Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Beginning of My Moishe House Story

In June, at the age of 23, I moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans. After four years of living on-campus at Pomona College, arriving in New Orleans truly marked the beginning of adulthood. Looking back now, I would describe the period stretching from my bar mitzvah (age 13) until New Orleans (age 23), as an awkward and ambiguous decade; a decade of transition from boyhood to adulthood. New Orleans signified the end of that liminal existence, and the beginning of something new and unequivocal.

I felt my adulthood every day as I grapple with a million big and small decisions. I took a job as the assistant director of a youth development non-profit organization in New Orleans’ Vietnamese American community. I found a place to live two blocks from the Mississippi River. I discovered a JCC and decided to become a member. I began to meditate and go on walks each day. As I put the pieces of my new life together, I realized there were few restraints. There was no discernible path. There was no one evaluating my success, and no definition of success to which I was subjected. I could assemble the life I found most compelling and authentic—a prospect both liberating and terrifying.

It was within this context that I began thinking about my Jewish identity for the first time in years. Here I was in a new city creating a life for myself from the ground up. I felt no obligations to be Jewish in any way. The barrage of emails from Hillel, imploring me to attend this event or that event, was gone.  Even the not-so-subtle comments from my concerned mother about my level of Jewish engagement had petered out over time.

At first my thinking about being Jewish was fleeting and superficial: Should I go meet people at the Avodah house for Shabbat? Should I figure out a plan for the high holidays? These were short-term questions, practical in their nature. Soon they gave way to a deeper, more existential inquiry into myself as I realized that college had all but annihilated the Jewish aspect of my identity. I began to think: where is my Jewish self right now? How deeply has it been buried? How can it be embraced, nurtured, reintegrated?

College was the nadir of my Jewish self—a four-year hiatus. I had been uprooted from my family and home; from the sound of my father’s voice singing his ancestors’ hymns; from my temple; from the rabbi who lead my bar mitzvah ceremony; from the melodies and prayers that touched me. In college I found Shabbat services that bored me, melodies that I found entirely foreign, and Jewish programming that was alienating and often offensive. I was not interested in becoming a partisan in the Israeli-Palestinian on-campus propaganda war, nor was I interested in programming that I felt stifled my moral and intellectual maturation. In the beginning I engaged with, and attempted to alter, an on-campus Jewish culture that I principally disagreed with; eventually I got tired and stopped caring altogether.

In college the self-alienation I experienced happened gradually, almost without notice. In New Orleans I discovered the absence of my Jewish self as revelation, and it became piercing. Completely on my own, in this new city, I felt a sense of potential and longing. I wanted to feel my Jewish self again.  I wanted to marry my Jewish self with the rest of who I was—the rest of who I had become over the course of college—and continue down the river of my life.

This project felt urgent, though I had no idea how to start. I knew the window of opportunity would be open for only so long before I became entrenched in a new regime of habits, practices and thinking. If I were to build this new life without integrating my Jewish self, I knew something essential would be lost. Yet where was I to begin?

In July one of my new friends in the city approached me about Moishe House. Her timing was uncanny. She was about to join and mentioned that there was another opening. Taking it as a sign, I responded without hesitation, and moved into the house a month later.

No doubt I am still in the beginning phase of this new journey. My Jewish self is buried quite deep, I have realized, from years of decay and neglect. At times I am so used to being spiritually numb that it is hard stay the course. Yet through Moishe House there is something shifting within me—a sense of returning, even if it is gradual. I feel my Jewish self in the relationships I have formed here with others who are invested in a similar journey. I feel my Jewish self in the Shabbats that we create for the community.

I am now, more than ever, part of a truly constitutive Jewish space—I am a creator, a producer, as much as I am a participant of Jewish programming. I get to help choose the prayers we will sing on Shabbat; the speakers we host to spark our conversations; the values we live by within the house. I have no more excuses for feeling alienated or estranged from my Jewish identity. I have been empowered to create the culture that surrounds my nascent Jewish self. I am empowered to create the house that shelters my precarious Jewish self, as it grows stronger. My relationship to the house is therefore simultaneously a commitment to my community, and myself, for the two are surely bound. It is an honor and a blessing.

Jacob Cohen
Moishe House New Orleans

1 comment:

BeccafromPortland said...

Yasher Koach on the growth. I have grown sooo much in my Yiddishkeit from living in the Portland house. Did you get our Chanuka present???