The Jewish Pope: Following the Questions Home

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September 25, 2022

10 min read

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Four generations in the American melting pot boiled away just about any Jewishness in my family.

“How do you define your Judaism?”

I sat silent on the other end of the phone, unsure of how to answer. The Birthright employee went on.

“I know, I know. Weird question. Maybe you have a family meal on Friday nights? Bar Mitzvah? Hanukkah?” she searched further.

“I don’t even know what Hanukkah is!” I told her, laughing at my cluelessness. I had for sure failed the Jewish litmus test and with it, my shot at getting on Birthright’s free trip to Israel was crumbling quickly.

“So would you say you're just Jewish?”

“Well my mom is Jewish. That makes me Jewish right?” She asked a couple more questions and as our conversation came to an end I asked, “So… am I eligible for the trip?”

“Of course, don’t worry! Everything is set. We’ll be in touch in a couple weeks to organize your flight info.”

I reached the bottom of the list and saw my name, Riley Pope. So much for going incognito.

Shortly after our phone call, she added me to the Facebook group with the rest of the trip participants. Curious to see who I would be traveling with, I opened the tab with the list of profiles: Jacob Goldberg, Rachel Finkelstein, Isaac Cohen the list went on naming more intimidatingly Jewish names. I reached the bottom of the list and saw my name, Riley Pope. So much for going incognito.

The Melting Pot

Prior to our phone call, I had never given any thought to “my Judaism”, let alone defined it. Four generations in the American melting pot boiled away just about any Jewishness in my family.

There was nothing particularly Jewish about my childhood. Although my mom was raised by Jewish parents, after they met at a Jewish fraternity party in college they had little more to do with their Judaism. Thus, my mom went on to meet my dad, a southern Christian man, on a blind date in college and soon after they were married. He was raised in Bells, Tennessee, a town of 1,200 residents and more churches than traffic lights.

After getting married, my parents went on to live a simple southern Christian life. After three children and five years of marriage, their differences caught up with them. They divorced and went their own ways both directionally and philosophically. My mom dropped Christianity and began a new life.

My parents divorced when I was very young, and my siblings and I grew up with our time divided between the both of them. Most of the year we lived with our mom in Memphis, Tennessee. Between school and soccer practice, we lived a normal suburban secular life. From time to time we’d go to church on Sunday, but it was mostly symbolic. For two weekends a month I lived with my dad. Although just an hour away from Memphis, the weekends with my dad were a different world altogether.

Saturdays with my dad were spent hunting, fishing, and four-wheeler riding. Sunday morning began early at the local Baptist church and was followed by a full-spread, home-cooked family brunch at my grandmother’s. When the meal was ready, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends gathered around the table and held hands awaiting the blessing. Following my grandmother’s tearful thanksgiving prayer, everyone filled their plates with assorted casseroles, baked beans, honey baked ham, and all the other southern classics. The meal was followed by Sunday football in the living room and reminiscing over ‘the good ol’ days’ during the commercial breaks. Come Sunday night, my dad would drive me, my brother, and my sister back to Memphis for another two weeks of life in the city.

A Curiously Unturned Stone Called Judaism

I was in my second year of college when I heard about Birthright. After mentioning in passing that I was Jewish, a friend exclaimed, “You know, I heard there are some wealthy Jews that pay for Jews to visit Israel for free!” I was in disbelief. A quick google search confirmed that she was right. I called my mom to double check that we were Jewish. “I think so!” she said, and by the end of the night I had signed up and paid my deposit. In two months I’d be boarding a plane with absolute strangers, to a country I could have unlikely placed on a map, to explore what it meant to be a Jewish.

Ever since I was a teen, I had been fascinated with the search for meaning. Naturally, I began by going to church in high school but once my questions outnumbered their answers I moved on. My next stop was the Eastern religions. There, I found practices that fostered peace but still no satisfying answers. Hoping to find guiding principles for my life I even decided to major in Philosophy. But after two years in college I had still found no satisfaction. I had now stumbled across a curiously unturned stone that had gone overlooked called Judaism. I set a countdown on my phone and eagerly awaited the adventure ahead.

My flight landed in LaGuardia, and I hurried to the place where my birthright group would be meeting. We gathered around and everyone shared a bit about their backgrounds. Some had related how they trudged through Hebrew school, others proudly retold stories of their bar and bat mitzvahs. It came time for me to share but what could I say? My only Jewish memory wasn’t the most kosher but I decided to share anyway.

My Birthright group (I’m in the middle of the top row)

I told them about my great-grandmother's rugelach recipe that had been passed down now to my mom. This little Jewish cookie was the one thing that made it through the melting pot. My mom would bake them at Christmas time to be left out for Santa Claus over a glass of cold milk. Not the most Jewish holiday, but Santa had no objections as his plate of cookies left out on Christmas Eve never failed to be reduced to crumbs by the next morning.

They loved the story and welcomed me to the tribe.

Who Are You?

Every experience in Israel was special in its own right. However, there were certain moments that stand out among them all, specifically those in Tzfat. On the second day of our trip we arrived in the mystical city. Our group traversed the cobblestone streets until we reached a stop where we would be catching our breath over a short meditation led by one of the locals. We awaited our guide while watching the sun lazily drop over Meron.

A boisterously happy voice made his way up the stairs, “Hello sweet souls!” he boomed. Around the corner bounced a bearded man, wrapped in a linen robe and headdress, carrying what appeared to be a two-foot long rams horn. It was Eyal Karoutchi, a well-known spiritual guide. The deep peace that radiated from his presence was unmistakable. He ushered us all into the meditation room where he sat us down and began to speak to us about meditation. After a couple minutes of joking with us, Eyal fell quiet, and along with him, so did the group. His energy dramatically shifted as he began to calm the room.

Eyal Karoutchi

He peered from one end of the room to the other, and in a gentle yet piercing voice, he said in a guru-like manner, “I am going to ask you a question. And what I want from you is simple. When I ask you the question, I don’t want you to think about your answer. Just let the answer arise from whatever is.”

Our curiosity built. He stopped his probing of the room, looked me straight in the eyes and asked piercingly:

“Who are you?”

As a philosophy major, this question was nothing new. I had been asking myself this for many years and it typically only led to existential dread. But this time, something had changed. I sensed for once I was coming closer to the answer. Although I had only been in Israel for a couple days, those days had shifted within me. I sat in silent contemplation, overcome by the joy of the story that was unfolding.

After our meditation came to an end, we made our way to our next stop in Tzfat, Avraham Loewenthal, a local kabbalistic artist. We stepped into his studio and found our places on the mats sprawled across the floor. At the head of the room sat Avraham. The bearded man radiated peace and sat patiently waiting as we found our spots.

He began to tell us his story. “Don’t let the look fool you. I wasn’t always Avraham from Tzfat. I used to be Robert from Michigan.” he beamed. He continued to relate to us his story of growing up in America, indifferent to his modern-Orthodox Jewish upbringing, all the way to his discovery of Judaism’s spiritual wisdom and his eventual move to Israel. I was hooked.

As I listened to him speak, I felt like I was seeing glimpses of my own story unfolding and materialized, 20 years down the road. The peace he radiated, the adventure he lived, and the spiritual connection he was sharing intrigued me. As he shared more of his story along with the wisdom that had guided him, I felt that something deep inside me was awakening. This wisdom felt like home.

He went on, “For two thousand years, our ancestors have been praying for our return to Israel. No expulsion, pogrom, or Holocaust, has stopped our ancestors from fighting and sometimes, dying so we could be here today. He laughed in amazement, “You may be the first person in your family to step foot here in the last two thousand years!”

As far as I knew, I was the first person in my family to set foot back in Israel!

A Searching Tribe

I thought about the rugelach and I wondered how my family had drifted so far. I was at a loss that anyone could have abandoned these treasures. Everything I was searching for had been tucked away in my DNA and I had no idea.

After years of searching, I discovered that I belonged to a nation that was asking the same questions I was asking. Not only were they asking the same questions, they were living and breathing the answers they uncovered. I was no longer alone in my search. I had found my tribe.

I arrived in Israel as a confused philosophy major. Now I was leaving the country with even deeper questions. But for the first time in my life, I felt confident that my questions actually had answers. Life had assigned me a mission and I was eager to follow the clues.

Eyal challenged me with a question “Who are you?I left Israel knowing one thing, I am Jewish. What that meant, I had no idea, but my Jewish odyssey was just beginning and that was good enough for me.

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