For the first week of the year 5777, Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series fea­tures writ­ers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronf­man, z”l, and his ded­i­ca­tion to Jew­ish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and lega­cy in his final book, Why Be Jew­ish?: A Tes­ta­ment.

My ear­li­est mem­o­ry of the Bronf­man Youth Fel­low­ships is from the first night, when a bunch of us ado­les­cents draped on cots in the 92nd Street Y, awk­ward­ly get­ting to know each oth­er. What’s your denom­i­na­tion?” some­one posed to the group.

A crisp 100,” I want­ed to joke. 

But before I could, peo­ple went around the room and answered. Ortho­dox, Reform, Uptown Conservative.” 

Huh? I sunk back into a pil­low hop­ing no one would turn my way. I had nev­er even heard the word used to describe a type of Judaism — or was it syn­a­gogue? My denom­i­na­tion, I gath­ered, was tra­di­tion­al Holo­caust”. I came from a close-knit Pol­ish shtetl trans­plant set in Catholic French Que­bec, where almost all the syn­a­gogues were Ortho­dox even though none of the peo­ple were remote­ly obser­vant. Most of us had sur­vivor grand­par­ents. We learned Yid­dish gram­mar and Israeli poet­ry about army medics at our non-reli­gious day school.

I’m a Shoah-based lob­ster Jew,” I mut­tered, but no one heard as con­ver­sa­tion had already turned to a rad­i­cal decon­struc­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic hous­ing poli­cies accord­ing to Tal­mu­dic code. 

And here was my first brush with Amer­i­can Jewry.

My Mon­tre­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was small and self-enclosed. I had heard about the Bronf­man pro­gram from an old­er alum­na who’d attend­ed my high school, one of the few who went to the Unit­ed States for col­lege. She daz­zled me. Feel­ing suf­fo­cat­ed, sub­ur­ban and incon­se­quen­tial, I craved a life that was big­ger, world­ly. I dreamed of sophis­ti­ca­tion. My par­ents did not want me to go to Israel (until the last minute they had refused to dri­ve me to the inter­view in Boston), but I fought for this release. At 17, their unwill­ing­ness only fueled my flee­ing fire. This was my first time doing some­thing tru­ly on my own, know­ing no one, out­side my coun­try and my com­fort zone. I had just grad­u­at­ed from high school, and here was the begin­ning of the rest of my life.

It wasn’t an easy begin­ning. I was like the oth­er fel­lows, but also unlike them. I was raised with an immi­grant, work­ing-class, con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues, self-dep­re­cat­ing back­ground, per­haps a gen­er­a­tion behind my peers, who seemed so com­fort­able in their Hebra­ic skins, earnest and cen­tered with strong opin­ions on leg­isla­tive issues I only over­heard on Ver­mont pub­lic tele­vi­sion. I had not gone to a pro­gres­sive prep school, or tak­en stan­dard­ized tests. I could not recite even one prayer, the Amer­i­can Nation­al Anthem, or Walt Whit­man. I didn’t know the lin­go de rigueur, and was intim­i­dat­ed by everyone’s vast knowl­edge and skill for pre­sen­ta­tion and debate. With time, though, I picked up on terms and ideas, and made life­long friends.

I want to say that I spent six weeks in Israel deeply moved by the trip’s pro­gram­ming, that the impas­sioned lec­tures and poet­ic exchanges altered my self-con­cept and my under­stand­ing of Jew­ish his­to­ry, that the tiuls (hikes, excur­sions) shaped me, inspired me, led me to become a writer. I want to claim that the prof­fered buf­fet of Jew­ish posi­tions renewed my appre­ci­a­tion of cul­ture and faith, taught me a love of the writ­ten word, endowed me with an awe for sto­ry­telling and the pow­er of narrative. 

But the truth is, at 17, I wasn’t there yet. I was busy rebelling and run­ning away, new­ly embark­ing on a decades-long path of self-dis­cov­ery. For me, this fel­low­ship con­firmed my agency. It showed me that if I want­ed some­thing, I could go after it and get it, and could find my way (albeit shame­ful­ly fum­bling­ly) through the chal­leng­ing patch­es. It ini­ti­at­ed an under­stand­ing of my dif­fer­ence, an abil­i­ty to own it, see it, run from it or be it, and empath­i­cal­ly accept it in oth­ers. It was the begin­ning of a jour­ney to respon­si­bil­i­ty and con­fi­dence, as well as the start of a self-con­scious­ness about who I was and where I came from, as a per­son, as a Jew, as a Cana­di­an. Edgar M. Bronfman’s pro­gram ignit­ed in me the con­fi­dence to take risks, to chase dreams, to trot into the unknown, to select the com­mu­ni­ties and worlds I want­ed to be part of — the traits and expe­ri­ences I drew on many years lat­er, when I began to write. 

22 years post-Bronf­man (GASP), with two chil­dren of my own, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I still spend too much time run­ning away instead of run­ning toward, I still can­not envi­sion my next steps. But I do have a clear­er sense of what’s mean­ing­ful. At my very first book launch I looked out to see four alums (five, includ­ing my broth­er); a few weeks lat­er, four oth­ers showed up at an event on a cold night in Boston; anoth­er in Toron­to; three wrote reviews; many more inspired and encour­aged me, pass­ing on prac­ti­cal career advice. Bronf­man helped me become a writer by, decades lat­er, offer­ing me peers and men­tors, sup­port­ers and read­ers, a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who’ve known me over time, who accept me even though they wit­nessed me through some wild­ly embar­rass­ing ado­les­cent moments, who endow me with a sense of belong­ing even if I some­times don’t feel it. Why Be Jew­ish? Bronf­man asks in his last book. I sup­pose that’s why. 

Judy Batal­ion is the author of White Walls: A Mem­oir About Moth­er­hood, Daugh­ter­hood, and the Mess in Between. She is cur­rent­ly tour­ing through Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as a 20162017 JBC Net­work author.

Relat­ed Content:

Judy Batal­ion is the New York Times best­selling author of the high­ly-acclaimed The Light of Days: The Untold Sto­ry of Women Resis­tance Fight­ers in Hitler’s Ghet­tos, pub­lished by William Mor­row in April 2021The Light of Days has been pub­lished in a young read­ers’ edi­tion, will be trans­lat­ed into nine­teen lan­guages, and has been optioned by Steven Spiel­berg for a major motion pic­ture for which Judy is co-writ­ing the screen­play. Judy is also the author of White Walls: A Mem­oir About Moth­er­hood, Daugh­ter­hood and the Mess in Between, optioned by Warn­er Broth­ersand her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the For­wardVogue, and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Judy has a BA in the His­to­ry of Sci­ence from Har­vard, and a PhD in the His­to­ry of Art from the Cour­tauld Insti­tute, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, and has worked as a muse­um cura­tor and uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er. Born in Mon­tre­al, where she grew up speak­ing Eng­lish, French, Hebrew, and Yid­dish, she lives in New York with her hus­band and three children.