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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Big Jewish Field Trip and Culture Shock

As I walked back down Devon Avenue, leaving the Jewish blocks behind me, walking through the Islam and the Hindi blocks, I felt small. I felt ignorant. I wanted to disappear. For a minute I thought, “This is the first time I’ve felt this way.” Then I realized that it wasn’t. I felt exactly the same when I went shopping in Argentina, Japan, and England. A sense of not belonging, a sense of not knowing how to do things, not knowing what to ask, not wanting to seem stupid. But this time–it is a permanent move. I always knew I would leave Argentina and go back home to America, where I know how to shop and talk to stranger. I am moving to Judaism for the rest of my life and today I don’t know how I’ll ever feel comfortable there.

All I had to do was buy a book for Pasach (Passover.) While I have a Haggadah, I needed a different one for the second night seder at my temple. So I hopped on the Western Bus and headed north to Devon Avenue. My goal was Rosenblum’s Jewish Book Store. I had a crumpled piece of paper in my pocket with the publisher and name of the new author.

The walk from Western to Rosenblum’s takes you through the Pakistani neighborhood–both Hindi and Islam centers and finally to the Jewish section. I love the smells of Devon, even though I’m a little allergic to the spices. I love the saris and the ornate jewelry in the windows. Eventually I see a sign for New York Kosher and Rosen’s Kosher. I know I’m close.

I walk into Rosenblum’s and am greeted kindly. “Can we help you find something?” I pull out the paper and show her. She asks, “How many?” Just one. She finds the open case overflowing with the CCAR Haggadah and passes one over. “Anything else?” No, I just need to wander. “No Problem, we’ll leave this at the counter.”

I start wandering. Mezzuzot. Hanukiah. Kiddush Cups. Seder Plates. Books. Books. Books. Books. Books. I am standing in the middle of the books and start feeling overwhelmed. Man. At the Border’s in Uptown, I feel like I have a handle on this jewish thing. I’ve got a small library started of important books. But here, in a jewish bookstore, what do I know? Some basics. The alphabet. How to say “Shabbat Shalom” and how to light shabbat candles, but without the melody.

But there are hundreds of books here in English and Hebrew (and Spanish.) What do I know and how will I ever know enough to feel jewish? I tear up a little. I don’t know if it is fear that I’ll never learn enough or joy that there is so much to learn. I take about an hour to wander around and in the end only buy two books. The Haggadah and a Hebrew Grammar book.

I wish I could have run around the store with the 12 year old kids–one american jew, one gentile with jewish friends, and one french gentile. They ran around, “Look at this! A singing Matzah Ball!” “I have this book–it is about chanukah!” “Yeah, we can’t eat bread for a WEEK!” Just excited and finding humor and dragging each other around the store. But I’m 28 and alone, so I have to wander around on my own.

When I check out I THINK that I feel the curiosity from the clerk. My first name is Jewish, my last name isn’t jewish yet. “Did she marry a gentile? No, no ring on her finger. She’s wearing a star of David… You’re total is $42.98.”

Then I leave, feeling overwhelmed and not jewish at all. So I decide to add insult to injury and go to a Kosher Market. In Rosenblum’s every man had a kippah on–considering all men don’t wear kippot at my temple, it was odd/cool/new to see men at a store wearing them. At the market, I was the only woman with her arms boldy showing. Most of the women were frum–dressed modestly with their hair covered. The men all had kippot (minamally) some had black hats. There was colloquial Hebrew flying all around me. I just wandered again.

Since Pesach is only a week away, everything is labeled, “Kosher for Pesach.” or “NOT Kosher for Pesach.” Then there was a big banner that said, “NO CHAMATZ PAST THIS POINT.” That would risk making 1/2 the store un-kosher. But since the spelling was different than what I’d seen, I wondered if the word meant that only workers could cross the point, or only hassidic jews, or only children. I didn’t know if I was Chamatz, so I didn’t risk it and therefore didn’t even go into the other half of the store.

In the end I only bought two items–oddly two things that remind me of other countries. I bought Dulce de Leche, a treat from Argentina, only this time Kosher and from Israel. And I bought Holy Hysop. Hysop is an herb like oregano from Israel. I had it once in London. One of my Israeli boys fed my Hysop, with bread and olive oil. Yummy. Not only did I find Hysop, but I found the exact brand he’d shared with me that night in London.

Then I tried to dissappear, because I was feeling so out of sorts. Like a pretender. Fake it, till you make it, right? I couldn’t anymore. The culture shock was huge and I left feeling like I’ll never get my passport or feel at home.

Right at the end of the night, things started feeling better in my jewish world. I ran into a customer who works at Starbucks. Turns out he is moving a block away from me in Edgewater. I mentioned that I go to the temple up there, not knowing that he was jewish. He is and hasn’t found a temple in Chicago. I was able to invite him to meet me at a friday service sometime. So I went from not being jewish enough and feeling like a pretender, to being able to offer an invitation to my temple to a jew and friend.

I may not be jewish enough to go shopping, but I’m jewish enough to pray.

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