CAMBRIDGE – Outside it was dark and cold, but inside Mamaleh’s, a trendy update to the classic Jewish deli, it was warm and heimish – and packed to the gills with Jewish millennials schmoozing over craft beer and pastrami on rye.
They came from places like Somerville, Cambridge, Allston, and Jamaica Plain. Some wore yarmulkes, some had nose rings, and some had both. Everyone had stories to tell, which is why they were there.
Eser, Hebrew College’s young adult learning community, sponsored a Moth-style storytelling event on Jan. 29 called “The Nosh,” which invited Jewish millennials to stand up in front of a microphone and tell a five-minute story based off a deliberately vague prompt: “What is your Jewish journey?”
“The central burning question is this: What does being Jewish mean, anyway?” asked Sara Gardner, the associate director for young adult programs at Hebrew College. “The reality I found is through talking to so many of you, especially those of you in your 20s and 30s … is that being Jewish means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, all at once. So that is exactly to what this event is dedicated: to listening, sharing, and holding space for the wild, wonderful variety of stories that make up our Greater Boston Jewish community.”
With that, the lights dimmed, and the storytelling began.
Some stories responded more directly to Gardner’s original question of what exactly it means to “be Jewish.” Felix Baier of Cambridge, who’s studying for his doctorate in biology at Harvard, considers himself “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish. Baier, who grew up in Germany, found out through a DNA test that he had 8 percent Ashkenazi heritage, even though he did not know of any Jewish relatives.
Intrigued, he spent the next four years trying to track down his Jewish family, and finally found that his great-great grandmother on his father’s side had a child out of wedlock with an Ashkenazi man. The search instilled in him a love of Judaism, and he began conversion classes. However, he decided that he did not need a formal conversion to consider himself Jewish.
“I didn’t immediately convert because I wasn’t certain if I was ready, or if I even truly needed a conversion – wasn’t I Jewish enough?” he asked. “As you can see, I have so many questions – so I must be a little Jewish after all.”
Jennifer Leavey, a linguist from Boston, was raised Jewish in an interfaith family. Several members of her mother’s Jewish family refused to speak to her mother when she married a Catholic man. As a result, Leavey tried to prove to her relatives that she was the “ideal Jew.”
“If my great-aunts didn’t think I was Jewish enough, I would show them,” said Leavey. “They would find out I fasted for Yom Kippur and kept Passover when most of my Jewish friends didn’t bother to.” Leavey has now come to realize that Judaism is not a competition, and that she is fully Jewish regardless of what her family thinks.
Other stories spoke more to the question of a “Jewish journey.” Beni Summers, a synagogue educator at Temple Emunah in Lexington who lives in Somerville, described a particular moment on an airplane that changed the course of his life when he was drifting away from Judaism. A Hasidic man walked the aisles of a flight asking if people would like to put on tefillin. Summers tried to discreetly slink away, but he could not escape this man’s sixth sense for locating fellow Jews.
As Summers put on the tefillin, stumbling through a blessing he’d mostly forgotten, he had an epiphany. “What am I ditching? What am I running away from, really?” he asked. “It seems like there’s so much that I don’t know, and am forgetting, and was afraid of forgetting. A lot of things changed for me after that plane ride … it’s crazy to think that that little moment of telling you to do one mitzvah can change your existence, and I started to think how many times I can do that for other people.”
Other stories were meditations on the humor, pain, pride, and whimsy that come with Jewish life. Nate Vaughan, a fundraising specialist from Newton, spoke about going through a religious phase as the only Jew in his high school in southern Kentucky. Jordan Schuster, a rabbi and professor at Hebrew College from Jamaica Plain, spoke about a surreal experience as a graduate student when he unwittingly got caught up in a crowd of Lubavitchers visiting the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., the burial ground of the founder of the modern Chabad movement. Rebecca Strauss, a studio art technician from Maynard, told the story of her two bat mitzvah ceremonies, one of which included saying prayers in front of her dying father.
Members of the crowd, who experienced the full range of emotions throughout the 18 stories, appreciated the diverse perspectives of Judaism that the event brought them. “The stories widened my perspectives on what Judaism embraces,” said Joe Miterko, a music teacher who lives in Brighton.
“Within the Jewish tribe there are so many stories that are not your stereotypical race in Boston with an Ashkenazi background,” said Elisa Perez, a social worker in Boston. “There are millions of intersections.”