This posting continue a series of pieces called “Who’s a Jew.” These essays are not pretenders to halachic discussions nor are they an invitation to debate the relative worth of the various streams of Judaism or of the other boxes into which individuals and groups try to stuff Yiddishkeit. Rather, these writings are meant to be reflections, contemplations, inspirations, and the like, for the many faceted ways in which Judaism is reflected in each of us. It’s important for us to validate that Jews come in lots of flavors.
When I was a little secular American, girl being Jewish meant wearing a silver-plated Magen David, donating regularly to the JNF and driving to shul for Kabbalat Shabbat.
I understood my winter holiday not as an acknowledgement of my forefathers’ sacrifices, on behalf of keeping our people unassimilated, but as a “Jewish Version” of my school friends’ December celebration. I liked to help my classmates drape tinsel on their trees; I adored pretty things.
In contrast, my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were merely days when my synagogue was more crowded than usual and when services were longer than usual. The only other remarkable quality of those occasions, to the earlier version of me, was the plating of honey cake for New Years and of bagels for breaking The Day of Atonement’s fast.
Those many decades ago, I went to secular dance halls, wore the most contemporary of clothing and makeup, and had no qualms about debating alongside of boys during interscholastic high school forensic tournaments. At that time I looked forward to eating Howard Johnson’s most popular dish of the 1960s (hint that foodstuff is not indigenous to landlocked cities).
Yet, I identified as a Jew, was the “Jewish Heritage” chairperson of my tristate counsel’s youth group, and proudly wrote for a newspaper whose audience was my region’s Jews.
I served, first as a teen columnist, then as an intern and later as a college columnist, for Pittsburgh’s The Jewish Chronicle.
At that publication, my myths about Jewish life began to get shattered. For instance, although I had long held as true that traif was wonderful, my chief editor refused to promote nonkosher food in my writings or to allow me to further any such an idea in his pluralistic paper.
At that point in my life, I had been “so far removed by the Gypsies,” as it were, that I didn’t even know what kosher food was or that anyone ate it. I had never seen men who regularly wore kippot, women who covered their hair, or children who realized that the aleph-bet was a means to a significant end rather than an end to itself. Need I say that I was completely ignorant of the observant lifestyle?
Although that kindly journalist was among my first guides, my path to greater comprehension was anything but linear. Consider that during my college years, one of my greatest indignities was not that a holy structure, my university’s sukkah, had been depredated by means of swastikas spray painted on it, but that my right to protest such doings was questioned.
I was attacked, repeatedly, in my university’s student newspaper, by another Jew, for writing about the incident. That antagonist and I volleyed back and forth until our university’s dean of students declared both that there would be no further publicized debate on the topic and that a committee would be formed, by the administration, to investigate matters of religious violence.
It’s great that the dean was a defender of civil rights. It’s a pity that Yours Truly failed to comprehend that the social desecration of sanctity is far bigger of an issue than is my relative freedom of speech. In balance, at the time, although I was determined to date only Jewish boys, having figured out that I was getting old enough to get married, I had no problem eating, drinking and making merry with friends of all types. “Jewish,” to me, was, in spite of everything, a suit I put on for certain occasions, or a posture I assumed in response to certain situations, not yet a way of life or a perspective that was integral to my very being.
Not until my junior year, liberal arts major that I was, did it occur to me that my heritage might be distinct from the residuals offered by my country of origin’s melting pot. Accordingly, instead of waiting until the winter, when my campus would be enlivened by the others’ holiday, I insisted that all of the Jew I knew join me in the fall, in the common room, which I had reserved in my dorm’s basement, to celebrate the High Holidays. I offered honey cake. I had much to learn.
In graduate school, during class-free days, I worked at the only Jewish place of worship in that Midwest town. There, I soon became further appalled. My students’ parents blamed me, a young teacher who met with their kids for only two hours per week, for any gaps in their children’s basic knowledge of our heritage.
In my thus far muddled mind, I realized that parents have to relay the important teachings of life. Parents have to be a link from the generation before them to the generation after them. Parents have to transmit Judaism to their children. Something was beginning to click; my dissonance with my contemporary life was increasing.
By the time that my husband and I got married, we asked an Orthodox (!) rabbi to officiate. We were yet so distant from observance, however, that when the rabbi said he was bringing a Shomer Shabbat witness to our union, we had to ask him what “Shomer Shabbat” meant.
We had sought that Orthodox rabbi not because we had “suddenly become enlightened,” but because I was desperate for a counterweight to the deprecating rhetoric my husband and I had received, during a premarital counseling session, from a leader of another stream of Judaism. That leader had focused on all of the ways in which a partnership could go wrong and on all of the ways in which people ought to be sufficiently ashamed to hide, rather than to rectify, “bad” behaviors.
There had been no talk, from that man, of the sanctity of marriage, of the responsibilities of man and wife toward each other, of Bnai Yisrael’s wededness to Hashem, or of anything remotely positive or sensible. I was unwilling to start life with those sorts of “blessings.”
Despite the fact that we were fortunate to be married under Orthodox auspices, my husband’s auf ruf proceeded without him and I had no kallah preparation. We were hitherto ignorant of the cornucopia of goodness which was our birthright.
Decades passed. We didn’t hear Hashem when Hashem whispered, so The Boss Shouted. Finally, not one, but a series of life and death situations caused my husband and me to question the epistemology upon which we were basing important decisions. We were fortunate that our foundation was shaken while we were still young; we were only forty when we became ba’alei teshuva.
Amazingly, we found ourselves heirs to an entire way of life, to a comprehensive blueprint for living. Our revealed design for life has been perpetuated for thousands of years, all over the world, regardless of believers’ demographics. Torah Judaism, we discovered, provides a guidebook for how to eat, how to dress, how to sleep, how to parent and much, much more.
In short time, my family’s perspective shifted. Academic awards lost their sheen relative to mitzvot. Success, as measured by salary, took a backseat to shalom bayit.
More time lapsed. HaKadosh Baruch Hu didn’t Require us to give up all comforts; He Required us to be willing to give them up. For example, although I never applied for a second set of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I did receive, recently, BH, a Pushcart Prize nomination. Similarly, although my husband tailored his work life to suit Shabbat and holiday observance, he got promoted, anyway, B’ayen Tov.
Our kids became math whizzes or able artists notwithstanding the fact that their school days were longer than were those of their parents, who had, as teens, received no regular religious education. Further, our kids, b’ayin tov, experienced ordinary adolescent angst, but, unlike their mother and father, had social and spiritual support which enabled them to pass through those obstacles relatively cleanly. Plus, to our sons and daughters, the big holidays are a time of reflection and renewal, hope and happiness. If they have honey cake alongside their prayers, it is a bonus, not a focus.
Nonetheless, becoming observant didn’t mean my family stopped growing. Rather, it was that we became aware of the expansive nature of our intended studies. One area in which we had to stretch, and to stretch some more, was interpersonal communication. Initially, we had to learn to release any anxiety we had about what other Jews thought of us whether those persons were more to the right or more to the left of the place we held as our own. Always, we had to work to embrace all Jews, whether they were to our left or to our right. We might never finish that work, per se, but at least we are on the way.
B’ezrat Hashem, Part III of “Who’s a Jew,” “Common Misperceptions,” will explore folks’ wasteful pursuit of external affirmations. Part IV, “Jeans” will address the hurts Jews inflict upon each other. Part V, “Media Savvy: the Fires of Rhetoric” will take apart some of the ways in which Jewish identity impacts the media and some of the ways in which media frameworks impact Jewish identity. Part VI, “Blaring among the Mustards,” will explore the relationship of Jewishness to Otherness, especially in this era of the global village. Part VII, “Overview” will look at some unrequited longings.