What it Means to be Jewish: Maya Aronoff '19

This is the third in a series of reflections on Judaism from current Princeton students. They were originally given as sermons during Yom Kippur services.


"Chutzpah is a firecracker word heard frequently in my household.  It’s always accompanied by a gesture.  “Eze chutzpah!” my aunt shouts or my mother laughs.  Things get tricky trying to explain the colloquialism to my non-Jewish friends.  It’s originally Yiddish, but now it’s become imbedded in everyday Hebrew and American Jewish vernacular.  It means nerve, yes, but the connotation is more complex.  Chutzpah is guts, spunk, refusal to take no for an answer.  Chutzpah is interrupting; chutzpah is low gravel rumbling from the back of the throat that doesn’t say sorry for the spit that comes with it; chutzpah is not apologizing for yourself.   Chutzpah is a synthesis of cultures and languages, a cacophony of voices with backbone, and it’s what defines my family and my experience with Judaism.

"Like the word chutzpah, my family comes from a mishmash of places—and, as a consequence, so does our faith.  Some grandparents are Jewish, some are Christian.  One was raised Greek Orthodox but left the Church when she left her first husband; another was a charming Lutheran who loved the Old Testament.  The Greek side of my family was driven from Izmir, Turkey in the 1920s.  The Dutch side of my family lived through the Hunger Winter, hiding Jews in their attics; another side were Jews who fled Russian pogroms. My mother grew up in the Netherlands, Israel, and New Jersey. 

"From this balagan (from Russian to Hebrew, meaning mess) comes a unique blend of languages and traditions that often deviate from a “typical” Jewish experience—whatever that even means. My parents are fluent in Dutch and Hebrew.  Although I am not, the slang has become so ingrained in our Aronoff vocabulary that I forget it’s not English.  We go to Israel every few years, but somehow, I never seem to pick up more than the basics: “I love you,” “I want ice cream,” and “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”  But because I love the sound of the language, here I go to conservative service, although my adherence to the rules puts me in a more reform-secular category.  And yet, never having gone to Hebrew school, I usually have no idea what I’m saying.  I watch the mouth of the rabbi to form the words.  At home, we don’t go to synagogue; instead, as a family, we worship God while in nature.  On Yom Kippur, we fast and enter the woods behind our house and talk together.  Passover is endless debate and the best lamb you ever tasted, Hanukkah means lighting the menorah but eating all the gold coins before we get the chance to play dreidel.  Yet on questionnaires, in public spaces, and inside my own head, I am Jewish, capital J Jewish as the origins of the word chutzpah and the languages I cannot read.  And somehow, as Jews, no matter how differently we experience tradition and faith, we recognize each other.  We exchange shanah tovas and familiar nods.  These communities are strange and fractured and wonderful. The only place they make sense are in my family.

"My family’s interpretation of Judaism boils down to two basic ideas: do good, then try to do better.  My grandmother always used to say, “make life a heaven on Earth.”  This idea seems fundamentally Jewish to me.  We don’t have hell; and although I’m sure about heaven, a lot of us may be iffy on it.   Judaism is more about the here and now—and where do you look for what to do here and now?  God.  For me personally, God is love. We all have a bit of that light inside of us.  You know when you really love someone—I mean, truly, deeply, love someone—so much that you can feel it, the slight burn in your solar plexus?  That is God.  I feel God when I dance, when I sing, when my family goes into the forest on the high holidays and watches autumn light filter through leaves just right so they catch fire.  Judaism is all about doing your best not just to believe in God—but to do God.  And God is good, so we must do good.  

"Of course, our hippie-like hikes seem a little weird.  But it seems to me that nothing is more Jewish than questioning the way things are “supposed” to be.  After all, both Abraham and Moses engaged in some pretty lively debates with God.  It’s in our blood to ask “why?”  Why, why, why?  We respect where we came from and thank the Lord for every step, but don’t hesitate to ask if where we are now is where we want to be. And that’s where the second part comes in: do good, then try to do better.  That’s why Yom Kippur is such a powerful holiday for me.  An entire people takes a step back, looks hard and true at themselves in the mirror, and promises to do better.  And to look at oneself critically and ask real forgiveness is very tough.  But so are Jews.  And so are the Aronoffs.  And that brings me back to my favorite noun.

"My  family is where we have the audacity, the chutzpah, to pick and choose what we like from each identity, where we don’t have to tangle with where we belong.  We have our own language, and we’re all fluent.  “Honestly, I’m neutral” means we have a very strong opinion about something.  On a hike, “almost there” means we are nowhere near our destination.  Birthdays are the most important religion, when we sing in three languages and six different keys.  In my family you have chutzpah!  You take “no” as a “maybe” and keep pushing for more.  The women in my family show me that being labeled “headstrong” because I speak my mind is a compliment.  This brass is the best thing we took from all of our cultures. Every rejection is a negotiation and every mistake an opportunity to do better next time.  We dare to be loud in a quiet room, interrupt, say no, be blunt, be forward, and shout love from the rooftops.  And as rebellious as I make that sound, that’s always been a part of Judaism too.  Being unapologetically, stubbornly, fiercely, proud.  Eze chutzpah.

"G'mar chatimah tova."