Growing Jewish

2 months ago Emilio Chayo 0

Being Jewish is no easy task. Whether we are in Tel Aviv, Brooklyn, or Cancun—every single one of us faces daily struggles. In my opinion, though, we—teenagers—are the ones who have the hardest task. As teens, we find ourselves involved in a fight mightier than any in history but a battle that happens so frequently that it’s not in our history textbooks. That battle is the conflict that we have inside of us. This is not to say adults don’t have this problem, in truth, they also face internal struggles everyday. The difference is that adults often times battle with logic, while we teens fight with emotions.

I grew up in a Secular Jewish environment. Cancun is not exactly known for its outstanding Yeshivas (there are none), or  kosher food (there is no kosher supermarket, and almost everything has to be made from scratch or flown in from somewhere else). I could write three full pages about all the things that’d be great to have in Cancun, but the point is not how much we are lacking, because everyone lacks something, but rather how much different our lives are developed.

Since I was a young boy, there were always three rules in the house that I remember vividly:

  1. Always say the Shema with Dad before going to bed
  2. We do not eat any non-kosher food. Meaning, we did not eat pork or horsemeat but would eat beef or chicken, even if there was no shechita involved
  3. The only place that we are allowed to go to on Shabbos is our local Shul. It doesn’t matter whose final project you had to go finish or whose party you were going to miss, Shabbos is the day that the family stays together.

As a little guy growing up, I didn’t have much problem following these rules since I always did what my parents told me to do, I didn’t have much plans of my own, and if I did, I was young enough for my parents to make me ditch said plans.

As a teenager though, that’s when it gets complicated. Now suddenly, I was going out with friends and had to constantly explain why I couldn’t join them for a pizza, or why I was going to miss that birthday party. Living in such a secular place like Cancun means that most of the people surrounding you will take you as the representative of Jews all around the globe and whatever you do or don’t do effects their views on Jews as a whole. For both of these reasons, my mind was always in a constant battle, I could either be a role model worth Jew and miss out on whatever is going on around me, or do the stuff happening all around me and be a bad representative of what Judaism stands for.

The battle hit its climax when my school announced that prom was going to be on a Friday night. Up until then, I had been brainstorming on promposals and had even gotten money to buy tickets for prom. When I found out about the date, I suddenly became undecided. Everyone was going, and everybody knew the reason why I couldn’t go but didn’t understand it. To be fair, even I didn’t.

I had people close to me just say, “Hey! C’mon man, it’s just one night, one exception, who cares?”

The words resonated within me. Just one exception, they said. I could make one teensy tiny exception. Couldn’t I?

My mind was made. Making one exception to the rule was acceptable. Going out this Friday night for prom was not the problem. No, the problem was the Shabbat after. If I made an exception then, what’s stopping me from making an exception the next Shabbat a friend had a party I wanted to attend? I already made one exception and that didn’t hurt my Jewishness, what about a second? And, while we are at it, why shouldn’t I plan my birthday party on a Friday like all the other kids?

You see, after you make one exception to the rule, nothing is stopping you from making an exception the next twenty times. Also, if you already made an exception to one of your rules, then what’s stopping you from making one on another rule? What’s stopping you from eating that delicious-looking pepperoni pizza?

That Friday, I didn’t go to prom; I went to shul, a decision that put me on the path of growing slow and steady in my Judaism. A path I am not sure I would’ve found if I had walked ten more minutes to prom.  

Growing up Jewish, while hard, builds character. It makes us stronger, it makes us independent, and most importantly, it gives us identity. I can’t say that if you stop going out on Friday nights, you won’t miss out on the things happening around you, because you will–on loads of stuff. But if you stick to what you think is right and to the rules you have for yourself, you’ll find the things you were missing out on were not meant for you anyway.