Is ignorance bliss? I would argue that it is not, and perhaps when you have read my story, you will agree with me.

I am from a relatively small town, and the community I spent most of my time in was miniscule (the population is measured in the tens, rather than in the tens of thousands). I was brought up attending what I assume to be a fairly typical backwoods Christian church. My father constantly encouraged me to study the Bible and emphasized a deep respect for the Jewish people. This flew in the face of what was sometimes taught in our congregation, where we were told that all of the commandments in the “Old Testament” no longer applied, and that to keep any of them in any way is in fact a sin. A fair bit of anti-Semitism was added to the mix as well.

As I became a teen, my congregation looked to me to be a leader among the youth—something that I could not do with honesty. There was a problem. Something in all the teaching didn’t sit right with me; something didn’t make sense. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it was there. And I could not in good conscience promote an ideology that I knew to be fallacious, even though I could not identify the fallacy at the time.

Once I was off to college, however, I began to think critically about all that I had been told. As a music major, I was exploring all sorts of sounds and traditions that I had never been exposed to before. This exploration proved to be an invaluable tool as my journey to Torah began.

The first spark in this journey was found at a Goodwill. I enjoy rifling through the massive mounds of reasonably priced and largely unsorted paraphernalia these emporiums house. It is a matter of personal pride to reach the bottom of whatever stack I happen to find myself rifling through. It so happened that, in endeavoring to reach the bottom of an enormous stack of derelict CD's, I happened across something that I did not expect.

It was an unassuming CD case with a picture of a Jewish man playing the clarinet on the cover. So vigorous was the musician’s playing and movement with the music that his payot (sidelocks) were airborne. I didn’t know what I was looking at or what it meant, but I was intrigued. The CD was 25 cents, and that’s a winner any day. I came home with my purchase, put it in the CD player, and my life was changed.

The klezmer music (as I found that it was called) immediately suffused every part of me, down to my soul. It called to me and resonated with a part of me I hadn’t known existed. I had to have more. I had to learn more. I had to know what this music (and what it elicited within me) meant.

So I began researching klezmer music. As a clarinetist myself, I was in a good position to learn to play the music, but I knew from my studies that it is impossible to authentically perform music of other traditions without understanding the culture that produced it.

I began to read book after book of Jewish history, and my feeling of love and connection to the Jewish people grew with each page. My encounter with the wisdom of the sages thoroughly undid the perceptions of Jews and Judaism that I had been given in my childhood, and the words of my father rang true.

So I wrenched the tainted glasses of indoctrination from my eyes and looked anew at the Scriptures—not seeking to justify any ideology, but simply attempting to see what the Scriptures said on their own. And I was floored.

I was beginning to understand the uneasiness I had always felt in my youth. As I recognized more and more the truth of Judaism in so many ways, I began to wonder if the reason all this struck me the way it did was more than a coincidence, if there was something beyond simple intrigue or curiosity that was pulling me.

It was around this time that I found and Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld, codirector of Chabad of Chesterfield, MO. They have proven to be invaluable resources in my endeavor to learn more about Judaism. The rabbi and his family guide by their living example, attesting to the beauty, truth, continuity, strength and passion in this tradition.

Eventually I pursued genetic testing. The results told me that I was paternally descended from a Jewish heritage. Now the Torah teaches that Judaism is passed down through the maternal line. So I am not actually Jewish, but I felt compelled to learn more about my ancestry.

Great-grandfather Omer.
Great-grandfather Omer.

What I found confirmed the results of the genetic testing. I discovered that my great-grandfather was an orphan, the son of European-Jewish immigrants. In the often squalid conditions in the tenements of New York, disease was common, and that may have caused the death of his parents. In those days it was common for municipal authorities to collect orphans and pack them on trains to be sent out west. On their journey, they stopped in each town along the way, and any family who needed an additional farmhand or worker could adopt children from these orphan trains. That is how my Jewish great-grandfather came to be out in the middle of Nowhere, Missouri.

No longer were the people I had discovered in my readings in Jewish history and in Torah simply historical figures, they were family. And I was broken. Not in sadness, but with overwhelming joy. To think that over the course of time and across continents, due to great hardship, pain and suffering, my family had forgotten their connection to Judaism; and yet, it would not be entirely lost. This was the reason that the Klezmer music and everything else Jewish had the effect on me that it did. It wasn’t new; it was very, very old. It wasn’t just a curiosity; it was remembrance. Some part of me, some part of what I had received from my fathers, remembered. My soul heard and yearned for the sounds of home.

My journey is far from over. Living far from any Jewish community, I have not (yet) had the opportunity to convert to Judaism and rebuild that which had been lost. But I have already been blessed

Now, had I remained ignorant, would I have been blissful? It is hard to tell, but I can tell you that in comparison to the joy, humility, fulfillment and pride I now have, ignorance seems to be misery to me.

I am thankful beyond words for the generations that have come before me for praying with faith, for uttering the words of the Amidah:

Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land. Blessed are You L‑rd, who gathers the dispersed of His people, Israel.

There are those of us who are scattered, ignorant or unaware of our Jewish heritage. Be encouraged. This prayer of millennia has not been in vain. There are those among the nations who are lost and forgotten, but slowly, there are those among us who are hearing the call for the journey home.