For as long as I can remember, I have been stuck in the middle. At the non-denominational Jewish elementary and middle school I attended, I was the only Orthodox student, doing homework and taking notes alongside my intelligent, cynical, and proudly non-religious classmates. Every Shabbat at my Orthodox synagogue, I was the only kid who did not attend the local ultra-orthodox yeshiva populated by the wild children of black-hatted, black-bearded rabbis who learned and taught Torah and their demure, bewigged wives who raised children and made excellent kugels. On weekdays after school, my brother and I studied various masechtot (tractates) of Talmud with our Rabbi from shul, and my worlds collided. My Reform and Conservative classmates walking through school hallways wearing shorts and t-shirts would stop and stare as a man decked out in a white dress shirt, black hat, and thick leather volume tucked under his arm would lead my brother and I into a quiet room in the corner of the building to study 1,500 year old Jewish legal arguments pertaining to questions of finding lost objects, the laws of public Torah reading, the intricacies of the Jewish calendar, as well as fanciful Talmudic legends and stories. I loved it all: the challenge of reading foreign script, the winding legal analysis, the Yiddish phrases my Rabbi would pepper his questions with, and finally, the strange, surging emotion of connectivity that I felt to ancient commentators and arcane ideas. I wanted more.
Outside in the halls, my friends passed the time waiting to be picked up by listening to rap music, playing basketball, and contemplating asking out girls they liked over Facebook. Meanwhile, just a few hundred feet away, my brother, the Rabbi, and I were engaged in a passionate argument over whether one who finds a bundle of purple wool indiscriminately scattered on the sidewalk is required to announce this discovery even if the original owner has already given up hope on finding the object. After the hour-long study session, I would get up, pocket the kippah I wore on my head, complete homework problems far more boring than discussions of purple wool, and talk to my friends about basketball, dances, and upcoming tests.
In middle school, my classmates began asking me questions about my Orthodox faith, practices, and upbringing. One boy couldn’t understand how I could keep Shabbat and therefore not use the Internet for a whole day. Another girl had questions about kashrut and why God would care what we ate. A close friend of mine was an Asian Jew and an outspoken atheist. In 7th grade, we would sit for hours at lunchtime discussing basketball and dances as well as science, god (or lack thereof) and philosophy. I didn’t have the answers to all of my classmates’ questions, so I asked my black hatted rabbi, an English major at Yale who became observant in his 20s and today rails against secular college, homosexuals, and television. He gave me some answers I liked, others I didn’t and a bit later on, I went home and asked my modern orthodox, college-attending, television-owning parents the same questions and they gave me different answers. And it was then, as a confused 7th grader, that I discovered that one question can have many answers. I later discovered that this concept has rich precedent in Jewish tradition. While learning the Talmud with my Rabbi, we stumbled upon the famous statement ‘eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayimÓ (Eiruvin 13b); these and these are the words of the living God.
Ultimately, the wisdom of the 1,500-year-old Talmud proved to be true as ever. I learned a tremendous amount about basketball, dances, life, and its purpose from my atheist friend, the wife of the conservative Rabbi who taught me Jewish Studies, my parents, and the ultra-orthodox yeshiva-educated Rabbi who tutored me for all those years. All of them taught me something about how to navigate through the world using Jewish values, Torah, my own intellect, and a sense of humor as my guides. Being stuck in the middle was difficult and alienating at time, but in the long run, I am so grateful to have been able to learn from Jews of all stripes and colors. Pirkei Avot teaches: ‘who is wise? One who learns from all people.’ If nothing else, I have merited to fulfill that teaching time and time again.