Rattling the Cage: The wonders of normative Judaism

You don't have to talk about it. It's a part of you.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
So let me tell you about my son Alon's bar mitzva last week. It was magic, the whole day, from the morning service where Alon made us awfully proud with his reading of the Torah portion, to the party at night, where the lights seemed to have an especially warm glow. With all the family and friends around, I think a consensus emerged that there was a whole lotta love in the air. And between the atmosphere and the little speeches and remarks made by Alon, my wife, me and the people closest to us, I think the bar mitzva had a particular personality, a particular meaning. I think it had to do with the idea that "life is with people," and that we had just witnessed the debut of a fellow who had a lot to bring to this life, and wasn't it something? It was only a few days later, during the reviews, when I realized that except for the synagogue service itself and Alon's commentary on the Torah portion, which he wrote with the rabbi, not a word had been mentioned all day about Judaism or Israel. There was nothing about being a good Jew, or a good Israeli, or isn't it great that we're Jews and great that we're in Israel, and God bless Israel. There wasn't a word about God, either. HMM. HAD we left something out? I asked some people in my family (including my wife), who are not atheists and who feel much more strongly about keeping Jewish traditions than I do, and they all said no. It would have been contrived, because neither Alon nor the rest of our family are preoccupied with being Jewish or Israeli. It wasn't necessary. I agree. It wasn't necessary to make the point that for Alon and us, the bar mitzva was part of being Jewish and part of being Israeli, and that it was an affirmation of both. The point was implied. I think it was obvious. If Alon didn't care about being Jewish, he wouldn't have taken the bar mitzva as seriously as he so palpably did. The same goes for his parents. (With his kid brother, it must be said, the seriousness of intent was less palpable.) And as for the Israeli connection, if we didn't feel it, we wouldn't be here. It's as simple as that. This is what I would call normative Judaism, normative Israeliness. You don't have to talk about it. It's a part of you. Good, bad, so-so, whatever, it's a part of you. And that's fine with me. That's exactly the kind of Jew, the kind of Israeli, I want to be, and I'm very happy that that's the sort of Jewish, Israeli family I'm part of. A normative one. I must say, I don't think I knew the depth to which being Jewish is a part of me until I sat through the bar mitzva service. Was I moved! (I'm told I wasn't alone.) Afterward, a traditionally Jewish friend who knows my atheist views said I'd looked like I was moved, which I confirmed, and she asked whether it was just the father-son-coming-of-age thing that did it, or might it also have had something to do with the words and melodies of the Jewish service? In other words: Confess, atheist! Alright, I confess. I think there was an element, at least, of Jewish religious identification in what I was feeling. Towards the end, I found myself singing a couple of those prayers with a joy I only remember feeling once before, when I was sitting in synagogue one afternoon at Hebrew school. Maybe I was remembering my bar mitzva. Maybe I was remembering my father. Is there a contradiction here? I don't think so. I think it's completely consistent to be an atheist and to feel spiritually uplifted in synagogue once every 40 years or so. I'm sure a lot of other normative Jews can tell the same story. (Actually, Alon's kid brother has a bar mitzva coming up in another four years, so my next religious epiphany might not take nearly as long to arrive as this last one did.) At Alon's bar mitzva, I didn't want to talk too much because it was his day. But since this is my column, I'll take the liberty to say one more thank you, strictly on my own behalf: I want to thank Israel for helping me stay a normative Jew, and helping me pass this on to my kids. I'm not sure I could have managed it anywhere else.