My Journey to Judaism: Love, Laughter and Light

It’s all in the name.

So, first of all my name is HESTER MISHKIN. Let me just ask this: how could I NOT be Jewish with this name? Seriously. That’s it, essay complete – need I say more? I’m done, right? ☺

Ok, all characteristically Jewish humor aside, when I was about 7 years old I saw a movie called Hester Street after brewing a natural amount of curiosity from many comments from others about this famous place in the Lower East Side and my name. Aside from the obvious connection, I grew to know that there were elements of these people and their stories that deeply resonated with me on a personal level, almost paralleling my own personal life challenges even though the specific circumstances were completely different:

  • They lived in difficult circumstances with a dream of living a better life.
  • They were underdogs confronted with persecution, prejudice, and chaos.
  • They had to adapt in order to thrive in a new circumstance they didn’t create.
  • They knew who they were and cherished values much greater their own whims.
  • They were devoted to traditions and values much bigger than themselves.

Ethnically and culturally, I hail from a mix of Boston-based Italian/Irish immigrants on my maternal side, and white Anglo-Saxons direct from the Mayflower on my paternal side.

However, I was also born in 1968. This time coupled with other circumstantial factors was a game changer that in many ways that pulled the rug out from under my feet – specifically, the fibers of religious, cultural, and familial roots. My rebellious “hippie” parents wanted nothing to do with either of their cultural and religious upbringings. The also baulked the conventions of a professional identity and conventional “grown up” life. I am not casting blame, nor ungratefully smearing a sob story as I did not have to live in a war torn refuge camp or scavenge for food from dumps or endure serious abuse. But my childhood was tainted with a good deal of familiar strife, reckless behavior and substance abuse from adults who were supposed to create safety and stability for me, financial stress, divorce, and remarriages that left me feeling alone as well as:

  • Living in difficult circumstances with a dream of living a better life.
  • Feeling like an underdog confronted with persecution, prejudice, and chaos.
  • Needing to adapt in order to thrive in circumstances I didn’t create.
  • Yearning for a connection to cherished values greater than parental whims.
  • Desiring a stable root in tradition and devotion to help me feel safe.

Sound familiar?

I believe that our souls connect to others on a level that is far beyond physical circumstances. Deep below the surface of places, things, and time lies our essential nature and purpose that transcends our physical conditions. I also believe that we truly receive what we repeatedly ask for and create our life experience by what we choose to think.

Judaism feels like the answer God has given to me to fulfill the desires I’d yearned for throughout my life going back to meeting my Jewish husband Andy. Judaism with B’NAI Portland feels like the stable loving home I always wanted but never had. It feels like my people.

Simply put, my soul feels Jewish.

My experience with other religions was a journey of fear and shame.

I tried. I really did. Growing up as a guest of Catholic services with my best childhood friend and sometimes with relatives, I experienced more fear, shame, and dread during the services than anything. The donuts and flowers were a fond memory, but the tone, the words, and the message most often left me feeling badly about myself – and powerless. The crucifix concept just never hit a note with me. I have not had enough exposure to Muslim religions to make a fair assessment for how this would fit me, however I do recognize the universality in humble prayer, candles, chanting, and covering oneself within many devotions. I have adopted some Taoist and Buddhist principles and mediation practices, but I do not see these are religious in nature.

I have also learned to recognize that the more conservative and fundamental any religion tends to sway brings with it extremism, intolerance, misogyny, and violence. My own experience with the Jewish people has been one of acceptance, tolerance, and personal freedom. Judaism is the first formal religion that has given me a sense of belonging and a genuine oneness with God. For many years, I didn’t even feel comfortable referencing God (and most certainly not JC) because of the shame and guilt I had experienced within my non-official Catholic experiences. When I began to attend services, praying, and practice Shabbat, I began to experience a very natural but potent connection with and understanding of God than I had yet to experience in my life. Not only though the light radiating within me but, a through a loving omnipresence that was undeniable. The same cannot be said for my biological origins of Christianity.

I met my beshert before I really knew anything about being Jewish (LOVE).

“Who acts from love is greater than who acts from fear.” -Talmud

First, it must be mentioned that my first-ever slow dance with a boy that led to a major crush was while in 7th grade at a summer camp mixer with a nearby all-boys camp. He was David Schumaker from New York City who was the sweetest, most polite and kindest boy I’d ever known until that point in my preteen life. As absurd as it may sound, I believe it was a clue of things to come.

All shtick aside, I remember the day I met my husband with as much precise clarity and detail that I can recall any moment in my life. In hindsight, I believe that he was a gift from God to me and that our meeting was divinely orchestrated.

The year leading up to meeting Andy, I don’t think I had ever felt more alone in my life. I was in my junior year of college and living abroad for study and travel. Although it sounds exciting, it was incredibly lonely at the same time. I yearned for love and acceptance more than ever and in my desperation for it, failed to find it time and time again. Being abroad somehow accentuated my isolation and sense of being orphaned. As a result, I spent many hours walking the streets of foreign cities and riding trains through European landscapes stewing on that which I lacked, sending my dire wish into the Universe. I know realize was I was praying to God for unconditional and complete love.

I returned back to Maine that summer and resumed my waitressing job at a local lobster house that each summer earned me enough cash pay my room and board for college and support myself for an entire year. At the very last place I expected and at an unsuspected moment, I crossed path with destiny one afternoon in the kitchen of Cook’s Lobster House, in a white t-shirt, red bandana, blue jeans, wavy brown hair and blue eyes; my beshert.

Why didn’t I recognize this and convert long ago? Well, it’s been a long, winding journey as are most life partnerships and lasting loves. We’ve had to fight for each other and our union many times over, commit and recommit to it. Both together and individually we have had to grow, fail, soar, suffer, thrive and much more. It has taken many years to officially and devotionally bring Judaism into our partnership and our family. At times, my personal pain has made me unable to trust others. Or, I have been fearful of losing something of myself and baulked at authority. I have questioned and looked for evidentiary proof so that I can ensure safety and protection for myself, and so forth and so on. Now, I believe in the amazing gift God has given me in my husband and now our child, nothing short of answered prayers. And I believe that the perfect Rabbi and congregation were placed in our lives for this very purpose.

I am now ready to step up to my destiny now and honor my truth. Ok, so it’s only taken me 50 years…

My kind of people

I went to my first Seder in Queens NY with Andy in 1989 at his Uncle Sammy’s. The house was right out of Archie Bunkers neighborhood, and was filled with charming antiques, photographs, comforting smells coming from the kitchen, and lots of warmth. The New York accents were thick and the laughter was loud and frequent. The matzo balls washed down by Manichevitz wine was completely awesome. These are my people I thought.

  • They have a great sense of humor.
  • They stick to their guns.
  • They accept others for who they are.
  • They do a great deal with very little.
  • They say what they mean and mean what they say.
  • They light candles.
  • They accept me.
  • They seem to like me a great deal. And I’m not even Jewish.

As a family, we embetter ourselves and our love through Judaism.

“The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” Talmud

Shabbat is a ritual that grounds our family and our home. It has become the glue that binds us and heals us from fatigue, weariness or worry. The High Holidays have become a truly spiritual event for our family, one of reflection and renewal. For me, the traditions make more sense and simply feel more right within my soul than any other. While I have practiced some rituals of Buddhism and Taoism in my career as a martial artist as well, more philosophically than religiously, they have paled in comparison to the unity and instantaneous connection Judaism brings to our family. The roots are deep and, through marriage to my husband and motherhood of our daughter, I feel those roots illuminated within me.

B’NAI PORTLAND has been nothing short of “instant family.” I have rarely ever else felt such a rapid and meaningful connection with a group of people. I believe the mission and purpose clearly speaks to and attracts people who wish to practice in a way that is flexible and strong where it counts (service, love, celebration) and more flexible with the “pomp and circumstance” of strict adherence to formalities. B’nai members demonstrate their Jewish virtues through their actions, time and time again, following the example set by their leader Rabbi Laura Boenisch. The same cannot be said for many religious groups and congregations based on my experience. There is not “what’s in it for me” at B’nai Portland. It has been nothing short of a Godsend to us.

Jewish values most important to me: GIVING-LIGHT-KNOWLEDGE

“For it is in giving we receive.” St. Francis of Assisi

It has been my personal experience that in giving to others, the misery induced by ego and selfishness give way to the joy of becoming part of something much bigger and more lasting than yourself. The Jewish People are statistically the MOST charitable religion. And B’nai Portland greatly emphasizes this value in its teachings, services, and community events. I have always felt great joy and satisfaction in giving back and serving others in needs, since I was a small child. I feel this value is more greatly embodied by Judaism than in any other religion, where many in fact do much more taking than giving.

“A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.” Jewish Proverb I have been lighting candles my whole life. I believe in the power of light and positivity, particularly resiliency. The Jewish people are incredibly resilient and I believe the steadfast adherence to candle lighting with prayers and reverence plays a powerful role in this trait. Lighting Shabbat candles has created a healing and grounding energy in our home. In times of despair and heartache, lighting candles helps us remember our connection to God and a greater purpose beyond our momentary suffering.

“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Talmud It has been said that Judaism is a religion of books, and one of perpetual interpretation and study at that. This ongoing scrutiny and quest for knowledge is a trait that deeply resonates with me. Of course, there are clear commandments to follow, but the vast volume of texts, ancient writing gives ways to an endless possibility of learning. Furthermore, the interpretation is vast and within the ideological framework of B’nai Portland one can forge a personal relationship with God that empowers (rather than limits) their transformation and evolution as a Jew. I believe this affords a greater capacity for love, compassion, and giving.

My Tzedaka

  • I give back to my community through our family business and martial arts school by contributing knowledge, happiness and resources to those in need of strength, courage, and protection and in helping to raise conscientious and helpful citizens in the children we teach.
  • I serve my family with devotion by supporting and leading Shabbat services in our home, preserving the traditions of holy days and holidays, and by leading with a loving heart in my daily interactions and activities as a mother and wife.
  • I choose compassionate in my thoughts and actions as a citizen in my daily interactions with others, big or small, in remembering that God made all of us and that we are all divinely connected.
  • I accept and forgive others for their shortcomings or flaws because releasing negative or judgmental thoughts will serve me and those who cross my path far better than hate will.
  • I fight for others to find strength and personal power to change because I believe it is my unique purpose based on my experience, education and abilities to do so — my lifelong mitzvah to fulfill.

What more of interest to learn?

First, I believe I need to continually learn and relearn “Judaism 101” and the major holidays, prayers and traditions. Repetition and disciplined practice is warranted to solidify anything new as well and I believe deeper meaning continues to emerge from this. I am however intrigued to learn at some point when time affords more about Kabbalah. Based on my very limited exposure, it 9 appears to possibly connect Judaic thought with some of the Vedic meditative traditions I have studied as well (the power of the subconscious mind).