My parents were Elderhostel students this week at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and I shared Friday night services with them in the Conservative tradition of my youth.
It was like coming home. The melodies, the longer version of prayers, the responsive readings in English, and the Borscht Belt- suffused jokes all flooded back to me. It was vanilla pudding for the soul.The rabbi's sermon, related in nasal Billy Crystal cadences, told the one about the poor woman and the chicken. With her last shekel, she bought a golden egg and brought it home. One and all admired the egg."We'll save the egg until it hatches," the mother said, passing it to her older daughter to admire.
"Yes, then we'll have many chickens," the daughter said, passing it on.
"And the chickens will lay many golden eggs," said her younger brother, passing it on again.
"And the golden eggs will be worth a lot of money, and we'll buy still more chickens," said the youngest.
He tried to pass it on but the egg dropped and splattered to the floor. Oh my.
At dinner that night, I sat among the Elderhostelers as we critiqued the rabbi's performance, just as Conservative Jews have done through the ages. What was the sermon again? We struggled to remember the botched punch line. Everyone had heard the story many times before, with many variations, including one where the children clap their hands and the eggshell breaks over them.
I loved it all, but on the way home I wondered: would future generations get the joke? So many of us live firmly within movements now; a child is raised to be a good Orthodox Jew or a good Conservative Jew. There's a wonderful program in Israel for bright American high schoolers focused on Reform Jewish philosophy. Reconstructionists have even changed the words of some prayers.
Our children may know who they are, and certainly who they're not. But they may not know who we are, all of us.
The immigrant experience is long behind us.
The Catskills have gone to Vegas and Comedy Central.
The glue of Jewish history and culture, trade unionism, civil rights and even Israel, which forged a unifying political and social ideology in the last century, has lost its potency. It's enough to make you wonder if we'll all speak the same language not far down the road.
Yet it's not too late. In the new spiritual awakening that is influencing all branches, we find our adhesive.I resist movements. I travel around, and not only because it's my job. It's fun. I can, by now, sit behind the mechitzah in an Orthodox shul one Shabbat, then join the tambourines and drums of a Renewal service the next. At both, it's a blast to hear rabbis from varying denominations reading identical classic commentaries from Chassidic masters, whether to draw the same or opposite conclusions. And it's satisfying. I can move from the traditional Silverman prayer book to the new Reconstructionist gender-inclusive siddur "Kol Haneshamah" and find something in each to move the heart.
I've made sure my daughter travels, too. She went to both Reform and Conservative summer camps and was bat mitzvah in the Reconstructionist movement. When she's away, any place where the Eternal Light hangs is home.
Maybe I'm a one-woman campaign to fight the growing compartmentalization of the Jewish people, but you can join it too. When you travel to exotic countries, I'll bet you visit ancient temples, even participating in services that might offend you at home. I'll bet you think it's exotic and fascinating, how different we Jews are, and how much the same.
Why should the traveling stop when you reach your own address? There's a ferment in Judaism today, a glorious artistic and spiritual creativity, that you miss when you hear only your same rabbi and your same study group. Stretch yourself.
Each summer, Jews go shul-shopping, trying out new congregations and rabbis for those that feel most like home. This year, do the opposite: Visit synagogues as unlike your background as you can stand. Don't go to criticize. Learn. If what you experience is not exactly your grandfather's Judaism, well, isn't that good?It's been clear for some time that what Rabbi Harold Schulweis calls "Jewish apartheid" exists among youth. Social isolation was not diminished by the decision by Camp Ramah to exclude those whose mothers are not Jewish.
But I want to go even further. Jewish apartheid begins with adults. There are too many bad jokes which start, "There were three rabbis, an Orthodox, a Conservative and a Reform ..." We American Jews have far more in common even now than you'd believe from each movement's isolationists. Once you sit down together and hear Conservative Jews using a Reform melody for the prayer over bread, you can't miss the cross-fertilization that is going on.
You are part of a great cultural transmission. Pass the golden egg.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org