Observations from the Outside
By Evan Harris
I’m sitting criss-cross in one of our wooden chairs at the kitchen table. The lights are on. The sun has set a few hours ago, and a small clutter of things lay scattered before me on the worn, wooden tabletop: textbooks, used cups, Comcast bills, crumbs, homework, a pair of headphones, and my mug of now cold mint tea from this morning.
“Okay, where is everybody?” my roommate Zach calls out, standing at the head of the table on my right. I watch as he slides over the accumulated clutter and sets down, what I think is called a menorah in the empty space he has just made.
Responding to his call, my housemates Annie, Jess, Natalie, and Eva trickle in from their various corners of the house and join us around the table. I’ve never done this before, and I’m a little nervous. I think, Hanukkah’s a big deal, right?
“I have a lighter,” Eva exclaims as she begins helping Zach place tiny pastel-colored candles in the holes of the menorah. Jess and Natalie, seated across from me, are talking with Annie as she stands near Eva and Zach.
“Oh my gosh, I was watching this live stream concert of Jason Mraz and…” begins Natalie, a Mraz fanatic. I remain silent and relatively still, listening and watching. My housemates Jess and Annie join in the discussion, and Eva and Zach continue setting up. Mr. Mraz is more than wonderful, but I’m not sure what is appropriate for me to do as I prepare for the religious celebration I’m about to attend. Remaining silent seems like a safe call. This is my first time experiencing Hanukkah and I’m the only non-Jewish person here. In fact, I want to be here. Religion is fascinating to me, but I don’t want to mess anything up during this new celebration.
With candles lit, and the lighter set down, the conversations come to an end.
“Ready?” Eva cheerfully asks us, looking around at each face gathered there at the table. Oh gosh what? What’s happening? Should I stand up? No, it’s fine. Jess and Nat are sitting down, maybe I should…
Then, all at once, my housemates begin to sing. This isn’t English I am hearing, so I assume it must be Hebrew. Everyone is singing, some louder than others, but everyone is singing the same song, a song I’ve never heard in a language I don’t know. Their tune is not joyful, but rather dull; maybe even content sounding:
“Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam…”
With my lips sealed in a respectful smile, I glance around at the faces of my singing housemates. Everyone is focused on the small burning candles before us, some more intently than others, but each repeatedly breaks this concentration to childishly peer around at one another. Giggling when wandering eyes meet, more glance up, then join in the tittering. My housemates appear to be having fun.
Smiling eyes return their gaze to the flames and more serious countenances return. The cycle repeats: stare at candles, look up, giggle, back to the flames. All the while, no one looks at me, and I feel rather disconnected. I don’t know the song, I’m not sure what the words even mean, and I can’t understand this sort of inside joke that keeps making my housemates smile. But of course I feel this way. I’m not Jewish. This is their celebration and I remember I’m an observer.
Then, the minute or so of singing stops. Chairs are scooted back, and people begin to disperse, moving towards the fridge or back to their rooms. Wait, is it over? Still criss-cross in my chair, I look up at Zach who is near the table.
“It’s over,” he says as he makes his way over to the kitchen to join Eva and Annie who are now on the hunt for food.
Cool, I just celebrated Hanukkah, I think to myself, fixing my eyes on the colored candles that remain lit in their fixture.
Who the heck am I? I’m so glad you asked. My name is Evan, Evan Hawkins Harris. This year, my sophomore year of college, I find myself living in a house with five wonderful people who are all Jewish. I wonder often, what does that mean? Not for me, but for them, what does that mean, to be Jewish? What does this label immediately bring to one’s mind? How does one understand Judaism, if they are Jewish or otherwise? I myself was raised as a Catholic, and I know what that is, I know for myself what being a Catholic feels like. I have been on the inside. Here, let me show you.
As many children do when born into a religious family, I went through the motions of my faith for many years without really understanding it. For me, this meant grace before dinner, mass on Sunday morning, Christmas in the winter, Easter in the spring, sacraments when old enough, prayers for those who suffer, and more church. For a while, all I knew for sure about my religion was that it was something huge and invisible, something powerful and loving, and something run by a man named God, but his son Jesus was a big deal too.
In elementary school, I remember feeling–as a Catholic–like I was on some sort of secret team, a team that had a whole bunch of players. They were players I saw at church every Sunday, and it was nice. It was comforting knowing that all these people were doing this “Catholic” thing, too. However, by the time I reached middle school, I had begun questioning many of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism. Who is this God and how do we know He’s there? Why are there so many rules? What about the beliefs of other religions? Questions led to doubts, doubts led to discouragement, and discouragement led to a rebellious attitude toward my faith. But I was still seated in a pew every Sunday.
Then, came high school. I could have chosen to go to a public school, but a lack of decisiveness combined with parental influence lead me to enroll at Cathedral Catholic High School, my first private school since Pre-K. As opposed to the public schools I was used to, where classroom decorations for holidays had to solely represent the seasons to avoid conflict, Cathedral was an environment where Morning Prayer was said after the Pledge of Allegiance, school masses were held regularly, and Catholicism was a required subject of study.
At the beginning of my freshman year, I battled with the nun who taught my first religion class. I was unwilling to take the leap of faith needed to read religious texts in the manner she required. I disagreed with my classmates who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives. However, as my stay at Cathedral lengthened and my understanding of Catholicism grew, my thoughts began to change.
Slowly at first, but then with multiplying speed, the friendly and caring faith community Cathedral offered began to foster in me a deep and profound faith life. I began to love religion class and started to truly believe in the teachings of Jesus, paying close attention to what was said on Sundays. Prayer became an everyday occurrence as I dove deeper into my faith, and by junior year I was helping run school mass. Senior year, I became a retreat minister leading my peers through powerful overnight religious retreats. My entire being became grounded in Catholicism. I was a role model on campus, I dated a lovely girl who sang in the choir at church, and I went on mission trips to the Dominican Republic in the summer. My faith was on fire.
Then came college, which meant leaving Cathedral, leaving my faith community, and enrolling in Stevenson Core. These three factors combined progressively undermined the totality of my faith, and I could not believe it (no pun intended). My solid Catholic foundation was quickly shot to pieces as Stevenson Core introduced me to a wide range of religious and philosophic texts. My whole religious upbring had solely been in the exploration of Catholicism, and therefore, the only doubts I was ever really trained to have in high school (and then overcome) was the existence of God.
With this introduction to a vast array of new belief systems, some alarmingly similar, and others uncomfortably honest, the prestige of Catholicism slipped away. From Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism to the Bhagavad Gita, countless new thoughts and ideas about the world bombarded my mind, drowning me in a state of confusion and discovery. As my horizons expanded, my prayers dwindled and my faith gradually became just a memory. I wanted it back, but I could not find the truth that I so craved in Catholicism any longer.
I now find myself, still very much confused, but contently enjoying my recently declared major, Philosophy. I do not disvalue religion now that I have separated from my own. Rather, I find religion incredibly fascinating and thoroughly enjoy hearing about the experiences of others within their own religion. Now, I find myself surrounded by Jewish people, but what does that mean? I have a firm grasp of Catholicism, but I’m not sure what it’s like to be Jewish because, unlike Catholicism, I’ve never been on the inside.