To Fast or not to fast?
“Etz chaim” is a term in the Jewish faith that translates to “tree of life.” It is often used to refer to the Torah, which in the broadest sense, refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.
For my entire life, my Jewish roots have remained strong and secure. On the spectrum of active practice, my family and I veer more on the reserved side of Judaism, going to the temple mainly for the high holidays. Growing up, my brothers and I eagerly listened to stories told by my father about distant family members and their experiences living in Israel and serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). My siblings and I went to Hebrew school and were bar/bat mitzvahed in front of the congregation, our Rabbi, our Cantor, and our loved ones. We always light the menorah for the eight nights of Hanukkah and hold an intimate Passover seder with our Haggadahs in hand. Being Jewish is a part of my identity and keeping that religious and cultural spirit alive has always been incredibly important to me.
I grew up in Jericho, New York, where most of my friends were either completely Jewish or half-Jewish. But, when I came to Duke, I found myself in an environment where I was surrounded by a myriad of people who were different from me in terms of both their backgrounds and cultural identities as well as perspectives and thoughts. Out of approximately 6,650 undergraduate students, there are only 809 Jewish students, contributing to 12% of the Duke population. I felt incredibly excited by the idea of expanding my horizons and meeting students with diverse backgrounds. But at the same time, I felt further and further than I ever had before from my religious beliefs. I was overwhelmed with adjusting to life as a college student; ultimately, attempting to juggle social and academic priorities led me to neglect my religious traditions.
This year, my Calculus I midterm fell on the Monday of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – and my Computer Science midterm was on the Wednesday of that same week. I had been stressed about both exams, so I made the conscious decision to skip the holiday celebrations and services to study. At that moment, I felt that the time I would’ve spent observing the holiday could have been “better” used for studying. While I was cooped up in the library, deliberating over derivatives, I found myself checking my phone to catch a glimpse of my family gathered together to celebrate the New Year. For the remainder of the day, I had a colossal pit in my stomach. I was afraid that I was a “bad” Jew because I chose to prioritize my schoolwork; I had never felt so foreign from my own fundamental beliefs.
Just a few weeks later, the holiest day of the Jewish year occurred: Yom Kippur. A day symbolized by atonement, forgiveness, and asking God to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year. Yom Kippur is an incredibly significant day for those who practice. With such a meaningful day looming, I felt unsettled. For the entire week prior, I debated with myself, my family, and anyone I could talk to about what I should do:
Do I fast or go to class?
Do I fast and go to class?
Or, do I go about my day as if it were any other typical day?
To everyone whose ear I talked off, the consensus was “do whatever you want to do.” Nobody could answer this question for me, nor did they want to. I found myself becoming jealous of my fellow Jewish students who felt completely comfortable abandoning their schoolwork for the entire 24-hour fasting period. I certainly didn’t feel that security at all. I felt, and I still feel, that if I miss even one class I’ll fall behind.
As I sat in each of my classes on that Wednesday, I realized that I saw little to none of my Jewish friends around me. They had decided to unplug for the day and fast, spending their day being truly in touch with their traditional values. And yet, there I was, contemplating what I had done and why. The tree that once grounded me, and allowed me to be confident in my Jewish traditions and core beliefs, was now completely disheveled.
I have done a lot of reflecting on that day, thinking about myself, my choices, and what values are truly important to me. I am so incredibly proud of my heritage, especially at this time when antisemitism is on the rise and what it means to be a Jew.
My relationship with my faith and my traditions throughout my college years is a work in progress, but a journey that I am ready for. The first step to replanting my Jewish roots is acknowledging the role I’ve played in the decisions I’ve made. There will be times when both myself, as well as other Duke students, may struggle with the choice between academic priorities and religious traditions. Every individual has their own experiences honoring religious practices and may have a different relationship with their heritage. However, I know that my Jewish roots will always keep me grounded. And for that, I can be grateful.