I was brought up believing that there was a very specific "right" way to be Jewish. We were "modern Orthodox"; the ultra-Orthodox were fanatics, the Conservatives were misguided, and the Reform were barely Jewish. Better than not being Jewish at all, however - one of my teachers in the Jewish day school I attended said flat out that any non-Jewish person would steal from a Jewish person, even kill a Jew if they knew they would not be caught. Since my best friend and next-door neighbor was not Jewish, that was my first lesson that the rabbis weren't always right. This was a heretical thought in that environment - rabbis were considered only slightly beneath G-d for infallibility. Since the most common answers to difficult questions were "G-d said so" and "Ask your local rabbi", rabbis had a lot of slack.
It was deeply ingrained in me that our way of practicing Judaism was the right, the only way, and yet as time went on I began to notice things that did not fit into my newly-developing sense of feminism. After fifth grade, girls and boys were split into separate classes. Boys learned Talmud and gemorra, and girls learned laws of the household. Once, a substitute taught us in detail how to kill and kasher a chicken, because after all, that was what we needed most to learn to be good Jewish wives. When, during recess one day, I crossed the playground to talk to a boy I had known since birth, it was made clear that there was something bad and dangerous about communication between the sexes. Once a month, we gathered together in the cafeteria for morning prayers. There was a curtain strung across the room, boys on one side and girls on the other. The boys led the prayers from their side, and we followed blindly their muffled voices, listening to them read a Torah we never saw that contained the words we lived by.
By the time I got to college, it was nearly impossibly for me to ignore the conflicts between my Jewish values and those that applied to the rest of my life. My mother always taught me that, as a woman, I could do anything I wanted - and yet, somehow, that did not include standing before the Torah or wearing a tallis. I was taught to respect people's choices - except when it came to religion. Sitting behind a mechitza in synagogue, knowing that my presence counted for nothing, made me feel more and more invisible. I tried going to egalitarian services, but couldn't get past the idea that sitting together with men was wrong. Finally, one Kol Nidre, something snapped. I went into services and sat down behind the mechitza. Within minutes, I felt as though I were suffocating. Before the first prayer was ended, I stood up and bolted from the room. I sat outside the building and cried, overcome by anger and helplessness and fear of losing that part of my life that was most important to me. I defined myself in terms in my religion. What it took me more long hard years to learn, was that the religion I was defining myself in terms of was not something I had chosen, it was something that had been forced on me.
What kept me from examining my beliefs too closely was the fear that if I did, like a dream it would all melt away - that this thing that was so much a part of me would turn out to be illusion, and I would no longer know who I was. I had to find the courage to trust both myself and Judaism before I could look at either of us closely. But with the help and support of some wise and loving friends, I began, bit by bit, to find that courage. I started finding the courage to really look at my beliefs and practices, and ask myself why I did these things, and allow myself the opportunity to try new ways. And I found that while some of the trapping of Judaism are rotten to me, at the core it is sweet and fresh and fills my soul.
In the end, I've kept to most of the practices I grew up with, but they mean so much more to me now. I used to resent the shabbos, because I couldn't go out and do things like other people. once I realized that it was my choice, that I could do whatever I wanted, somehow it became more important to me to have that day of rest to myself. Keeping kosher, which used to be a burden, became a way of constantly reminding myself in one of the most basic ways possible of who I am and where I come from. But the biggest change was in synagogue. One Rosh Hashanah I went with a friend to an egalitarian minyan. Since I was a guest, they asked me to do g'lilah, the tying of the Torah. After I carefully tied and wrapped the Torah, I sat on the bimah holding it on my lap, barely able to see through my tears of joy. In that moment, the Torah was everything to me - my parent, my child, my lover, my life. I had gone far in my journey for meaningful religion, and it ended, as it started, in a synagogue. Finally, I had come home.