I really wish that counting myself among the illustrious 7 percent would mean that I am a billionaire. But, alas, the classification in this case refers to something far less glamorous: I am religious.
The rabble-rousing results of the predictable recent Pew poll suggest that one quarter of American Jews do not consider themselves as I do. The statistic sounds alarming but is really not, because the organized Jewish world has been kvetching about this trend for years, and anyone who is newly up in arms about how much this Pew stinks can find solace in at least one glaring exception: me.
According to the poll, Jews who leave the movements they grew up in tend to move in the direction of less tradition (meaning, less religion), with Orthodox Jews becoming Conservative or Reform, Conservative Jews becoming Reform, and so on. “Most Reform Jews who leave,” The New York Times tells us, “become nonreligious” — except for 7 percent.
I’ve always liked bucking a burly trend.
Growing up, I attended Jewish day school at Temple Beth Am in Miami, Fla., where I didn’t learn Hebrew, but where ours was one of a handful of families out of 1,000 who actually celebrated Shabbat. Counter-intuitively, it was my mother who brought Shabbat into our home, despite the fact that her own Jewish mother died when she was 10, and her Jewish father remarried to a Christian woman who raised the family with Christmas. Even though my father was raised with strong ties to organized Jewish life (my grandparents helped found our temple, wrote big checks to AIPAC, the JCC and AJC and would poo-poo-poo even a “Chanukah bush”), it was, in fact, my Jewishly illiterate mother who taught us about Shabbat, and holidays, and treif and was the only member of our family who ever abstained from that sweet, succulent shellfish every time we dined at the famous Joe’s Stone Crab.
I really miss those crabs.
Shabbat dinner was easily the bedrock of our family life. I’m not sure we knew the observance was supposed to continue into Saturday until my mother started attending Shabbat morning Torah study, which in high school became the only reason for me to open my eyes before noon. But even though we regularly attended “temple” (shul is an anomalous word in Reform Judaism) and stayed near our Sabbath table Friday nights, we never built a sukkah; never stayed up all night on Shavuot; most definitely didn’t know about Tisha b’Av; and never even came close to a piece of Talmud.
But what we did do sparked within me a hunger that has not abated. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I thought I’d won the Jewish lottery. Jewish life was so rigorous and rich, so creative and multivalent, and it was everywhere! L.A. was Israel Adjacent. I had never known the Jewish community could extend beyond one’s synagogue.
Within a few months, I was attending services every week. After hearing one unusually dazzling sermon — Heschel! Cathedral in Time! Shamor V’Zachor! — I started keeping kosher. My mother was only too happy to comply when I insisted that, for the first time in our lives, we purchase a kosher turkey on Thanksgiving. She was considerably more perplexed by my ensuing romantic absorption in rabbis. I fell in love with one, for whom I strictly observed shomer Shabbat, and then when that ended, I fell in love with another. (Freud might say, I’m looking for God.)
A few weeks ago, I was out with a writer friend who is quite well known in American culture for being a Jew, but who has probably had even less Jewish education than me. Every time we meet, he is so eager to talk Big Jewish Questions — why is the world hostile to the Jews? Why does God ever condone violence? And, wherefore art thou, women? — like he’s been given unsupervised play time in the Jewish sandbox.
And even though he has a distant relationship to the tradition, he understands its fundamental character; he cathects to the narrative, and is fascinated and ravenous to know more. It’s like his whole life he’s been starving, and wants at last to eat. (Don’t worry, I warned him about that apple.)
To him, I sound like a Jewish scholar. “I’m not a scholar,” I told him. “But I am a student.”
Call my Judaism “lite” if you like, but whatever I grew up with was enough to spark a lifetime journey toward more tradition. Today, Judaism literally spills from my tongue almost every time I speak, to the point where whenever I’m back in Miami, family and friends inevitably ask why I am not enrolled in rabbinical school. I don’t really have a good answer, but I do hope that my Jewish journey is never complete.
This past summer, I began saying Kaddish for my mother, who died suddenly at age 61. After reading Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish,” I couldn’t abdicate that responsibility. “It is my duty,” he wrote of his own experience performing the central ritual of Jewish mourning. I know that I, too, owe my mother that honor — not just because of who she was, but because she gave me everything I am — her blood made me a Jew.
No question, being religious is a climb. It is hard. And it doesn’t always feel good. It is an endless, arduous process of growing and changing, stretching and building, learning and failing, never being satisfied and resisting the comfort and safety that comes with standing still. Its path is not linear, either. It ebbs and flows, speeds and slows, with static, reversals and quantum leaps. Being religious is admitting that tradition is something always inside you, the intrinsic symphony of the soul, softly playing at the core.
Should I count as religious? Should my friend count as not? I’m not sure, but I’m also not sure that’s the point. Here’s what I know: In 1939, he and I both would have been sent to Auschwitz. And 3,000 years before that, we would have walked side by side through the sands of the Sinai Desert, basking in the afterglow of God’s great blessing to this diverse and dazzling people.
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