When I was 15 I spent my junior year or high school in a small, cold city in the north of Israel. Desperate to flee the cows and orange groves, I would ascend to Jerusalem on weekends to hang out on Ben Yehuda. In the maze of alleyways that branched out from it, which I clung to like a tree of life, I found tea houses and book stores—perfect hangouts for an alienated teenage girl 10,000 miles away from home.
Strangely, I spent much of my time in Israel pondering how un-Jewish I felt. I looked at my peers and felt like I didn’t fit in: my ambitions in life didn’t include marrying my boyfriend from Camp Ramah or becoming the president of the local USY chapter—both venerated goals in the Los Angeles community I had been living in—or joining the Israeli army, as many of my American peers in Israel fantasized of doing after climbing Masada at dawn. That year, more than anything, I romanticized myself as a Jewish, female Holdon Caufield, alone in all of my miserable, misunderstood glory.
Like the Wicked Child in the Passover Seder, I found myself repeatedly asking adults around me: Who are these people, the Jews, and what do they and their history mean to you? To you, and not to me. These Jews—from the religious, sanctimonious girls I knew at home, to the rabidly anti-Palestinian boys I knew in Israel—did not seem to be my people. With an adolescent’s laser focus on hypocrisy, I would see the veneration of Jews all around me who lacked sensitivity, intelligence, depth or moral righteousness. No matter how loudly I raised my voice in protest against what I saw. no one seemed to care. I was dismissed with that ultimate wave of the hand: an angry teenager.
One rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, I ducked into my favorite English bookstore in an alley off of Ben Yehuda. Browsing the book section, I came across a copy of a book called The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley. Since I was feeling quite disturbed myself, the title was immediately appealing. 1 found a table in their small adjoining cafe, lit up a cigarette (remember, I was perfecting my alienated teenager routine) and began to read.
Paley’s words struck me like a shofar blast. Her writing leaped off the page, grabbed me by my heart and didn’t let go. There was her voice: powerful and singular, funny, honest, compassionate and above all things, deeply, profoundly Jewish. My new rush of love was cemented when I came across the story “The Loudest Voice,” the tale of a Jewish girl in a public school who is asked to narrate the Christmas pageant over all of her gentile friends because she has, without dispute, the loudest voice—and that loud voice was her great gift.
These were not stories of nice Jewish girls who married their camp boyfriends. Here was a Jewish woman who celebrated her ambivalence, her loudness, and a Judaism that was steeped both with being an outsider and a commitment to social justice. Reading her words, for the first time, I thought that maybe there was room for a Jew like me—someone who identified most with the otherness of being Jewish, of not fitting into the mold. Paley’s loud, unapologetic, empathetic voice helped me find my own. And, for the first time in that long, lonely year, I felt hope for the Jewish woman I could become.
Ruth Andrew Ellenson is the editor of The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt (Dutton, 2005).