When I was first asked to write about how Jewish ritual has changed for me during these last challenging, complicated, home-based years, the first feeling I registered was shame. Most of my pandemic changes have included doing “less.”
I have a company where I focus on blending my Japanese American culture with Jewish faith. I do this through writing, recipe development and a shop that sells ritual objects. But lately, I’ve stopped lighting Shabbat candles weekly, I discontinued my temple membership and I barely did anything for the High Holidays this year. When the pandemic started, I tried watching a few virtual services, but it felt like more of the same thing I was doing all day every day.
My Judaism looked so different before the pandemic. For one, I lit candles each week and went to Friday night services regularly. There is something soothing about praying with a group of people in a holy place, processing the previous week and pausing for a moment to rest our spirits in a world not built for rest.
In September, my husband Bryan and I were some of many people who left San Francisco. We moved to a suburb nearby, and I considered joining a synagogue here. Every time I looked into it, I felt the same familiar feeling: Dread.
I am tired of being one of the only Jews of color in services and being hyper aware of making mistakes. I am tired of being asked more questions by security than anyone else. I am tired of being asked to use my photo for diversity purposes or to tell my conversion story to someone who does not know my name yet.
Despite all of that, I grieved what Judaism looked like pre-pandemic. In some ways, pre-COVID me was blissfully naïve; it seemed pretty low effort to go to temple on Fridays to feel like I was doing “enough.” At the time, I thought these moments of ritual were enough; I didn’t know at the time that all of these moments would add up to me one day wondering if it was possible to not be Jewish anymore. Like so many people, the pandemic has forced me to face what’s no longer working.
After reflecting on my changing relationship to Jewish ritual a bit more, another feeling surfaced: a swell of pride and hope. While I may be doing a little less on a weekly basis, I’ve formed deeply meaningful relationships with other Jews of color during the pandemic. I took classes with Ammud, the Jews of Color Torah Academy and experienced the fullness of being in a (Zoom) room full of Jews of color. I made new friends who accepted me as Jewish, no questions asked. I created meaningful new rituals, particularly around infertility, which Bryan and I have been struggling with for years.
Rabbi Mira from Ammud hosted a red tent ritual for myself and several special women in my life to affirm and bless my fertility journey. I was part of a healing circle for Jews of Color with the Bay Area Healing Center, in which we honored our ancestors and mourned the Black and brown lives disproportionately taken last year to COVID-19 and police violence.
And after the Atlanta spa shootings, my fellow Jewpanese friend Sasha Hippard and I hosted a community gathering for Asian Jews, where some of us wailed in the pain of so much unprocessed, now-surfacing trauma and held each other tight (virtually). And finally, I took in the scents of my own heritage: soy sauce, ground sesame seeds and miso for Havdalah under the guidance of teacher May Ye. It was one of the most powerful Jewish experiences I’ve ever had. All of these experiences were virtual, but they were also profoundly meaningful.
Bryan and I are hoping to start a family, and I want our mixed kids to be equipped with a Jewish education. It’s equally important to me that they are surrounded by a diverse Jewish community with diverse leaders, teachers and role models.
Bryan, who is an Ashkenazi Jew, will tell anyone who will listen about how much he hated Hebrew school. I often joke that much to his dismay, I became Jewish. I think creating new spaces and rituals are going to be the only thing that works for our family.
Early on in my Jewish education, I was taught that after the destruction of the second Temple, our Jewish rituals became centered around the home. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last couple of years. I pray that our home will continue to be a Jewish and Japanese sanctuary for our family and for our community.