The Story of Yael: My Transition From Orthodoxy into Non-Observant Jewishness
By Shelby Backman
I have two sets of names. The first set consists of my federally recognized first, middle, and last name: Shelby Alexandra Backman. The second set I rarely use or even with my closest friends: Shira Yael Hertzliya. These are my three Hebrew names. It is Jewish custom to be named after ancestors; my names are the female version of my two great-grandfathers and a great uncle: Asher, Yoel, and Hertzl. Two of them were supposedly rebbes and all three of them had escaped from Russia to the United States at the turn of the century. “All of them,” my mother would say, “were great men and leaders in the Jewish community.”
I do appreciate that I am named after these men. But I never associated my names with theirs, nor my life with theirs. I’m not ashamed of my Hebrew names; they just don’t have a place in my everyday life. Still, despite the fact that I rarely use these names, they define a part of me. My relationship with them mirrors my relationship with Judaism and how it has developed and been redefined throughout my life. In fact, when I lost my faith in God, my Hebrew names returned to me a Jewish identity that I thought I would never regain.
For most of my early life, my mother raised me as an Orthodox Jew. I was a part of a Chabad congregation in San Diego and attended the same Jewish summer camp as the children in my synagogue. My mother and I weren’t as strictly observant as the other members of Chabad. We still drove and turned on lights during the Sabbath, and only used one set of plates even though we kept the laws of kashrut. Even still, she and I would study the Midrash (rabbinic commentary of the Torah) on a weekly basis. I even joined and actively contributed to an adult Midrash group while I was still in elementary school. I loved knowing that I was Jewish. I was one of the chosen people, and the world was my oyster.
My names reflected this feeling. In the Orthodox community I preferred being addressed as Shira, or sometimes Herzliya. Shira means “[holy] song,” and Hertzliya is both related to the word for “deer” as well as a city in the Tel Aviv district of Israel. A search on Google will give “mountain goat” as the common translation for Yael. In comparison to a song or deer, a mountain goat did not feel particularly flattering. Later, during my Midrash studies with my mother, I learned that Yael is also the name of the heroine who saved the Jews by stabbing an enemy general with a wooden pin. In comparison to my other names, Yael’s relationship to Jewish history seemed relatively unimportant. Firstly, her tale is recorded in the book of Judges, Jewish scripture not included in the five books of the Torah. Secondly, only two parshas (chapters) are dedicated to her story. Thirdly, Yael isn’t even a Jew. As a child, I only wanted to be known by the two names that explicitly portrayed my Jewish identity. Yael wasn’t a part of that agenda, so I shunted the name and dismissed it as “just another name I have.”
As I got older, I felt less and less connected to the Orthodox community. This disconnect was partly exacerbated by the problems that developed between my mother and me. More importantly, it was difficult for me to relate to the Orthodox customs or beliefs any longer. I hated having to wear long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, even during the summer, as mandated by Orthodox Jewish law. I could never commit prayers beyond the Shema and the Aleinu to memory and never felt the desire to. I wanted to be like my non-Jewish friends who didn’t have to go to temple on Saturdays and didn’t have to read the Midrash every night. Bit by bit, I began to cut away pieces of my Jewish upbringing.
Once I came to UCSC, I stopped attending temple altogether. I didn’t want to return to the Orthodox way of life, but I still recognized myself as Jewish. However, because I’d grown up extremely religious, I felt like I couldn’t connect with any Reform or Conservative Jewish group. Essentially, I felt like I wasn’t a part of the Jewish community, regardless of my steadfast Jewish identity. So I kept my relationship with Judaism private and personal.
Then, earlier this year, I became an atheist. I fell into a depression. I had lost God. I knew that I could count on my friends to celebrate my successes and to sympathize with my struggles. However, I felt that only God could experience my life as I experienced it. Losing him meant I lost my closest confidant. His existence also reaffirmed my Jewish identity. The belief that my relationship with him had a different meaning in this life because I was Jewish allowed me to be comfortable with my Jewishness,
regardless of which prayers I said or which customs I chose to keep. By losing God, I felt like I’d not only lost the ability to be a part of any Jewish community, but I’d also lost an integral part of my being, a part that shaped so much of my childhood.
Once I became an atheist, even my favored Hebrew names seemed foreign to me. All three belonged to ancestors who, unlike me, were proud of their Jewish heritage. At that point, it was much easier to shun my Jewish identity because I felt like I didn’t deserve to call myself Jewish. I was the stereotypical “wandering Jew.”
Soon after I became an atheist, I began dating a fellow atheist-Jew who, unlike me, embraced his Judaism. In my relationship with him, I saw that it was possible to be Jewish without believing in God, but I still didn’t understand my place in the community. I thought I would never reconcile with my Jewish identity, let alone my Hebrew names (which I had long since stopped using).
During my last quarter at UCSC, I enrolled in Rabbi Chein’s “Women of the Hebrew Bible” class in order to understand what it means to be a Jewish woman, especially one without faith. Weeks went by and I felt no more connected with Judaism than I had at the beginning of the quarter. Then, as I was starting to accept my fate as an outsider, I revisited the story of Yael.
The story takes place in Israel, where the evil King Jabin had sent his general Sisera to wage war against the Jews. In response, Deborah, the reigning prophetess, appoints a Jewish man, Barak, to lead his army into a war against Sisera’s forces. Meanwhile, the story introduces Yael’s character. She is married to Herber the Kenite, a man who has separated himself and his tent from the Jews and has befriended King Jabin. Because of her association with Herber, Yael is considered an outsider in respect to the Jewish people. Barak and Deborah ride into battle against Sisera’s army and the Jews come out the victor. Unfortunately, General Sisera survives the defeat and runs to the safety of Herber’s tent. When Sisera arrives, Yael greets him and serves him a glass of milk. After Sisera lies down to rest, Yael takes a wooden tent pin in one hand and a hammer in the other. She then drives the pin through Sisera’s temple. When Barak rides up later in pursuit of Sisera, Yael shows him the general, lying dead on the tent’s floor. She, the wife of Herber the Kenite, friend to King Jabin, had killed the enemy of the Jews despite her husband’s allegiances. Even as an outsider, she came to the aid of the Jewish people when she was handed the opportunity, betraying her expected loyalties.
After rereading the story of Yael, my names were no longer a painful reminder of the Jewish identity I had discarded. In fact, the name that I had once regarded as the least Jewish of the three now gave me a sense of identity within Judaism. Deborah and Yael represent two extremes within the Jewish community: Deborah is completely involved and immersed in Jewish life, whereas Yael is essentially detached from it. During my childhood, I was a Deborah in my Jewish community. As an adult, I have become a Yael. The story of Yael demonstrates the important role that both women play in the survival of the Jewish people. By chronicling the heroism displayed by these two extreme Jewish identities, the story of Deborah and Yael showed me that my lack of faith didn’t have to dictate my place in the Jewish community. It didn’t matter which path I chose to express my connection with Judaism;
Judaism could manifest itself in many forms. From religious practices to cultural observances to recounted histories, I could be a part of all of it, or none of it, or somewhere in between and still identify as Jewish. My ability to relate to other Jews through my experiences and our shared history is what matters. This is what makes me a Jew.
Although I still don’t use my Hebrew names in everyday interactions, they are just as much a part of my identity as my secular names. Regardless of my feelings about God or Jewish customs, Judaism’s history and culture shaped my childhood and connected me to my ancestors. As an atheist, I’m no longer a part of the religious community I’d once identified with. But I also know that to be part of the Jewish community, I don’t have be a Deborah. I’m proud to be a Yael.
Published on page 37 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.