I’ve come to Judaism sideways. Though born a Jew and raised in Long Island, a sort of Mecca for middle class Jewish mores, my house was even more than secular. It was Jewish avoidance without the left-wing politics that often accompany that tack. We moved out there when I was very young. As a matter of fact, we moved as soon as my brother’s doctors gave the OK that his arm would be just fine. Turns out it never mattered a lick. He’s an Intellectual Property and Entertainment attorney who is less than interested in any sport but bicycling.
With some intent on my mother’s side, we moved to an area in northern Nassau County that was happily inhabited by the Society of Friends, Quakers being very open and friendly to Jews. This mattered. She repeatedly told me to never broadcast my religion, never wear a star, and never appear too Jewish. My father, on the other hand, whose family had been in America since Civil War years, had lost all but the knowing identity that they were Jews. He never had Jewish friends, went to Fordham University (Catholic) and never even had a bar mitzvah. However, their pact was that my mother would raise us as Jews since she knew how even though she abandoned the visible signs of her faith. My brother was to have a Jewish education and I was given the option. I chose not to. I embraced the Sweet 16 idea of teen age bliss. Paul wished he could have.
In time our community became more and more Jewish. The advent of the GI bill afforded accessible housing. The burbs were sprouting and I got lots of Jewish friends. I joined the BBG’s and even did a stint in Nifty as treasurer. My mother tried everything to stop me. With no mass transit out in the boonies where George Washington really did sleep and I attended a one room school house with a cousin and my brother for a while, I was dependent on my mother’s willingness to drive me places. She was not willing. Jewish places were not on her road map. Friendships that were local were thriving though, so all was good. I still have friends from that place and era of my life. Good friends.
As an adult, I have spent time in and out of researching my father’s family and my Judaism. Both lost to me when I was young. My father passed away on my 10th birthday. His legacy was that my brother, who was almost 7 at the time, was to absolutely have a bar mitzvah and that otherwise my mother could abandon all her religious rituals. And that’s what happened.
I live in a small town today. It’s calm and borders between rural and suburban. Much like where I lived in my youth. This town, though diverse in cultures, is primarily white with a small sputtering and waning Jewish population. I joined the local conservative synagogue against my now former husband’s advice. It was the best thing I could have done. It’s my social nexus. As a result, I am learning my religion and rituals as an adult. I am still not too Jewish and can’t read Hebrew nor am I familiar with most of the prayers, but I am comfortable with them and I embrace their spirituality. They embrace me.
I have been walking, on and off for thirty years, with the same loosely organized band of women. I met them at Ner Tamid’s Sisterhood. From this we ebb and flow through life cycles and exchange closeness in friendships with acceptance and an open door. Some you may see daily, others monthly, and others once or twice a year. The same closeness and ease prevail. We are more like a band of sisters and often –when there is need-we are on the spot with personal and well-organized help. No matter. We join hands.
A small group, 5 couples I believe, joined together to create a monthly Shabbat. One family hosts and assigns all but the entrée to the others. I was not part of this. Over a year’s time however, one husband passed away. Ellen and I had become closer during Marvin’s decline and almost inseparable after his passing. We giggle a lot and try to travel the globe. Lots of fun. Somehow, she didn’t want to attend her monthly Shabbat alone. She asked jokingly if I’d be her plus one. After laughing it off I realized she was serious. And coincidently, Margie had only just exclaimed she didn’t know why I wasn’t part of the group because I was, after all, one of them. So, yes, of course I’d come in. Just once. I’d see if I liked it and they’d see if I fit. I’m not too Jewish and didn’t want to put myself up to ridicule for not knowing how to behave at a Shabbat dinner. I didn’t even know the Shabbat prayer that well. And I certainly didn’t know the order of the evening, the rituals. This may sound odd and nothing was quite that overt, but after all, this was a big step. In addition, they were a comfortable group of couples and although I knew each of them, I wasn’t that friendly with all of them.
It turns out I did just fine. They are actually gourmet cooks, wine aficionados, bread and pastry makers par excellence, and they know the prayers and rituals with and by heart. I’ve learned them. I look forward to this monthly breath of peace and sharing. And during the Covid crisis I miss it with almost palpable memories of aromas, laughter, candles and wine, and homemade challah– which I’ve become rather good at making. And love. I feel somehow paradoxically anchored and buoyed by reciting the prayers among friends. Knowing this is the extension of a culture that carries back in time through me lifts and settles me. It places me comfortably, knowingly, essentially within my past and a future. I may have come to myself sideways on a long journey of 70 plus years, but now I know I’m just the right amount of Jewish. All the way through to my soul.