidays” but also decorated eggs at Easter. Rather than having a split identity, I decided religion was too complex of an issue and therefore would simply not be a part of my life at all.
It was not until the winter of 2003, when my family and I traveled to Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, that I reevaluated that decision.
Our first day in Myanmar, we visited a large monastery. The ceilings were twenty feet high and candles placed around the room illuminated the red robes draped over the shoulders of hundreds of monks. Each monk sat on his knees, bent over in prayer and reading. Only the sound of turning pages filled the room. Ten thousand miles away from where I grew up, religion was not some abstract idea or label. For the monks, religion provided stability, comfort, a sense of community, a refuge from the filth on the city streets, and a life filled with structure and hope. The scene at the monastery forced me to rethink my stance on religion.
Now that I am almost eighteen, I reply to the same religious question, “Which one are you?” by responding “Both.” I have come to understand that the tension with which I grew up, of being neither exclusively a Jew nor a Christian, and not knowing what faith I would follow, has turned into a source of strength. Not growing up with a simple religious label has left me open to exploring new ideas and becoming a more tolerant and accepting person. I cannot be defined simply by one religion. And I certainly will not let how others see me overcome my personal identity. Instead, I will maintain my thirst for knowledge and a quest for understanding. By attending the University of Wisconsin, I can use my experience and background to enrich the community, while at the same time I can learn from and share in the school’s diverse student body and rich heritage.
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