A Small Town Jew Discovers His Yiddishkeit
By Noah Barrera-Stanford
I come from a small town situated amidst the lush vineyards of Northern California, located within a hundred miles of the urban hubbub of San Francisco. Of the 15,000 inhabitants in my hometown, I remember there only being a handful of Jewish families— not even enough for a minyan.
They were completely lacking in cultural and religious identity. Although replete with churches, there was but one synagogue in my area, a Reform temple, though I hardly ever went while growing up.
Further, since having gone to Israel when I was fifteen, I wished I had been raised speaking Modern Hebrew and learning the Torah in its original language—as I imagined “real” Jews did.
I viewed this as something that would make me feel much more Jewish than I already did not feel.
Quite honestly, this sort of wishful thinking translated into resentment. In particular, I resented not having the kind of cultural and religious wherewithal of other Jews who grew up in substantial Jewish communities, such as those in Los Angeles or the East Coast.
It thus came as a pleasant surprise to my family and myself that in my college years, I have grown to assert such a strong Jewish identity.
The First Step
I now see the Jewish Studies Program and Chabad as the main sources that have profoundly and uniquely affected my
life, deepening my cultural and religious identity.
For example, two years ago, while I was doing the reading for “Jewish Writers in the American City: New York”, a literature course taught by the beloved Jewish Studies lecturer Bruce Thompson, I soared through the pages of Henry Roth’s coming-of-age novel Call It Sleep.
While reading this book, I could not help but notice the striking parallels between the young protagonist, David, and myself. Set in the hustle-and-bustle of New York in the early 20th century, David gets lost in the city—ironically causing him to “find” himself. I have, like David, essentially found myself by becoming immersed in Judaism, particularly through Chabad. Chabad has supported me by providing me with a place to grow as a Jewish adult.
Whether eating at the Shabbos table every Friday night or pouring over Hebrew Scriptures with Rabbi Shlomie Chein, this home-away- from-home helped me develop my Jewish identity through a more traditional lens.
Especially during Shabbos, I sit on the edge of my seat, captivated by Rabbi Shlomie masterfully weaving a story that transports me to a shtetl in Eastern Europe. I am always left feeling uplifted and edified.
In all, I have learned from Rabbi Shlomie that the Torah is as much relevant today as it was thousands of years ago, because it provides the ethical framework for a moral society.
Introduction to Yiddishkeit
Taken together, I regard Chabad and Jewish Studies as integral parts of my journey with Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit—while generally considered a synonym for Jewishness and religiosity—is difficult to translate because of its many different connotations. To me, Yiddishkeit does not merely mean Jewishness, some abstract or inaccessible ethnic or religious category; it is intimately linked to the Yiddish language, which I regard as the only language to truly give expression to my religious and cultural identity.
To give a few examples, when introducing myself to a Yiddish speaker, I prefer to say, “Reb Yid! Sholem Aleychem” [Mr. Jew! Hello] followed by “Vos makht ah yid?” [How’s it going? Literally: what does a Jew do?]
According to the Talmud, a Jew is commanded to give a double blessing in return to any greeting in which one blesses him or her, such as to have a good day.
I might say, “Gutn morgen!” [Good morning!] or “Gutn ovent!” [Good evening!] after which I would expect to hear in return, “Ah gut yor!” [A good year!].
New York City: The Capitol of American Jewry
My yearning for Jewish expression through the Yiddish language would inevitably draw me eastward to New York City, one of the major centers of Jewish life in the world.
Looking back, I am utterly astounded that three years into my undergraduate studies,
I would be in this city passionately learning Yiddish.
A large part of my experience felt more like culture shock than anything else, perhaps due to being from a small, insulated town where there aren’t millions of diverse residents or a need for an expansive subway system.
It especially amazes me to think that at one point there had been more Jews in New York City than there had been in the State of Israel. For me, New York City is unique because, although it has a very large population of Jews, there are also a wide variety of other races and ethnicities.
I bore witness to how these differences often play out in a negative way. In Williamsburg, I saw a few heated confrontations breakout between a certain sect of Hasidim and African-Americans.
I watched from the sidewalk as both parties asserted their “right” to the territory by screaming back and forth, “Get out of here! We don’t want you people in our neighborhood!”
This Orthodox sect, in particular, is well known for its efforts to insulate its community from the outside world—including from secular Jews. In effect, knowing Yiddish helped me break through some of these barriers between them and myself.
All in all, I definitely had interesting learning experiences in these Hasidic communities. Nothing, however, came quite as close to the precious moments I spent in Crown Heights, a distinct Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn.
While Chabad, like other Hasidic groups, is ultra-Orthodox in its religious beliefs, Chabad Hasidim are considerably less insulated than other Hasidim in the world.
While other Hasidim strictly wear traditional Orthodox attire, Chabadniks dress far more modern, often wearing brand names, such as Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger. They are generally very warm and welcoming towards the secular Jewish world, maintaining a large network of Chabad emissaries throughout the United States and elsewhere.
Now that I am back in California, once again studying at UCSC in the last year of my undergraduate studies, I am appreciative of the extensive growth I have undergone as a Jewish person.
Eyes gently shut in thoughtful remembrance, I see myself crying on the steps of 770 Eastern Parkway, the former residence of the famed Rebbe and a 24/7 yeshiva, completely changed from my encounter there.
Within minutes, I was paired with a yeshiva student, greeting him in Yiddish. After studying one of the Rebbe’s collected talks, I was completely entranced by the air of impassioned learning permeating the place.
Looking ahead, I believe that this was only the beginning of my journey with Yiddishkeit, which I see strengthening in the coming years.