A Wandering Jew

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| This is the 518th story of Our Life Logs |


“But why?” 

This became the epitome of my childhood and the main source of migraines for my parents. My innate curiosity for the world around me led me to question everything I was told and ponder everything I saw. I knew there was something more, that something was missing. I  didn’t want to just accept what I was told because someone with a scroll said it was true. I wanted to see for myself what was true.

My mother was raised in a Catholic family and also found herself questioning the world around her—I guess inquisitive minds run in the family. After she moved out of her parents’ home in Staten Island, she educated herself on worldly religions and soon found a new spiritual home in Judaism. That’s when she met my father. My father’s family was reformed as far as Judaism standards went on Long Island at the time. There was leniency, but still an air of religiosity within the home.  

Throughout my childhood in Georgia, my father was always a huge advocate for certain Jewish traditions, like not mixing meat and milk or eating pork. I would order a huge stack of delicious southern BBQ ribs at dinner and without a beat, my father would raise his eyebrows, look down over his big round glasses, and say with a slight grin, “That’s not kosher.” I knew it meant something to him, for whatever reason, but backed by my mother’s nonconformity, I’d continue enjoying my delicious non-kosher meal nonetheless.

When I started elementary school, my parents enrolled me in a private Jewish day school. Each morning I loathed the uniform I had to put on; something about the tiny buttons and coarse collars felt so restricting. Even so, I’d throw it on before my mom would collect my older sister and me into the car for our 6 AM drive through two hours of traffic across “Spaghetti Junction” to the Davis Academy.

The school would always start the day off with a traditional communal prayer service but catered to a group of elementary school children. Some of the songs were translated from Hebrew to English, and the Rabbi’s story was usually kid-centric. I actually didn’t mind the daily service; it usually gave me a chance to space out and try to fully wake up before I had to head to classes. My favorite part was always at the end of the service. The Rabbi would tell us to close our eyes, clear our minds, and “Make space for God.” This was my first exposure to meditation and mindfulness, and certainly wasn’t the last. 

After moving to Maryland during my last year of elementary school, our family joined a local conservative synagogue. So, I studied the Torah and had my bat mitzvah, all the while engaging in philosophical dialogue with my father about life, existence, religion, and everything in between. 

“But why would we still need to practice all these customs and traditions from so long ago?” I would ramble on as we drove home from Sunday school at the synagogue. 

“And why would a benevolent God make people hurt and suffer?”

He never had a concrete answer to any of my questions, but I wasn’t necessarily looking for one anyways. I was more interested in expanding my horizons and hearing his perspective as someone who, as far as I knew, fully believed in the Jewish faith. 

By the time my first year of middle school was half over, my father passed away. My family, for lack of a better word, abandoned all aspects of religion. We stopped celebrating the holidays; we stopped going to Shabbat services. Our religiosity as a family died along with my dad, but mine was always malleable from the start.

After his passing, life went on. Eventually, I found a sense of balance. I learned how to accept what I couldn’t control. But more than ever, I had questions. And I was determined to find answers.

Being fortunate enough to live in a diverse community in Maryland, my educational development in high school was filled with beautiful exchanges of culture and customs. I attended a friend’s Dastar Bandi and another friend’s quinceanera. But it wasn’t until I enrolled in an Asian Studies elective course in my junior year that I jumped down a spiritual rabbit hole. The course took me around the world.  

After learning about Buddhism, my soul felt at home. I was intrigued by the fact that the religion taught a set of techniques, not just a set of beliefs. It reappropriated the power back into the hands of its religious observers. This religion seemed to not only recognize the existence of pain and suffering but also promise that there was an end to it. And I was determined to find it.

Over time, I found myself identifying less and less with Judaism. I started calling myself a “Buddha-Jew” to respect my cultural roots but still allow myself the flexibility to express what was calling me to explore further. 

When I got to college, I felt the most alive during my philosophy course, Happiness and Meaning. The expansive topics opened my mind to new possibilities—I was awe-struck. “A class like this actually exists?!” I thought to myself during the first session. Finally, I found a place where my endless rants of questions served an actual purpose—and an academic one at that. 

Later that year, my mom encouraged me to reach out to find my own Jewish community on campus, but I had no interest in doing so. It just didn’t seem like a priority. I was indulged in scriptures from Nietzsche and Kant—there was no time for the Torah.

Though I’d never been out of the country before, when the opportunity to spend a semester abroad in Thailand fell into my lap, I knew where I was headed.  

My time in Thailand cultivated a newfound sense of universal love for Thai people and Buddhism, but I didn’t find myself realigning with a new religious identity as I had anticipated. To my surprise, my trip sent me in the opposite direction—into an existential crisis, and not the first of its kind.  

“How do we know what we think we know and where does the knowing or not knowing get us?” 

In an abyss of my own creation, I was confused and frustrated. I thought that dipping my toe into new theology and philosophy would give me the answers my soul craved to illuminate within my consciousness, not send me back into an abyss.

“What was the point?”

I felt like I had ended up right where I started. My lifetime of religious and philosophical inquiry started to feel like a huge waste of time—wasted time thinking about ideas I didn’t want to think about, feeling foreign emotions that made me uncomfortable, considering new perspectives in the dark with little to no guidance. I wanted a clear answer that I didn’t need to question. I wanted it to be simple. 

When I came back from Thailand, I let these realizations settle into aspects of my everyday life. I thought back on the wandering spirit I’d always had and learned to accept what I didn’t, and couldn’t, know. 

Soon I came to realize that, sometimes, answers aren’t found—they’re created. And sometimes, there isn’t an answer at all. It was only as simple as I was allowing it to be.

When there are things in life that we don’t understand, sometimes the confusion can seem so expansive that we stop asking the right questions, or stop asking questions at all. We can find ourselves lost looking for answers, sometimes in the wrong places. I came to realize that it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to doubt. It’s okay to question. Without questioning what I knew to be true, I never would have discovered the things that I know about myself today.

Today, I still identify as Jewish—in fact, I try to announce it as frequently as I can. It is my culture and my upbringing—even if it is not my only religion. I practice some parts of Buddhism and shelf others. Maybe I’ll pick up traits and puzzle pieces of other traditions and teachings along the way. Who knows? If anything, my life-long journey of questioning just about near everything has taught me the importance of what I can only describe as the newfound sense of universal connection that I feel today.  

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This is the story of Natasha Palance

Natasha has always questioned, well, just about everything. Through a lifetime of beautifully loving exchanges and substantial loss, she explored a universe of possibilities only to emerge feeling more at peace than when she had started. This is Natasha’s story of exploring chaos, religion, and existence.

Natasha is a New York-based journalist who is especially passionate about human rights and advocacy. She continues to illuminate marginalized narratives through a limitless practice in storytelling. Writing is how she seeks justice and equality in a world that is far from that.

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This story first touched our hearts on March 16, 2019.

| Writer: Natasha Palance | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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