One afternoon I arrange to meet Barbara, my new orthodox Jewish friend, at a café for coffee.
In her I felt I had found someone I could ask uncomfortable questions.
“But why don’t women have to go?” I asked on the evening I accompanied her and her husband to the Sabbath-ending services.This detail had been bothering me since I learned that in more conservative congregations women don’t count toward the minimum number of people, or minyan, needed to conduct the public prayers.
As we walked, Barbara explained that even though she is not required to attend synagogue services, she likes to go as often as possible. “Because in Judaism women are considered more inherently spiritual,” she told me as we came to a busy intersection. “We don’t need the structure of the synagogue like men do.” This was consistent with explanations I’d heard for why only men often wear those tiny square top hats on their foreheads containing printed Bible passages and the straps twisted up their forearms when they pray—they are meant to have these little reminders pressed tightly to them. Even so, she must have read skepticism on my face. “It’s true!” she cried, pressing the cross-walk button.
As we sipped coffee, she confided that she, too, went through a phase of religious exploration. In fact, in her 20s, after growing up in an Orthodox home, she became a practicing Buddhist. It was difficult, she explains, to sit cross-legged, especially given her height, but the seated meditations led her to an overwhelming sense of thankfulness for life, which then led her to a deep desire to show appreciation to a creator. She realized she longed for the more formal means of expressing gratitude that were the foundation of her native Judaism. Then a little token Buddha statue she kept broke off at the legs and that sealed the deal: she was a Jew. But, she says, if it hadn’t been for Buddhism she may never have come to understand the deeper significance of Judaism. Buddha made her a better Jew.
Her story reminds me of a realization I recently made. I tell her that when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and started to take on freelance projects, my work week shifted. Instead of starting on Monday, I would start on Sunday morning. My justification was I wanted to have drafts waiting in client in-boxes by the start of their official work week, but I maintained this schedule when I had nothing due. I even had a motto: “Sunday is the new Monday.” On the other hand, I began my weekend early, usually stopping work by early Friday afternoon to spend a couple of hours on household chores before evening. Without even realizing it, and while my ignorance of Judaism was still in full effect, I had adopted a Jewish week. What I believed was a decision firmly rooted in secularism had led me straight to the heart of Judaism.
Barbara wore the knowing smile of a person familiar with God’s tactic of bait and switch. “Maybe you’re a missing spark,” she says and explains the Jewish concept of “sparks.” Over history, some Jewish families were alienated from the faith due to political pressure or the whim of a single generation—whatever the cause, the Judaism is never fully extinguished but smolders in the children and the children’s children. I think about the Greek side of my family and how my ancestors could very well have been Jews before Constantine declared his empire Christian. It’s possible that Judaism has been burning in the bosoms of my foremothers for centuries. There’s no way of knowing, but I love the idea—a hot coal inside me is drawn to the fire of Judaism due to epic forces working to reunite the errant embers. It gives me a new perspective on the role of observant Jews, how they follow the letter of the law not just for themselves but on behalf of the global community, even those no longer in touch with Judaism. They have dedicated themselves to this task. They keep the fire burning brightly.