Balancing Beliefs: From Yiddishkeit to Orthodoxy

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.

They also began arranged dating, meeting like-minded women through a matchmaker. Both  married in 2009.We have three grandchildren under two years old. 

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.

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About cyclingrandma

I was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continue to write for professional journals. I have written several study guides for Penguin Books and write for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. (www.educationupdate.com). I’ve interviewed many authors, college presidents, and scientists. I wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine's website, www.smithsonian.com. (April, 2009). Two essays have been published in book anthologies; one for Wisdom of Our Mothers, (Familia Books) and the other in “College Search and Parent Rescue: Essay for Parents by Parents of College-Going Students.” (St. Martin’s Press). I was a middle school Language Arts teacher for more than 10 years and have just completed a five year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, NJ public schools. I have three children, two daughters-in law, and six grandchildren. I'm an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader. I love theater, museums, and yoga.
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36 Responses to Balancing Beliefs: From Yiddishkeit to Orthodoxy

  1. beachbarb says:

    A lovely piece! Beautifully written and touchingly honest.

    Like

  2. Nancy Janow says:

    L’Shana Tova Lisa ..to You Matt and your growing family!I

    I just have to thank you for mentioning grapefruit halves with maraschino cherries. A throwaway part of your excellent piece but it made me smile and brought back memories of my own family dinners. I remember BEGGING for a extra cherry, the serrated special grapefruit spoons and just the warmth of the family sitting around the dinner table.
    I can still her Matthew giving the speech at your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah wondering how you all ended at at this place in her life. Then the boys return, well it was a surprise after knowing them since we first met in nursery school. Sometimes our children take paths we never would have imagined for them.

    Like

  3. Judy Washington says:

    What a wonderful piece. My mother worked in a small boutigue that was owned by the wives of a very prominent Jewish family in Birmingham, AL. We learned about the holidays because the store was closed and it meant my mother was off work. When I was older, our minister who was a real PhD Baptist Minister felt we should embrace all religions. He had the local Rabbi come to our church and we learned so much in our history of religion class. The piece parallels what so many of us struggle with as we raise our children and live out our lives.

    Thank-you.

    Like

  4. edgy ending. Nice story. I’ll post on my facebook. 🙂

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  5. everyone ultimately has the freedom to choose, it’s just a question of how the people around them will respond to their choice.

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  6. Peter Meyer says:

    Lisa

    Great piece! I really enjoyed it and thank you for it.

    There’s something about the spiritual aspects of kids and grandkids and watching their growth and spiritual development that you capture very nicely.

    Like

  7. Rabbi Solomon says:

    What a beautifully written heartwarming article – Thank you for Sharing.
    I take from your writings that you’re proud of your children and their choices and that you’re the luckiest grandmother with those 3 cuties.
    May you ALL continue to be blessed with a healthy, sweet, loving year.
    Rabbi Solomon
    Ps …. Mmmm those Taiglech, here in the USA you can’t find them but in the UK and South Africa they are a delicacy and I’d love to have the recipe.

    Like

    • Thank you Rabbi Solomon!
      You were part of the early transition- and I appreciate your constant support and humor.
      Taiglech- sadly my grandmother Rosie has been gone nearly 30 years. Three great-granddaughters, including my Lydia, share her name, Rose, as their middle names.
      Would love you to pass this along to people who are going through their own “transitions” with children!

      Like

  8. Leah says:

    Really great piece! Your upbringing sounds identical to mine — from celebrating the holidays in a cultural way to staying home from school out of respect to the food. We never attended synagogue and I wasn’t Bat Mitzvah at 13. Yet I always felt like something was missing from my life and when I went to college, I sought out Judaism. It’s been extremely important to me as I’ve grown and now have a daughter that I want to pass the religion to. As much as I wished I had a stronger sense of spirituality growing up, my parents must have done something right since I’ve chosen this path that’s right for me now. I’m sure that’s how you feel about your children as well. Mazal Tov — you’ve done a nice job!

    Like

    • Thank you! What we grow up with stays with us. At times going through all this with the boys I wondered what I had done wrong– it is a hard way to live; it is a difficult choice if you have family and friends who aren’t Orthodox. I know quite a few women who’ve had adult Bat Mitzvahs; somehow I don’t see myself doing it at this stage/age– too much else to do! Have an easy fast. LW

      Like

  9. What a road you’ve been down! Makes mine sound easy breezy! Nice piece; I really enjoyed reading it. L’shana tova!

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    • Thanks! It has been challenging at times but the most important thing is they are happy and in committed relationships – and the cliche about grandchildren is true- there’s nothing like it!

      Like

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  13. Huffygirl says:

    What a heartwarming story. Shalom.

    Like

  14. restlessjo says:

    I feel a little the same sitting at a church service with my family in Poland- a fish out of water, and yet there’s something there, reaching out. It’s so strange the way that religion has developed throughout the world, and why, isn’t it?

    Like

  15. jakesprinter says:

    Great work Lisa I love it 🙂

    Like

  16. tobyo says:

    wow, and I thought I was the only Jewish kid to grow up (well partially anyhow, we moved) like that. We too were the only Jewish family in our small on-the-outskirts-of-Chicago town. I started to learn Hebrew then we moved to L.A., my father died, and thus stopped our Jewish religious instruction. But, my Jewish upbringing until we moved was much like yours, with large family gatherings at my aunt’s house. I too felt like a fish out of water when we went to celebrate our aunt’s 90th birthday and went to her shul for services. um….three hours later we finally emerged to have brunch! but I have fond memories of those holiday gatherings of my youth. The food was always great and a good time was had by all. Thanks for helping me walk down memory lane and for a very well written piece. and yes, freedom of religion is so important isn’t it?

    Like

  17. fgassette says:

    Thanks for sharing this wonderfully written and very informative post. I remember as a small child spending hours in church, when in fact is was one and a half hours. (smile)

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    Like

  18. I had a Grandma Rose too, and gave her name as a middle name to my daughter. She used to serve gefilte fish and bring matzoh for Passover. My Jewish father married a Methodist, but they were both secular. Still, we had the food and gatherings with my Dad’s relatives. I was eight when he died, he’d lost his only brother in the war. We got the Jewish Grandma, but she was a widow, we’d lost all my Grandpa’s relatives in the Holocaust, and mostly lost touch with that side of the family for many years. When I had kids we celebrated the Jewish holidays, because I wanted them to understand and be proud of that part of their heritage. Now I’ve got a kid at Stanford who is taking Hebrew and Jewish Genetics. She is writing a novel based on her Russian Jewish heritage, and attending Jewish student activities. The other is writing a graphic novel based on three generations of his Jewish ancestors’ experience as immigrants in America. It will be interesting to see where they go with that. Great post! Thank you for sharing your story!

    Like

    • Thanks! The story continues to unfold, esp. with the grandkids. There’s a lot about the traditions and life style I like; a lot I don’t. Your kids seem to have found their roots and are expressing themselves in creative ways! Bravo!

      Like

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