Transformation Going Back to Roots

Written by Rita Kennen

Self-discovery advice by accepting who we are.

Millions of third-generation American Jews search for a deeper meaning to their secular lives. Although they yearn to be part of a religion, Judaism feels like an enigma. Others, like writer Lisa Schiffman are brave enough to explore the spiritual frontier. Her discoveries are chronicled in her humorous and poignant memoir, Generation j.

Questions You Can Ask to Solve Any Problem
Lisa Schiffman
Age: 35
Education: Masters degree in social anthropology from Oxford University.
Occupation: Author and Internet strategist for the Web sites of major corporations.
Projects: Starting a family.
About the book cover to her book:
I wanted to reclaim the Jewish star. I wanted to take something the Nazis had made ugly and turn it into something beautiful again by putting it on my body.---Lisa Schiffman
Raised in a family where Judaism wasn't a large part of the equation and socialized into a largely non-Jewish circle of friends, Schiffman refers to her early Jewish identity as "in the closet."
"I remember feeling different," she explains.
"It wasn't unusual to be exposed to careless anti-Semitism. One year in high school I went to a prom at a nearby Catholic high school. We were all sitting at the dinner table, and the conversation turned anti-Semitic. I don't think anyone there realized I was Jewish," she says. In that incidence Schiffman didn't say or do anything, "It was my way of being."
Jewish life tugged at her only gently until years later as she planned her wedding to a gentile.
Although asking her fiancé to convert never crossed her mind, Schiffman instinctually felt close to her Jewish roots as she approached her transformation into a married woman. "I still wanted to be married by a rabbi," she confides. "I wanted the blessing of the Jewish faith there at that important rite of passage."
Her book describes how tough it was to find a rabbi willing to marry an interfaith couple. The ones they talked to either said no, or would only agree if the pair swore to raise their children as Jews.
Schiffman and her fiancé eventually found someone to do the job. Although he wasn't a rabbi, neither she nor her fiancé felt cheated. A cantor who had officiated at many weddings performed the ceremony. He was also an actor, and among his acting credits was the role of the rabbi in the movie Goodbye, Columbus.

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Part II: Dipping into the waters of Judaism

I used to think being Jewish was like carrying around an old piece of baggage. Now I think of it like a prism. You hold Judaism up to the light and it reflects back wonderful things.--Lisa Schiffman-

Once married, Lisa Schiffman continued to seek out what Judaism meant to her. She participated in a variety of religious services, sometimes bringing her atheist parents along. She formed a relationship with a rabbi.

Rebelling against the dietary restrictions imposed on religious Jews, she consciously ate non-kosher food for an entire week. Later she immersed herself in the waters of a mikvah, the ritual bath associated with menstruation and purification.

Little by little, Schiffman stripped away the confusion surrounding her Jewish identity. "I don't think there is a right way to be Jewish," she says. "For me, it's like any relationship. Every day is a little different. One day it's heart based, another it's brain based, such as when I'm reading a Jewish based text and trying to figure it out."

Rather than a religious revelation, Schiffman's Jewish transformation is subtle and continues to evolve. For her, being Jewish is an identity based on heritage and a sense of community. She's concluded you can still be Jewish even if you don't observe the holidays or go to synagogue.

Schiffman now feels Jewish by choice as well as by birth.

With a master's degree in social anthropology from Oxford University and experience as associate editor for the San Francisco Review of Books, Schiffman is a highly educated professional who lacked a spiritual dimension. Her personal growth blossomed when she found her place among other Jews.

"Anytime you are uncomfortable with a core piece of who you are, you can't be whole," says Schiffman. "Confronting and reconciling with the Jewish part of myself has made me much stronger and not as restless. I'm not searching for who I am, but I am still learning about my relationship to Judaism."

Schiffman and her husband, who live in Oakland, Calif., are expecting their first child. "We want our child to have a Jewish identity. We have to figure out how to do that, so even though the book ends, the journey continues."

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