There’s an old joke about Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat!”
That sort of sums up my relationship with Judaism growing up. My family, culturally connected yet spiritually secular, gathered at my grandparents’ farmhouse for large dinners: lots of food and lots of people. Grapefruit halves with maraschino cherries, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, and my grandmother’s “tayglach”- a dough ball confection hardened with dripping honey and walnuts, and her famous apple strudel formed the basis of every meal. I remember chasing my cousins around the antique -filled living room, being chided to not break anything and to stay off the furniture, even though it was covered in heavy plastic.
My sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school until Rochelle Marvin moved to town in 6th grade. We became fast friends; someone else to share the ethnic slurs, albeit infrequent, nonetheless hurtful and mean.
My mother insisted we take a day off from school to honor the holiday. Not so much to attend services-a small synagogue was gathering members in a town about 30 miles away- but to show others respect for our own religion. People in our community attended church; I joined my friends at an occasional midnight mass or sunrise sermon. Friends expected us to have answers to their questions about Judaism, and assumed we observed its customs and beliefs as they did their religions.
College introduced a new world. I met lots of Jewish kids and many who took it seriously enough to attend services on Friday nights and on High Holidays. Members from local synagogues invited students for holiday meals. I attended services, though infrequently; I was with friends, and well fed.
Still, nothing ever resonated with me spiritually. My husband’s college friend, then a rabbinical student, performed our marriage ceremony; my mother, a Justice of the Peace, signed the legal documents. We raised three children with the same sense of “Yiddishkeit”; an emotional attachment to the culture and identity without the ritual observances. We gave them choices: our eldest opted to do nothing; our second son attended a secular humanistic school; our daughter selected a reform synagogue to have the “Bat Mitzvah” her friends were having, complete with a catered party and dj.
Then our second son, went to Israel for a year before starting college. Tapped on the shoulder, asked what he was doing for Shabbat, he became intrigued, then hooked. Within two years, both sons became “Baal teshuva,” or “one who returned,” embracing Orthodox Judaism. Within a short time, ritual observance became routine: Eating kosher foods, installing mezuzahs on every doorpost, praying three times a day, wearing kippots and tallit, putting on teffilin, studying tomes upon tomes of Torah text, saying bruchas or blessings for everything they eat and drink.
It’s been an interesting journey. Learning and accommodating, doing what I can so they’ll eat in my house, respecting beliefs of all the children, a tolerance balancing act.
As Jews around the world usher in 5772, the new year, and the days of repentance, culminating with the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, October 8, I exchange L’Shana Tova with other Jews, and wish them an “easy fast.” Through reflection, prayer, and penitence for misdeeds, we hope to be inscribed another year in the “Book of Life.”
Sometimes, I attend services with my sons and their wives, sitting on the women’s side of the shul. I feel a bit left out – I don’t know the songs or the prayers. I don’t read or speak Hebrew. Yet, I enjoy the sense of community.
I’m a staunch believer in our nation’s Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion is paramount. I look at my grandchildren; like my own children, I hope they’ll have freedom to choose.