The Double Life

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Is Your Favorite Season Still Fall? by Emily Bebenek - Photo by Caroline Koppel

As a student at a public school and an active member of my synagogue, I lead both a secular and religious lifestyle. I live the life of the USY (United Synagogue Youth)-loving, Los Angeles Hebrew High (LAHHS)-attending, and synagogue-praying Jewish girl as well as the not-so-Jewish-school attending studious student. By day I am studying and preparing for whatever my teachers chuck at me (most likely at a high speed), and by night (after I study), I am either learning Hebrew at LAHHS or attending an event at my synagogue’s USY chapter. This hectic lifestyle has brought me a wide spectrum of friends from all different religions and faiths. I do, however, categorize them into either my “Jewish Life” or my “School Life.”

When I was younger, and still had the energy to plan a birthday party, I would always get a stomachache the night before. In my head I knew two worlds were about to collide, and there would be raised eyebrows. These two groups of friends rarely met and when they did they just stared at each other like science projects. It could become quite frightening. It was as if my friends found it impossible to imagine me with a whole different set of friends whom I also tagged as my close friends. As I entered high school, the two groups never met anymore. Problem solved. But it wasn’t. I still had a hard time explaining to my friends or teachers why I was “ditching” school in the middle of the week, or taking an extra long “vacation.” Explaining the Jewish holidays to teachers always felt awkward because I knew in the eyes of a non-Jew, some of the holidays are pretty wacky and can make no sense.

By the time I was a senior, my friends had grown used to my double life and even embraced the culture. While a lot of my friends took Spanish or sign language at school, I opted for a program (LAHHS) and studied Hebrew twice a week for language credits. While my friends went out Saturday morning at birthday parties or to the mall I would sit in synagogue pondering the existence of a god and if the bagels would be fresh at the kiddush luncheon. I used to be bothered as a kid, not understanding why I could not go to the movies with friends until after the sun set and there were three stars out, but now I have learned to accept this crazy life filled with intricate rules.

Having both a secular life and a religious life has been a gift these past few years. I now consider Shabbat not a burden but a period of forced—and much needed—relaxation from my strenuous life at school. My Jewishness has become my identity, and I am proud to flash it at school, and use it to explain why I do certain “strange” things, like turn down a free pizza because it is not kosher. And by the way, guilty as I may feel for saying this, I do enjoy sleeping in on a Tuesday for a Jewish holiday—even if it results in me sitting in a synagogue for a few hours.

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Leah Stark graduated from El Camino Real Charter High School in Los Angeles, California, where she was the editor-in-chief of her school's newspaper and the president of the Great Films Club. Leah is an avid reader, a vivacious film buff, and an amateur writer. Whenever she is not studying, Leah is reading a book or relaxing with her dog, Clapton.
Accompanying photo: “Back 2 School” by Caroline Koppel