Balloon arches

I came to L.A. as a pre-teen who rarely smiled. By the time I left for college, I was mostly a different person, much stronger both physically and emotionally. Looking back, I credit my healing in no small part to Judaism. Not because I went to synagogue or even understood what Judaism was, but because my new environment was seeped in it. For junior high and high school, I attended a small private school that was roughly 70 percent Jewish. Of my four best girlfriends, three were Jews—though their families were not particularly observant.

Still, today, I’ve come to understand the ways in which my friends and classmates were Jewish deep down, back countless generations. Their ancestors had practiced and passed down that particular wisdom and it had been instilled in them whether they recognized it or not. Their way of being in the world rubbed off on me.

I began that school in 7th grade, just as my classmates were turning 13, and my weekends were filled with a series of bar mitzvahs (called “bat” mitzvah if my classmate was female). The mood of these events was the antithesis of what was going on in my head. I had grown accustomed to feeling currents of shame—somewhere, beneath the surface, I was not convinced I deserved any life much less a happy one. Yet, here, under dozens of helium balloons arranged into archways and atop temporary dance floors, families were conducting joyous celebrations of the lives of my peers. Compared to these festivities, regular birthday parties suddenly looked to me like half-hearted nods honoring the passage of time rather than a person’s having come into being. These was of a different magnitude altogether. The guest list seemed to include every person who had ever known the celebrant, including God.

The bar and bat mitzvahs I attended had a certain format. The event itself would begin in the sanctuary of a synagogue with my classmate being asked to stand up front with the rabbi and read from the fancy scrolls. I remember always being impressed seeing my friend in this new context, speaking a different language, reading from some mysterious text in front of everybody. Until then, I had known the person to be a regular kid like me, but this impressive display revealed a more complex individual and my respect never failed to increase. From the sanctuary, we would move to a second location, often another room in the synagogue or a house. Here, the seriousness gave way to sheer fun: burrito bars and sundae stations and everyone from oldest to youngest shuffling and twirling to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

Looking back, I marvel at how this one-time extravaganza seemed to come just as a young person might need it most, injecting a shot of pure joy not just into the life of the celebrant, but his or her entire circle of family and friends. Today I understand the symbolic significance of the bar and bat mitzvah as the official introduction of a young person to his or her community as a mature Jew. Yet, I also sense how, in a modern context, this ritual might not herald an arrival at adulthood so much as offer a memory that acts as sustenance for the difficult teen years, which have only just begun. The recollection of that fun shines like a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

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Crumbs

During my months of Christian church-going, I came to think of a sin as something a person did, an act perpetrated despite the knowledge that every aspect of nature, including all of humanity and even one’s own self, is an integral part of a greater whole. I understood a sin to be a deed of destruction, something we do (knowingly or not) to chip away at our own—or anyone else’s—ability to thrive.

It wasn’t until I experienced the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah that I began to grasp how a sin may also be the opposite of this: a thing we fail to do. It could be an egregious error such as not reaching out to, or even noticing, a person in need. It also could be as subtle as being too preoccupied to properly appreciate the natural beauty around us.

While these two versions of sin seem different, they actually stem from the same source: a failure to grant an element of creation the care and honor it deserves.

At the Rosh Hashanah service at the Unitarian church, one of the prayers we recited together in English centered on the theme of listening. Written by contemporary Rabbi Jack Reimer, it included the lines “…we hear the voices of our friends—or our neighbors…our family…our children—but we do not appreciate their sounds of urgency: ‘Notice me…help me…care about me.’ We hear—but do we really listen?” As I mulled over these words, I felt my heart grow heavy. For days, they followed me around like the ghosts of my past.

If I had been sticking strictly to custom, the next day—the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah when the shofar blasts were fresh in my mind—I would have made my way to a natural body of water to perform the ritual of “tashlikh.” This is the symbolic “casting away” of one’s sins from the previous year. Many Jews who live near the coast will go to the sea and toss bread crumbs or pebbles, items representing their misdeeds, into the waves.

It seems to me that once the crumbs or pebbles hit the water, you would lose track of them quickly. Knowing how rapidly they will be consumed by the vast ocean somehow makes the sin-digging process more palatable and less overwhelming. Since I am hours from the coast, I thought about approximating this act in the nearest natural body of water to me, which is a creek that flows through the center of town. This being my first Rosh Hashanah, I had many more months to review besides the previous 12; I would need an entire loaf of bread, perhaps several.

I imagined hauling a satchel of crumbs to the small bridge downtown. Theoretically, the sins dumped there would eventually run into the ocean, but I shuddered at the thought of that heap lingering; Rosh Hashanah comes well before the snow-melt makes the water rush. I decided to hold off: I needed additional time to review my past, perhaps to narrow my catalogue of sins or to find a body of water where the sin-to-H2O ratio would be more favorable.

Before the sun set on Rosh Hashanah, I knew where my journey to make amends would take me: Los Angeles, the city to which I moved as a pre-teen. Luckily, a visit there would give me access to the vast Pacific Ocean.

Looser grip

I would never absorb all the rules and know the meaning and timing of every Jewish prayer. How could I? Rabbinical students spend years hammering out this stuff, and these are usually kids who grew up in observant households. I realized that if I wanted to explore Judaism, I had no choice but to loosen my grip. I would need to let the Hebrew flow without my understanding every single word—or even any of the words. Maybe I could hum along, or utter a syllable or two of a phonetic translation, or skim the English version if one was provided.

As I got further along in this portion of the journey, with more experience under my belt, I began to see that not understanding every word is the norm—especially for English-speaking Jews. Many have learned just enough Hebrew to say the necessary prayers; others have learned by ear and through repetition. The extent to which individual Jews are familiar with or follow “the rules” varies wildly. The labels of branches within Judaism indicate the degree to which that particular group chooses to adhere: the “ultra-orthodox” and “orthodox” stick as closely as possible to the law, while “conservative” and “reformed” have eliminated many traditional requirements.

Still, even the most observant among them can’t adhere perfectly. In fact, the sages and wise men have developed another set of guidelines for how to make things right when the inevitable mess-up occurs (such as how to “purify” a utensil intended for dairy that may have accidentally encountered meat).

When I began to grasp the meaning behind the rules and prayers, I had to laugh at my earlier notions. I thought the actions and words were like scientific formulas—conduct them perfectly and unlock the mystery of being Jewish. I wanted to say the exact words the observant utter every morning, afternoon, and evening. In Hebrew, these lines sound so complicated, so unattainable; I thought if I didn’t say them, Judaism would remain shrouded in mystery.

Eventually, I learned what the words meant and began to grasp the simple sentiments they convey. The prayer before eating bread? It translates as: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” The prayer one says upon seeing a natural wonder such as a rainbow or water fall? It goes: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has such as these in His world.” Specifically, the prayers may offer a brief thank you or a plea or an apology—but they never stray too far from a simple expression of gratitude. The intention of the rules and the words is to honor God by demonstrating an appreciation for life and all that sustains it. They encourage Jews to stop and take notice.

An observant Jew might tell you the point of all the ritual is to remind him or herself, again and again, of the wonder of creation. But even then, he or she will probably fail at times to muster feelings of thankfulness. Luckily, an observant Jew has many do-overs throughout the day. Because the goal is not so much the flawless performance of whatever act is required, but the joyful appreciation it is meant to cultivate.

So even if Phil and I botched the Hanukah candles, what mattered most is that we recognized the flames as a sign of hope.

Rules

Pick up a “how to” guide on being Jewish and encounter a collection of very specific mandates. It is, at first blush, less a religion and more a list of rules. There are exact words to utter upon rising from bed in the morning, the precise blessing to say depending on what foods a meal includes, and prayers to be spoken at various sites—including what to declare should one happen to lay eyes on a rainbow.

Almost no aspect of an observant Jew’s day is free from guidelines. These are not just the broad strokes I encountered on my journey into Christianity like the order to refrain from murder. Even though the Christian Old Testament is the same book as the Jewish Torah, Jews approach their holy book differently. An observant Jew will try to adhere to all the instructions contained within its pages.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Torah spells out 613 do’s and don’ts—and from these, Jewish sages have spun additional mandates to promote adherence to the original 613. These are included in two supplemental guides: the Talmud, and its modern companion, the Midrash.

Take, for example, the biblical instruction of “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21). This simple commandment about how not to prepare a young goat for consumption has spawned instructions about never letting any dairy product come into contact with meat of any kind—and not just during the cooking process. Meat and dairy are never to occupy the same space whether on a plate, in a mouth, or in a belly. Even a basin that washes the utensils used to prepare one should not be used to clean the utensils for the other.

The guidelines are so detailed that they require Jews to wait between three and six hours after consuming meat before eating an item containing dairy. However, if the dairy product is eaten first, one may reduce this waiting time to a maximum of four hours because dairy-based items tend to be softer and more easily cleared from a person’s system. Unless, of course, the dairy was a particularly hard cheese—a piece of which may have gotten lodged between the teeth. In that case, sages have determined one should wait the full six hours—just to be on the safe side.

All told, it’s quite a bit of instruction generated from a brief line in the Bible, a comment that some contemporary scholars suggest may have been meant as a metaphor for a larger point about the ethical treatment of animals—even those intended for food.

For weeks, I pored over books trying to take in every letter of Bible-based law. I was in a state of wonder at both the breadth and specificity.  I could never comprehend all the instructions much less abide by them. How much of Judaism could I hope to experience?

Had I set upon an impossible task?

Days of Awe

Perhaps no time of year gets closer to the true meaning of being a Jew than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; together, they are sometimes called “Days of Awe.” Synagogues that seem to have a paltry number of congregants the rest of the year suddenly burst at the seams on these two days when every member appears at once. One synagogue I visited rents a nearby auditorium for those days, with reserved seating available months in advance.

The two holy days are like bookends that prop up a time of intense soul searching between them. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah the “Day of Remembrance.” Jews are required to carefully review their actions over the previous 12 months, searching their memories for instances in which they have wronged any person perhaps by being less-than-kind or unfairly judgmental.

It’s like God is the great videographer in the sky who has every moment recorded and now you have to review the footage without pretense. There’s no fooling God, no making excuses for your behavior, no dodging responsibility. These days of introspection culminate in Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement,” when God grants forgiveness to anyone who sincerely seeks it; however, no effort is considered sincere unless the person has also sought forgiveness from the people he or she may have wronged. According to rabbinic maxim, before man can make his peace with God he must make his peace with his fellow man.

The first night of my first Rosh Hashanah at the Unitarian church felt mostly celebratory but with a whisper of something more melancholy. Though I could understand only the English portion of prayers and readings thanking God and acknowledging the wonder of creation, I easily detected a somber note in the expressions of gratitude. I spied a wistfulness in the eyes of my fellow worshippers as we wished each other “shana tova,” or “good year,” and sampled from the table of confections. The flavors dissolved in my mouth like memories that fade into a sweet nostalgia.

The following day, those of us who were able met again—this time at an interfaith house on the nearby college campus. Twenty or so of us from the night before moved the chairs into a circle. A teenager opened a box and pulled out a squat twisted horn, a shofar, which is a ram’s stubby antler. As tradition dictates, he blew into it over and over again, creating a noise like an agonized primal cry, something akin to the sound Edvard Munch’s famous painting “the Scream” would make if the central figure were suddenly audible. Some say this is precisely the point of listening to shofar blasts on this day—they mimic the inarticulate shriek of our souls as we shine the spotlight of truth on them.

As I left the interfaith house on Rosh Hashanah afternoon with the haunting sound of the shofar echoing in my mind, I recalled a comment I had read. It was by Maimonides, the famous Torah scholar from the Middle Ages. He said that the sound of the shofar tells us, “Awake, ye sleepers from your sleep…and ponder over your deeds…”

No clue

On my way into the sanctuary of the Unitarian church, I pick up a book from a stack along with a supplemental photocopied sheet. I was told in advance that tonight’s Jewish service will be led by a community elder in lieu of an actual rabbi. Except for the yarmulkes on the heads of many of the congregants, the room looks just as it did the last time I was here. A few rows ahead of me I spy one of the amply-bearded gentlemen from the Quaker service I attended several months earlier, only here he is paired with a woman and dons a tie-dyed yarmulke or “kippah,” the little round skull cap often worn by Jews as a sign of respect to God above.

Traditionally, yarmulkes are worn by men. Here, a few women wear them too and several of the designs are surprisingly playful. A few rows ahead of me, a woman has one that appears very elaborate. I get close enough to see that each quadrant of her cap sports an intricately hand-painted Teletubby, the popular cartoon characters that resemble chubby baby aliens.

I open my prayer book to have a look inside, only to realize it’s upside down. Hebrew is printed on the page from right-to-left instead of the usual left-to-right so Jewish prayer books generally open in the opposite direction from those I’m used to even when they contain English translations. I flip the volume over: On Wings of Awe, a prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What is normally the last page is the first page here and I think briefly about how this would make a good metaphor for Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity: everything’s wrong side up and backwards! Only the relationship between the two is far more nuanced than that, and the way books are printed in Judaism is so basic that my finding it surprising speaks more to a very personal ignorance than any universal truths. For someone married to a Jew-by-birth, who came of age surrounded by Jews, it’s astounding how little I know. I would probably be paralyzed with embarrassment if it weren’t for the fact that my lack of knowledge has found fierce competition with Phil’s.

In point of fact: Phil and I inherited a menorah from his family. It’s the kind where each of the wicks feeds into a common basin of oil. When we first got married, I made a special trip to the hardware store for the right lamp oil and even purchased a tiny funnel to pour it into the menorah’s small opening. I went online to read about the lighting of the Hanukah candles, but I skimmed the entry thinking Phil would know the specifics. Growing up, his family celebrated both Christmas and Hanukah.

A day or two into our first Hanukah, I realized it was time to pull it out. “How do we do it?” I asked Phil. I had a lighter at the ready.

“I have no idea,” he said.

“You’re joking,” I insisted. I had always assumed Phil knew more than he was letting on, that he was feigning Judaism amnesia.

“My dad always lit it.”

“You really have no clue?”

He was dead serious. “None.”

We were both hovering over the menorah. Just because neither of us knew what we were doing, didn’t mean we weren’t going to light the thing. I tried to recall the rules from my brief internet search: was it right to left, or left to right, and how many days exactly into the holiday were we?

Phil was getting impatient. “Just do it.”

“Fine,” I said. I held my lighter to each wick until I had created a little Hanukah inferno. After several minutes the wicks sucked up all the fuel and the flames died out. “Happy Hanukah!” we cried, batting at the smoke.

A new year

It’s 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in late September. Summer officially ended last week, and even with daylight savings still in effect, the day-to-night ratio is leaning toward darkness. Almost no vestiges of sunset remain as I park on the street; the light from the Unitarian church seems extra bright. I can see the silhouettes of people entering the front door and moving through the sanctuary. This church was an early stop on my excursion through Christianity and now it will act as a bridge to the journey’s Judaism leg.

Normally the individuals who gather to worship in a Unitarian church are well outside the Christian mainstream; they train a skeptical eye on traditional theological principles such as Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. I suppose it’s a point of view born from Christian hearts with questioning minds. Their ranks have included some of the most beloved Americans of all time including Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain.

Tonight the people gathering are even further outside the Christian mainstream; they are, in fact, Jews. With the closest synagogue over 70 miles away from my home, the Unitarians are graciously lending their space to the members of the local Jewish community to kick off the “high holidays,” which includes Rosh Hashanah and—ten days later—Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Many within the larger Christian community might argue that Unitarians are not technically Christian. Regardless, I think it’s safe to assume that Unitarians hold Jesus and his teachings in the highest esteem—and this they share with Jews.

Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new year. It commemorates the biblical “day” when God completed the creation of the world. Many synagogues conclude their annual reading of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, at this time and then proceed to start over again at Genesis. It marks an end and a new beginning. Something about the timing of this calendar rings true. I have no problem accepting a spiritual starting point that coincides with the onset of fall. Emotionally, it feels natural to me.

I’m carrying a Tupperware of sliced apples with a little tub of caramel dipping sauce. I read that it is important to eat something sugary on Rosh Hashanah to coax the rest of the year to be sweet. It is customary to enjoy treats like apples or plums from an early fall harvest or goodies left from summer like figs or dates. Before the days of refined cane juice, these fruits would be drizzled with honey. I think the idea is to place the sweetest things possible on the tongue, to push the palate toward pleasure in hopes that in the darkest months the heart will remember this joy—even as the taste buds forget.

Inside the church’s foyer, a man directs me to the basement where I can set down my treats before joining the others in the sanctuary. Not long ago I descended this same narrow staircase for the post Sunday service fellowship. I drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup as I chatted with a couple of friendly retired academics. Back then, I was still under the impression that Christianity and Judaism were polar extremes of one another—as if religions could have opposites. I hadn’t yet grasped how closely the two are related and the strange mix of resentment and dependence bred by this kinship.

Tonight, two long folding tables are set up in the middle of the room, forming a capital letter T. The Jews have pulled out the stops: tins of dried fruit, piles of homemade cookies, fancy boxes of chocolates, and jars of honey. My mouth waters as I add my apples and head upstairs into the sanctuary for the official ceremony.