I grew up with what one might consider a typical Jewish experience. I lit the candles and ate challah every Shabbat. I dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. I fasted on Yom Kippur. I shook the etrog and lulav. And I used the Shamash to light the Hanukkiah.
That wasn’t all, though. I also got to celebrate Christmas and (the occasional) Easter. Often when my friends found out I got presents for both Christmas and Hanukkah, I was deemed “super lucky”; however, it was all I’d ever known.
My mom grew up in a Catholic-Italian household. Later in her life, she became unattached to the religion that had raised her. My dad, on the other hand, had been raised Jewish and began practicing more frequently as the years went by. Cue the discussion of children, and they agreed to raise my older sister and me within the Jewish religion. I attended both a Jewish preschool and Jewish sleep-away summer camp, URJ Camp Harlam. Committing to Camp Harlam marked a crucial decision in my life that shaped the years following. There, I developed a love for Jewish music and traditions, wearing white on Shabbat as my friends and I walked up to Chapel on the Hill. I played games and competed in Maccabiah (Color War) for all 7 summers before traveling to Israel with my fellow campers on my 8th and final summer, sealing it all in a time capsule I can now only access through photos.
During my childhood, I felt I was also holding on to a special superpower. One that allowed me to dress in green and red when we made the long drive to my uncle’s home in Virginia. On the evenings of December 24th, I joined in the tradition of my Christian friends and sat by the fireplace sipping eggnog, faintly listening to the murmur of adults in the kitchen.
My ability to appreciate traditions in two different religions is what has sparked my curiosity to engage in interfaith dialogue and work. In high school, I learned about Islam and the prophet Muhammad, which led to reading the entirety of the Koran. I’ve visited mosques and participated respectfully. My increasing interest in inner peace and the ego then led me to Buddhism and Hinduism, reading library books about reincarnation and nirvana.
Today, in 2020, I consider myself a proud Jew who’s more spiritual than religious, but Jewish nonetheless. I love Friday night Shabbats and the minor chords of the music. I’m very active in my university Hillel and have met amazing staff members there. And I still enjoy Christmas dinner, pasta e modica, at my uncle’s. My spiritual side can be physically seen in the chakra flags that hang in my bedroom, the Torah portion from my Bat Mitzvah hanging on the wall, the crystal I wear around my neck, or the Om tattoo on my arm. But maybe most of all, you can see the blend of religions I’ve researched and practiced just in the way I live my life, constantly asking questions without the need for just one answer from one place.
Being raised in a home that accepted the possibility of two belief systems allowed me to find the string that runs through all religions: peace, love, and something greater than thyself.