Jewish Handiwork

12/16/2015 - 3:30pm
The hands of many people shaped the person I am today.

Hands are key to my Jewish identity. Via Pixabay

Using a silver cup I pour water on my hands, once on my right, then on my left, three times. I watch the water rush down my hands and into the sink. Al netilat yadayim (on the washing of hands) — I reflect on my gratitude for the commandment to wash my hands as preparation for holy actions. I am ready.

My Jewish identity consists of many disjointed facets. Seeking commonality in my memories, I found one recurring image: hands. The people who appear in my memories used their hands to sanctify mine. The memory of my dad’s hands on the car’s steering wheel, fighting traffic to get me to school, brought dedication to me as a learner. The memory of my grandparents hosting Shabbat dinners for my cousins and me almost every week. Their hands set the table and cooked beautiful meals — a meaningful, intergenerational practice — and therefore, tradition matters to me.

When my friends and I discuss social, philosophical and political issues, they help my hands decide how they will use their values to shape my life and the lives of others. Are people inherently good or evil? What does Judaism say about income inequality? These conversations make me a social critic, constantly studying the world I live in. My teachers bring enthusiasm and accessibility to the classroom, which has inspired my hands to build meaningful and exciting learning opportunities for others in my roles as a leader, tutor and teacher.

As I grow up, there will also be times when I will have to learn not to use my hands, but to raise my voice. The trouble with having Jewish hands is that they often carry the burden of historical and contemporary oppression. Earlier this year at the beach I found a lost kippah. I brought it to the lifeguard to hold onto in case its owner returned. The lifeguard laughed, joked that it was his and threw it at me. I left, unsure of a safe response.

Sometimes I can try to control anti-Semitism by writing, raising awareness on social media or by reminding my peers of our obligation to defend our people. But when I go to college, I know that there will be some whose hands have not been sanctified by values of coexistence. These people may verbally harass me or decorate my school with anti-Semitic propaganda. Anti-Semitism will rattle my hands, test them and make them ache. But I will also need to fight oppression with the most important Jewish value: loving one’s neighbor as oneself. I will need to shake hands with them in an effort to wash them in the gifts that my privileged upbringing has given me.

My hands are still learning — I am still learning. But I know that the actions of those in my world are what make me the Jewish woman that I am.

author's bio: 
Noa Rubin is a senior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.