I never asked my father if he believed in God. The question would have made no sense to him. It suggested that there was a choice in the matter. We went to synagogue together almost every Shabbat and once I was able to read Hebrew, I learned the order of the service, mostly from watching him – when to stand, when to sit, when to bend your knees, when to recite silently with feet together and pointing forward. I don’t know how much of the Hebrew of the prayers my father understood, but he prayed with fervor. He seemed confident that someone was listening. Later in his life, as I stood next to him on the High Holidays, both of us wrapped in our prayer shawls, he was close to tears when we recited the lines “Don’t cast us off in our old age, at the end of our days don’t leave us.”
Up until my bar mitzvah, we attended one of two neighborhood shuls where the services were traditional, varying little from those in the home shtetls of most of the congregants. There was chanting which couldn’t be called singing. The cantor recited the opening or closing lines of a prayer and the congregation was left to chant the rest in a cacophonous, every man for himself style. And I do mean “Every man” because women were seated separately, either behind a partition or in a balcony and their voices were not heard.
In my teen years we began to make the longer trek to a “Temple” which seemed palatial in comparison to the earlier cramped quarters. There was a cantor with a trained operatic voice, supported by a choir with a repertoire of prayers set to music and which featured a pre-teen soloist who served until his voice submitted to the call of his hormones.
The Temple – no longer content with being labelled merely a synagogue or shul – had a youth congregation where I often led the services. During the parts of the service where we recited the prayers silently, I felt connected to some larger presence. I became much stricter in my adherence to all the laws of the Sabbath – no work, no travel, no use of electricity. Seriously Orthodox Jews refrain from even tearing toilet paper, which is considered a form of work, so that the lengths torn from the roll needed to be prepared ahead of time. I followed the laws of kashrut scrupulously, which meant not just avoiding items deemed unkosher, but observing the proper time periods between meat and milk dinners.
My parents were happy that I cared about going to synagogue and observing the holidays but were troubled that I was being “too extreme.” They wanted me to be a good Jew and a successful American, and my foray into adolescent excess was too reminiscent of the Old World, the shtetl life they thought they had left behind. Truth to tell, their own observance had some wiggle room. Even though the kitchen was kosher, there were items in the closet that wouldn’t pass muster in a stricter household. Only I adhered to the prohibition on the use of electricity on the Sabbath.
I lived at home through my college years, except for my year in Israel which tended to reinforce my home practices, so it wasn’t until I went off to graduate school that the erosion began. Kashrut was still an absolute, but Sabbath observance was spottier. I often attended services at Hillel, not because it was an opportunity to draw closer to God. Instead it was more about being surrounded by a community of other Jews, engaging in practices that were familiar and comforting.
I won’t trouble you with an account of all the steps on my journey. Sometimes we lived where there was no visible Jewish community, so we tailor-made our observance. In other places we joined existing Jewish communities around which much of our social lives revolved. Like much of the American Jewish community, our identities rested on several pillars – Israel (about which I wrote last week), the Holocaust, with its constant reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism and for most except the ardent secularists, some degree of Jewish practice.
We arrived in Chicago 25 years ago and spent some time shopping for a Jewish community that felt like a good fit. None of the synagogues we visited felt right – too big, too traditional, not traditional enough. After one particularly uninspiring Sabbath visit, my wife declared, “If you make me go here, I’m going to convert.” Finally, we learned of a chavurah, an informal social group of about 40 family units which has more the feel of a social organization than a synagogue. It is lay led, egalitarian (meaning there is no distinction between what roles men and women can take) and LGBTQ friendly. We conduct our services in rented spaces or in members’ houses. We joke endlessly about our non-existent bylaws. Our services are, by design, a unique mix of traditional and free form, the latter in the hands of whoever is leading the services that day. A sizeable number of the members have rabbinic training or have participated in advanced Jewish study, so the level of learning in the presentations of the week’s Torah portion is sometimes daunting.
It is a group we feel deeply attached to. The members are, to a person, supportive, caring and kind. We feel strongly enough about our attachment to them that we are willing to travel past the synagogue half a block from our house to sites up north that are usually at least a half hour’s drive distant. Many of the members of the group will be reading this posting, and to them I apologize in advance for any way I might misrepresent our community. I love you all.
Some members bring an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish music. We cherish the times when they agree to lead the service. Others are deeply engaged in meditative practices – mindfulness, meditation, yoga and other Eastern-based philosophies and practices. We (I use the plural here because my wife and I are pretty well-aligned in our views) admire the ability to find some spiritual center through these practices.
Remember this song from A Chorus Line? The dancer who is trying out for the ensemble is describing the exercises she was subjected to in her high school acting class where she was exhorted to “be a table, be a sportscar, an ice cream cone. So, I reached right down to the bottom of my soul and I tried, I tried. But I felt nothing…” That’s exactly where I find myself at services. Empty. Blank. I respect and envy my friends who find meaning in the prayers, but it’s not there for me. There are times when singing together lifts me up out of that nothingness, but in this Zoom era we’re even deprived of that because trying to sing together results in the most wretched blackboard-scratching cacophony.
Early on I was sustained by the same implicit belief that I think sustained my father – that there was a God who was listening to our prayers. My secular friends might say they left those beliefs behind in their late-night college dorm conversations, while my spiritual and observant friends will contend that it all depends on your definition of God, another dorm favorite. I can still derive some small satisfaction from repeating familiar words and melodies, but the painful truth is that I usually can’t wait for the formal part of our chavurah’s services to be over.
Recently, I was describing my dead-end feeling to a Catholic friend who responded by laying out her own trajectory from simple belief to hollow practice, bolstered mainly by muscle memory and warm childhood associations. So, I know this is not a uniquely Jewish problem. But for me it means that another pillar on which my Jewish identity rests is unsteady.
I realize that I didn’t list among the pillars of my Judaism a deep commitment to social justice because it is such a given in my world view. It’s the one that continues to stand strong, as it does for many Jews who were never committed to Israel or religious observance. The problem is that there are many other groups, movements and organizations committed to social justice through which this and future generations can attach to and bypass their Jewish identity.
After 75 years, the Holocaust, which buttressed the identity of many Jews, has begun to fade. What remains is the constant fear of anti-Semitism which for a long time receded into the background for all but a minority of fearful Jews. But now with Trump, Charlottesville and synagogue killings it is front and center again. Paradoxically, this sense of embattlement could serve to staunch the erosion of Jewish identity for some Jews who are not otherwise drawn to the many attractions of Jewish culture – language, literature, history, music.
I wish I could say that by age 81 I had reconciled all the contradictions in my beliefs and actions surrounding my Judaism, but they’ve only grown thornier and more tangled. I understand why others who can’t feed off the memories of standing beside their father in synagogue or being part of a joyous holiday celebration on a religious kibbutz have long ago baled out. As for me, memories like these and the attractions of being embraced by a loving community will keep me coming back, wishing that my presence could be floating on a sea of deep belief, but willing to proceed despite its absence.