Becoming A Jew
By Amy Kessler
In the realms of the classic existential debate, ‘Nature vs. Nurture,’ I attribute a large degree of my world-paradigm to my upbringing. I am a born and bred South African Jew; my childhood being one in which my identity as a reform Jew was defined by, and cultivated within, the domains of my culture.
My parents adamantly fuelling the family fire of interests amongst their two offspring, in a variety of areas; history, religion and spirituality and politics being only a few. My passion for literature for instance was fostered through my father’s choice of bedtime stories: the complete works of Shakespeare and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, we Jews (particularly of the reform sect) are very much in the minority with regards to the nations demographic. For this reason, the majority of my childhood friends were of a variety of faiths.
Thus throughout my younger years, I was asked the very complex question,
“What does it mean to be a Jew?”
At the time, my six-year-old-self decided to answer said question by attributing her Judaism to, amongst other customs: lighting the candles of the Chanukiah; singing Chad Gadya at the Pesach seder; and gorging on Bobba’s mandahlach, bulcahlach, kneidlach and all the other traditional Yiddish delicacies at every family function.
It was only in my teenage years that my idea of engaging with one’s faith transformed from playing UNO cards with my sister in the back row of the Garden Shul in Cape Town to something that is now an intrinsic part of my being.
As a child, the world reveals itself to you in an ever-changing multitude of garbs. My younger self sought to try on each in every one of them. Essentially, I have always been increasingly interested in learning about and celebrating the multi-faceted societies that shape the world that we live in.
Being a youth in the newly-democratic Rainbow Nation provided for me the perfect platform upon which to begin my engagement.
At the age of ten I began to truly integrate myself into my Jewish community. Joining my reform Zionist youth movement, Netzer, playing a large part in the shaping of my perspective on Judaism and enlightening me to the importance of informed decision making. Attending the shabbatons and machanehs broadened my horizons and fed into my already intense desire to acquaint myself with everything Jewish.
At Netzer, I cherished the dynamic unity of the youth, and the commitment to engaging with and the imparting of fundamental knowledge. It was through Netzer that I first encountered the land of my people.
Eretz Yisrael had until then only been something I had known in theory. However, from the moment I walked the windy cobble-stone streets of Jerusalem; and experienced a Ma’amad service atop of Mount Masada, everything I had only preached in theory became my daily practice. It was then that I felt more connected, as a diaspora Jew, to my faith, my culture and my history than ever before.
It was during my years at Catholic school that I was faced with the task of being the poster-child for Judaism amongst my peers. Being the only Jew at the multi-faith but Christian dominated school was an invigorating experience, and just what my preteen-self needed in order to strengthen her faith in Judaism.
I began to throw myself into my religion, my community and my faith. Frequenting myself with our history and heritage, fascinated by the teachings of the Torah and frustrated with the debates of the Talmud, I proudly took it upon myself to educate my fellow classmates about what it meant to be a Jew, or at least it meant to me.
As a current university student of History and Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, my passion for learning and dedication to my faith is only increasing. Following in the footsteps of my sister, who is a role model in the South African Jewish community and has inspired me throughout my nineteen years of living, I joined the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and have begun to put my years of Jewish advocacy to the test.
It was through SAUJS that I was alerted to a great opportunity to not only return to and live in the Holy Land for six weeks, but to also deepen my personal connection to Israel. I have been fortunate to come together with The Israel Forever Foundation, and from their programs and Blog, I have truly seen the beauty of the land, culture and history of Israel.