School in Jerusalem – Azariah Horowitz

After high school, I spent a few months in Jerusalem learning Herbew in an Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language program for new immigrants and Palestinians entering the Israeli university system. After growing up in a majority white, Catholic neighborhood in the Midwest, it was a huge and exhilarating change to suddenly be surrounded by classmates from Turkey, East Jerusalem, and Siberia. I quickly found that I was learning just as much from my peers as from my teachers.

One of the first big changes I experienced in moving to Israel was that I was suddenly in the religious majority. All of a sudden, most people around me were Jewish, had grown up with the same holidays as I did, and shared many of the same customs.

But within this basic oneness, as I spent more time in Israel the beauty of Jewish diversity became more and more visible to me. In the chaos of the Central Bus Station on Friday afternoons as everyone scrambled to catch a ride home for Shabbat, I remember pausing to take in the wonder of it all: huge religious families, young secular travelers with their overstuffed daypacks, and Chabad volunteers handing out Shabbat candles to all the women rushing by, Yemenite, French, Ethiopian, and Ukranian.

I quickly began to grasp how much more diverse Jews are than I could have imagined growing up in the US, where the vast majority of Jews are Ashkenazi (of Eastern European descent). In this realization came a simultaneous sense of both connection to my people and disconnect from them. I began to see differences in the foods we eat, our appearances, the histories of our grandparents as immigrants or refugees, and in every facet of our lives.

I remember being shocked one afternoon to learn that bagels and lox, probably the most stereotypical Jewish food in the US, is actually not kosher for Sefardi Jews. “We don’t want to eat that weird Ashkenazi food anyway!” one of my friends from Latin America joked when I started going on about how sad it was to miss out on cream cheese and fish.

Because I had such blonde hair in a place where almost no one is blonde, people took to stopping me in the hallways or on the streets and speaking to me in Russian. “Sorry, I’m American, sorry!” I would respond, feeling a kind of weird sadness, an impossibly wide gap from these people whose families had stayed in Russia when mine had left.

But then other things would happen, and I would be reminded that despite being scattered for so many centuries to so many vastly different regions of the world, Jews really are one people. One day in class, our teacher put on a kids’ song for Rosh HaShanah, and almost all of the Jewish students instantly recognized it, despite the fact that we had learned it by rote growing up, and never really understood the words. It felt almost magical that a song which for me evoked memories of back-to-school time, raking leaves, and apples and honey, brought up a parallel and yet vastly different vision of growing up in Istanbul for the Turkish boys sitting in the back corner. 

Among the million little insights I took away from my time in Ulpan, I walked away with a new sense of who Jews are and how we relate to one another. Jews are one people, and yet we are not a monolith; we are diverse in a variety of ways.

And against this diverse backdrop, Jewish unity is accentuated in an entirely unique way. There is new power for me now in shared practice, holy texts, and sacred geography. I feel this in the Kiddush prayer that all Jews chant every Friday night at Shabbat, in the universal holiness of Jerusalem, and in the peace felt in slipping a note in between the stones of the Western Wall.

Question: How has the composition of your faith community growing up impacted your view of your religion? Have you had any experiences where your views on this were expanded?

5 thoughts on “School in Jerusalem – Azariah Horowitz”

  1. Hi Azariah – great post! I really enjoyed reading about your trip to Ulpan! It sounds like you had a wonderful yet transformative experience. Your post made me reflect about my own trips to Punjab, India. As you described, going to Punjab, India where there is so much history of Sikhi and where Sikhi is most widely practiced. Whenever I went there, I was amazed at the differences in the ways people practiced Sikhi. Different Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) emphasized different prayers and various structures in prayer and its timing. My family not only practices Sikhi but also worships another saint from my Mom’s side of the family – it’s common for other saints to be worshipped by entire generations of families and even villages. We would visit the temple for the Saint that my Mom’s family worshipped and there were different prayers and formats of prayer. This really highlighted how different religion is for everyone — its a very individualistic as well as a community experience. For Sikhs, the holiest place is Amritsar (the Golden Temple) and thousands of people visit this site every day. It is a place that holds a lot of significance for Sikhi’s history. While I walked around the perimeter, around the sarovar (pool) that is located around the main prayer hall, I was humbled by how many different people had come to worship in a similar way which shows the unity within Sikhi. Ultimately, seeing the variations in how Sikhi is practiced showed me how beautiful religion and faith can be and what peaceful coexisting can look like.

  2. Hello Azariah,

    Your post was fascinating to read, really made me feel like I was there with you seeing your experiences first hand. Growing up Muslim, I only really saw and interacted with Muslim from an Afghan background like my own. Once, I went into college though I saw Muslims of all different ethnicities and in a communal prayer during Ramadan I was praying with my peers from different backgrounds, I felt such a unique feeling of connecting to both people around me and Allah. As we were all praying to the One God, and came together from different place to worship Him.

  3. Hello Azariah,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, and I loved the imagery you used to describe your time in Israel. Before reading this, I was unaware of the diversity and heterogeneity that exists within Judaism, and you did a wonderful job speaking to this. Additionally, I had no idea that the majority of Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi, which means of Eastern European descent. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Azariah!

    Thank you for sharing! I am so jealous after hearing about your experience in Ulpan and it’s so awesome that you took away so much from it! Your reflection on the diversity within a single religion was so interesting and can likely be applied to most, if not all, religions. My faith community growing up was predominately Christian, and although I don’t identify as one anymore, I am very aware of the lingering effects it has on my beliefs and ideals. I mean to this day, I can’t in good conscience say I am no longer a Christian because so much of what I was taught when I was younger permeates my current ideology. That being said, I’m definitely not religious at all and my current viewpoints deeply contradict what my faith community preached.

  5. Azariah,

    Your post was really enjoyable to read. I think as a minority, the image of a Sikh and the experiences that Sikhs face when they live in the diaspora is pretty homogenous. At least that’s what I thought. My conversations with people in college and the reaches of social media have allowed me to grasp a sense of reality of what it means to be Sikh today. And what it means when Sikhi begins to take a back seat in life. It’s very different. I think about the people who grew up as Sikhs but they don’t lead their lives “like Sikhs.” I think it was something that was said from a conversation had here, no matter what kind of life you end up leading, you’re always a Sikh because it’s more than a religion or way of life; it’s a heritage, a culture, an ethnicity, an upbringing that has never existed in a vacuum. Coming to such realizations has made me feel content in myself and more accepting of my own shortcomings and has allowed me to empathize with more people. Thanks!

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