In the house I grew up in we didn’t have much religion. We were secularists. But, though my father never sent us to Hebrew school, he voiced great respect for his heritage, so we celebrated certain sacred holidays.
Not that we got too hung up on their sacredness. We lit menorah candles on Hanukkah, proud of the little army of zealots that won back the temple, marveling at the miracle of the oil that lit candles for eight days. And we did Passover, recounting the awesome story of exodus and deliverance, leaving “God” out of it though the saga’s all about the unseen hand leading us from slavery.
I went to temple the other night after not being there in a long time.
I had slipped back into forgetting I was Jewish.
Insofar as being Jewish means something to me — I’m still trying to figure out what — I decided to, well, get with other Jews. I went to temple because I missed Jews.
Like Philip Roth, I find myself trying to reconcile a worldly, assimilationist lifestyle with my embrace of an ethnic identity. In the charming little cowboy town of Prescott, Arizona, which I have come to love, I yearn for signposts to my Jewish past. There isn’t much Jewishness around. I am nostalgic for the Yiddish that filled the house I grew up in. I remember with a glow gleeful tackle-football games I played at twelve at Bexley Park with Jewish friends I met in my new suburban-Cleveland neighborhood. I would develop in young adulthood a special fondness for rooms full of Jews, with their unique animated warmth, an affinity that remained with me.
Was it Portnoy’s Complaint that recollected a boy’s going with his father to see neighborhood Jews play softball? “Bellies! Forearms!” You can feel the throbbing maleness, the delight in what you would become. I was enthralled by the distinctly Jewish rhythm of voices in “Goodbye, Columbus,” and by the soothing masculinity of Swede Levov in American Pastoral as he explains to a lady reporter how he runs what might be the last American glove factory. Woody Allen’s movies get to me because, as a friend of mine put it, “They’re such Jewish laughs.”
I had an at-risk girl during an early year teaching in these parts, who was Jewish. This was at the original accommodation school. She had a Jewish last name, and I would know, right?
I was shocked when I saw her doodling a swastika. And yet I thought I understood. I called her into the counselor’s office, which was empty.
This girl was from a busted family. Whatever Jewish element had been there was gone, leaving her only with this name. She was surrounded not only by non-Jews but by a culture of white supremacists who rally around a poisonous symbol to marshal their hatred.
In a warm, confidential tone, I told her I was Jewish. I talked about my grandparents and the Yiddish they used when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were saying.
“I miss those people so much,” I said, a little surprised at my own passion.
She said she had a grandfather who had that accent, but she never saw him anymore.
I nodded. “You shouldn’t draw … stuff like that.”
She hung her head. “I know.”
To be a Jew is a terrible responsibility, but I have always believed she left that room willing to resist the ambient poisons, and to announce herself, no matter what the cost.
I myself came to this state a Jewish heathen. One year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur went by without my knowing it. I realized I had to try to “be Jewish.” It meant something to me. That’s how I started going to the local temple.
A rabbi there helped me. In response to a neurotic phone call from yours truly, he invited me to meet him, which I did. He was a hip Bostonian with somewhat the same renegade personality as I have. We hit it off. I started attending services, learning how to say the prayers. He taught me some Hebrew letters, got me in the choir. After he left the post, the place took on two successive women rabbis. The second of these has left.
The Friday I returned, after such a long absence they’d taken away my name card from the little box of them at the door, a lay woman fluent in Hebrew and Judaic liturgy ran the service, and did a good job. She knew to open with “Hinei Ma Tov,” to invite someone up to light candles and say that prayer. Knew enough to sing us through all the right songs, including “Lecha Dodi” and “Mi Shebeirach” and “Mi Chamochah.” I was particularly moved by the stately, melodic “Ahavat Olam,” whose first word means love. The Aleinu went on for pages; its magic syllables, I uttered in phonetic transliteration, turning the pages “backwards,” wondering how this could be meaningful when I didn’t know Hebrew. But it was meaningful. In Journey of Awakening, a book about meditation, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert: self-described “Hinju”) suggests Sanskrit mantras. I don’t know if I can do that. But I felt an incantatory connection as I sang “Ahavat Olam.” The service ended, as all such services do, with the Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer of remembrance and mourning, namesake of Allen Ginsberg’s powerful lament. I sat amidst the congregation and sang sacred music.
I enjoyed the lay service leader’s amateur sermon, an attempt (drawn from the week’s Torah portion) to preach “loving oneself” as the necessary presumption behind the Golden Rule. How can you love others as you love yourself if you don’t love yourself?
“You’re enlivening the bima,” I told her after the service.
I used to kvetch to my wife about how phony it was for me to go to Temple B’rith Shalom. I would imitate some Los Angeles or Phoenix refugee crowing about the nachas (bounties, blessings) she was getting from her family during congregational sharing of good news. You know. “My Harold just opened his new chain of dermatology clinics and was voted one of the top ten entrepreneurs in California, and he’s about to have what will be my seventh grandchild!”
Ho hum, would snarl the curmudgeon down the row, a childless man with a menial job, feeling nothing in common with this culture of wealth and privilege.
But that’s bullshit and I know it. That son being kvelled over — he worked for that. You reap what you sow. My life is not what I intended, nor, on reflection, do I believe I always got behind the right plow. But this life is still a gift. My embattled teaching career has been a gift. My job at Walmart, a gift.
Psalm 23 talks about perseverance and how we’re graced. I think of the Jews of the Holocaust and that makes it hard to consider a loving God in the traditional image, that of the protector of the meek. But I also remember that scene in Schindler’s List where all the Jews being saved by this angel are made to gather, at his bidding, to conduct their Shabbat service in the factory. How stirring is that moment, the penetrating voice of the rabbi leading them to their ancient and enduring celebration of a collective divinity.
After the service I dragged the yarmulke off my head on the way out. The sun had set as I hit the parking lot. Off to the side of the lot stood a policeman by his car. He was watching over us. I had a moment of disorientation, then remembered the spate of shootings of Jews in synagogues. I nodded and smiled.
And bless him too. He’s one of us.