IN PLAIN LANGUAGE:The imitation game

Poland, most prominently among the Eastern European countries that once were home to millions of Jews, is dotted with a multitude of synagogues and former Jewish sites.

Krakow Jewish Festival 2004  (photo credit: KATARINA STOLTZ/ REUTERS)
Krakow Jewish Festival 2004
Imitation, so they say, is the highest form of flattery. But sometimes it can get just a wee bit out of hand.
Despite the lack of universal love for the Jews, there has been a dramatic proliferation recently in the attempt by various nationalities to imitate Jewish practice and customs.
For example, one of the latest crazes – an aptly chosen word, if ever there was one – is for non-Jews to hold bar and bat mitzva ceremonies for their children (this is actually a step above the “bark-mitzva” parties famously held for the family dog). At some gentile weddings, the groom dons a kippa and the crowd is encouraged to dance the hora as they sing the pre-rehearsed Hebrew song “Hava Nagila.”
And for many years now, we have been witness to the bizarre spectacle of “Jewish festivals” held throughout Poland, featuring non-Jewish musicians dressed in hassidic costumes performing klezmer music while local restaurants serve “glatt-treif” Jewish food. (There’s something about ham on a bagel with a schmear that really grates on the Hebraic senses). Poland, most prominently among the Eastern European countries that once were home to millions of Jews, is dotted with a multitude of synagogues and former Jewish sites – like the magnificent, fresco-adorned Baroque-style synagogue in Judenrein Tykocin – which now serve as museums and tourist attractions that evoke ghostly memories of what once was.
And now, the latest pseudo-Jewish phenomenon, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is the rise of the Evangelical Living Church of God, a movement of 400 congregations on six continents, numbering more than 10,000 members, which teaches its adherents to celebrate the Jewish holidays.
These are not “Jews for Jesus” – whom I like to describe as the spiritual equivalent of “Indians for Custer” – but good old-fashioned Christians who just want to get back to a more “pristine” practice of their own religion.
“We’re not trying to be Jewish,” says Minister Dexter Wakefield, the church’s spokesman. “We’re just obeying God’s commandments the way we believe Jesus did.”
And so they urge their congregants to observe seven Jewish festivals, in a mix of biblical and postbiblical styles. That includes the Sabbath – moved back to its original place on Saturday, rather than Sunday – when no weekly work is done, beginning at sundown Friday; Rosh Hashana, when trumpets, rather than the traditional shofar, are sounded, heralding the Messiah’s imminent coming; and Yom Kippur, when work, food and drink are suspended.
There are other quasi-Jewish practices practiced as well, such as the abstinence from biblically prohibited foods, adherence to biblically permitted marital unions and even the celebration of Sukkot.
This last holiday comes with an innovative twist that, frankly, my wife finds particularly attractive: Instead of leaving one’s house for a thatched, windblown backyard hut, the Living Church of God members are bidden to escape to a hotel or resort to commune with the Creator.
What are we to make of all this? Are these nothing but artificial gimmicks concocted to “dress up” a drab Christianity in more authentic and attractive Jewish garb? Do they serve to mock the original product, just as Elvis impersonators degrade the image of the King of Rock and Roll and drag him down from his throne? Or should we feel honored and complimented by the sincere attempt of Christian sects to “get back to basics” and recognize that Judaism – as the standard-bearer of monotheism, spiritual discipline and social justice – is the wellspring from which all the other religions ultimately spring? This I leave to you, dear reader, to debate and deliberate and come to your own conclusions.
But what I personally take away from this phenomenon is the need to research, revive and reclaim my own religion for myself. To look deep into that mental mirror and ask if I am taking my own Judaism seriously enough; if I appreciate all the wisdom, gifts and blessings that it has to offer me. If I am availing myself of the opportunities for growth that it lays open for me, or if I am taking it for granted and squandering its power. And most of all, if I am still on the journey to find God, to discover truth and the secrets of life, or if I have apathetically abandoned the path.
The zeal and exuberance that others show for basic tenets of Judaism – even while they affirm that they are not actually Jews – challenge me to show no less enthusiasm for what is my rightful heritage, and to seek my fullest potential as a Jew and as a human being. To replace apathy with action, and substitute interest for indifference.
In this crucial month of Elul, as we prep for the impending showdown with God in the approaching Days of Awe, there are no pursuits more important than these.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;