Thank ____ It's Friday This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 16, 2012
I was six years old, bouncing up and down on the oversized, stretchy booth across from my parents in T.G.I. Friday’s. I could hardly contain my excitement as I waited for the fresh, steaming bread that filled the restaurant with the sweetest buttery aroma. I scanned the restaurant and fleetingly wished my room would one day display an equally fascinating arrangement of vibrant, captivating, outrageous, and amusing décor. While surveying my surroundings, I noticed my mom appeared distracted and my dad seemed slightly concerned. I was starving and I was fidgety. Frankly, I was too hungry to give their expressions much thought.

Finally, the flakey, warm bread arrived. My hand rushed to the basket of paradise the second our waiter placed it on our table. With the first slice of bread in hand, I raised my arms to the ceiling and began my usual routine of blessing my food with the Jewish prayers I learned at pre-school. Memorizing and reciting Jewish prayers were just a few of the countless and priceless lessons I received from my six years of daycare at the Jewish Community Center.

Seconds after I began my prayer, my mom reached out and lowered my hands and my bread to the table. In response to my confused expression, she glanced around to the other customers. I realized she was embarrassed and it didn’t take me long to deduce why. Unlike me, my parents were not Jewish. They were Catholic. While I always wondered why the three of us were not the same religion, I never felt bothered by the matter. I was Jewish and they were Catholic. That’s just how it was. Strangely though, my public expression of faith seemed to unsettle my mom that night. I couldn’t understand why, so I decided to ask the question that always lingered in my mind.

“Mom, why am I Jewish if you and dad are Catholic?”

I resumed bouncing on the booth while I waited for her response. Silence. She looked to my dad. He speechlessly and soberly gazed at me with concern. Finally, she spoke.

“Ashley, you’re not Jewish. You’re Catholic too.”

And then I was the speechless one.

I didn’t know what to think and then suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking. I wasn’t Jewish. I just thought I was. Everyone else at school was. Why wasn’t I? I felt lied to for six years. I was Catholic. What is Catholic? What will all my friends and teachers think when they find out? Will they still be my friends and teachers? Do I have to be Catholic? Why don’t I have a say in what religion I am? It’s called the Jewish Community Center. Can I still be a part of their community, my community even though I’m not actually Jewish? Technically, I was a part of the Jewish community all my life. Yet apparently, all my life, I was never Jewish.

Our appetizers arrived. When I saw T.G.I. Friday’s signature cheesy potato skins I didn’t react with my usual excitement. However, because my stomach still desperately craved food, I decided to glance down at the steaming appetizer. I was about to pick one up when I noticed, despite our request for no bacon, that one of the six potato skins was covered in bacon bits. Five potato skins bubbled with only cheese, while the remaining potato skin contained both cheese and bacon.

Looking back thirteen years later, I would argue the different potato skin and I had more in common than it initially appeared. Its accidental addition of bacon was similar to my newly found addition of Catholicism. In some way, the bacon-filled potato skin and I possessed a single trait that caused us to stand apart from the rest of our communities. The feeling of being removed from my Jewish world hurt far more than discovering I possessed a trait my Jewish friends did not possess. Suddenly feeling that the part of me that connected to all my friends and teachers at the JCC was never a part of me–– was traumatizing.

Eventually, my six-year-old self overcame my identity crises because like my potato skin, despite my difference from my community, I still possessed countless similarities with my group and worked to remain included. Neither my potato skin nor myself would accept isolation from the people (or the potato skins) that we loved the most. Luckily, both of our communities continued to welcome and accept us despite the potato skin’s unique addition of bacon among a strictly cheesy potato skin community and despite my unique addition of Catholicism among a predominately Jewish group.

Thinking back about my bacon-filled potato skin it seems it wasn’t nearly as isolated from its cheesy potato skin community as I originally thought. Similarly, neither was I. Friends from my Jewish community who observe kosher laws could eat potato skins without bacon by simply scraping the bacon off. At the same time, bacon lovers could enjoy potato skins from the same bacon-filled potato skin plate without scrapping any bacon off. In a similar manner, the changes required me to “fit in” at the JCC while also at my new Catholic school were also insignificant and simple. Thus, my religious difference did not create separation between my Jewish community and myself and the bacon difference did not create separation between the bacon potato and the cheesy potato community. Further, our difference also allowed us to connect and relate with an entirely different group. For my potato skin, it was a group of other bacon-filled potato skins, and for me, it was other Catholics and then eventually other religions and communities as well.

It turned out the same cheese and bacon-bits from the potato skins were options in the salad bar across the room. The salad bar comprised a variety of options for lettuce, mix-ins, and toppings, presenting liberating choices. Because no one pre-made the salads at the salad bar, the customers had complete authority over how their salad was created. This freedom allowed people of differing religions and beliefs to feel included. Vegetarians, vegans, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, meat-lovers, and gluten-free customers alike could feast equally at T.G.I. Friday’s salad bar. Even though the salad bar stood in a straight line against the wall, one could say it was “well rounded.”

Like the salad bar, my immersion into a new religion helped me begin a journey to become more well-rounded myself. Although I initially felt like I was unjustly thrust into a new religion and community, I eventually grew to love my new Catholic environment.

Some people might argue identifying with one, or even two, religions is sufficient and helps create deeper bonds and connections within the selected groups. If all members of one family focused on the same, single religion, the family would most likely develop a shared culture in which they would all practice similar traditions and hold similar values. While this could help create a closer-knit family, it would not help children to eventually make their own choices about their religion. All people, especially young children, benefit from learning about multiple religions. If I had never been immersed in my Jewish community, I would never have developed an understanding and love for a religion aside from my pre-determined Catholicism. Stepping outside a comfort zone and stepping towards the salad bar, meeting new people, trying new foods, and discovering new beliefs and ways of living allow us to develop as unique and well-rounded individuals. Branching out helps form new relationships and gives additional perspective on previous relationships. Twelve years later, some of my best friends are the ones I met while I “was Jewish.”

Back in T.G.I. Friday’s, I walked out the door carrying a styrofoam container of a variety of leftovers. I also carried a realization that I did not need any defining boundary of a religious title. All I needed was the feeling that I belonged to multiple communities and my leftover potato skin and various vegetables. The next year I started Catholic school and quickly discovered a love for my Catholic community as well as other groups and communities. In the end, it didn’t matter who I thanked for Friday, whether I thanked God, thanked another god-like figure, thanked another human being, or decided not to thank anyone at all. All that mattered was that I continued to develop an understanding of who others thanked or chose not to thank for Friday. This isn’t to say I would never develop “food allergies” to certain foods or beliefs. It isn’t practical to assume I would accept all religions or practices. However, I discovered I had the ability to learn about them. In being exposed to and immersed in a wide variety of religions, I was on my way to eventually making my own decision about what religious communities I would identify with. Understanding and belonging to solely one community is not enough. I am thankful that from my very beginnings, I have been allowed to embrace other groups. In doing so, I have been able to and will continue to appreciate other people and their communities and beliefs as well as create the person I want––and choose–– to be.

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