How seeing my culture through outside eyes helped me find joy in the moment.
Sometimes it takes a step back from the familiar to see the beauty of the bigger picture. In this story, our Root & Seed community member, Elyssa, shares how she discovered more meaningful elements of her Jewish background by looking at it through “outside eyes.” Away from her close family and friend circles, Elyssa connected with a larger family history and culture that she shares with a global community. As she embraced this newfound connection to her people, Elyssa learned the value of purposefully finding joy in the moment and celebrating throughout life's many seasons.
I never thought much about my culture because I was always immersed in it. It wasn’t something I was conscious of, it was just something I lived.
I grew up in the Jewish community. My childhood friends were Jewish, my school was Jewish, and my summer camp was Jewish. Even when I went away to university, there was a strong Jewish presence I could easily lean into when it suited me.
Part of being Jewish is my connection to Israel. No matter how you feel about Israel’s government or your opinions on foreign affairs, it doesn’t change my religious, cultural, or historical ties to the land.
As part of my Jewish upbringing, I visited Israel 3 times.
The first time was for my Bat Mitzvah. You might think of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as a big party with music and entertainment, sometimes rivaling a wedding. Really, it’s a coming-of-age ceremony when boys (aged 13) and girls (aged 12) accept the laws and customs of Judaism for themselves.
I was not the party type and chose to celebrate my Bat Mitzvah on top of Mount Masada, an ancient fortress built by Herod the Great in the Judean Desert. It’s a significant part of Jewish history because after the Romans seized Jerusalem, Masada was the last Jewish community living in Judea, until 73 AD, when the Romans breached the fortress. Rather than be taken as Roman slaves, the rebel Jews took their own lives. What an uplifting place to mark such a special occasion, right?
The second time I visited Israel was for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. Hers was held at the Eastern wall of the Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. To this day we mourn the destruction of the first and second temples (586 BCE and 70 A.D) on the Jewish “holiday” Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year and a day of fast, usually corresponding to a warm, sunny August day.
The third time I visited Israel was on The March of The Living, a Holocaust education trip. The trip spends one week in Poland, walking the death camps, bearing witness to the 6 million Jews who were murdered by their European neighbors, and culminates in modern day Israel, where many surviving Jews came home to after the war.
Nothing out of the ordinary stood out to me at the time, but clearly each of these celebratory visits was entangled in a history of death and loss.
It was only on my 4th visit to Israel that I made the connection.
As we Jews like to ask on Passover, what is different about this trip than any other trip? The answer; my peers were not Jewish.
My 4th trip was a secular visit to Israel to study the nation’s startup tech scene for a course credit at business school.
Based on the book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, my classmates and I were there to learn how Israel, a 60-year-old nation with a population of 7.1 million, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources-- produces more start-up companies than any other foreign country.
What I took away was so much more.
Throughout history, Jews have always found themselves unwelcomed in the neighborhood at one point or another. Israel is merely the utmost example of this. Because of this reality, Israelis don’t sit on their plans for the future, they act. They’re not worried about a business failing or feeling self-conscious because the stakes they face are often life and death. They also know that life is too short not to have a good time.
That’s why celebrations, gatherings, and joy are such a big part of our shared Jewish culture. In every moment of happiness, we remember what it took to get here. In our happiest moments, we break a glass to remember the destruction of the temples, the very ruins my cousin and I stood among to mark our age of maturity.
It took seeing all of this as an outsider to fully realize it in my own life.
Since then, I’ve wanted to make the most of every good occasion and enjoy myself fully, even in the midst of sadness and tragedy. While I’m not a religious person, learning my grandparents’ stories of surviving the Holocaust and deepening my understanding of my family culture has helped me find meaning and strength I didn’t know I had.
Our world is far from perfect, but now I know where to look to experience the joy in every moment.