The fire

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.

8 thoughts on “The fire

  1. Corinna said:
    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.

    In this day and age of science, there’s a genetic test for that that claims to be able to tell you the answer:

    Not that I’m recommending you PAY $$$ to find out: it strikes me more as a genetic-testing version of the ol’ vanity press scheme (or those “if you can draw this image” contests found in the back of comic books).

    • Well, there you go. I suppose I could at least attempt to find out. But it seems weird to me that there could be anything so distinguishable about Jewish DNA…I mean especially if people converted many centuries ago and aren’t necessarily blood-related to the original group of Jews. I think, for me, it will stay a mystery!

      • Well, there’s that, PLUS there really is no “original group of Jews” (that’s hardly a controversial statement, since an analysis of the evidence from archaeology, OT scholarship based on literary-critical analysis, etc indicates the ‘Moses stood on Mt Sinai to bind the ‘Chosen People’ to Jehovah in a covenant’ story from Exodus 24 is not literally a historical record of events; in fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey conducted in the U.S. showed over twice as many Xians (over 80%) believe that the account is a historical event vs those who self-identify as Jews (around 40%, IIRC)).

        THAT STATED, Ezra and Nehamiah’s post-exilic reforms attempting to maintain purity of the Jewish blood-line by strongly discouraging inter-marriage with Gentiles seemingly was successful, making it a bit easier to identify certain DNA characteristics found in DNA of groups of extant individuals with a strong history of “Jewish” ancestry (and unfortunately, the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE by the Romans destroyed all the geneological records which were supposedly maintained to track blood-lines of individuals qualified to serve in the priesthood, etc). So DNA analysis of Jewish ancestry actually has a stronger basis to it, than say, doing the same for other ancestral groups (as long as the person remembers all the limitations inherent in the science of DNA, eg it’s driven by probabilities and not certainty, etc).

        On the topic of DNA analysis, it’s likely that ANYONE would have some ‘Jewish’ blood in them (or any other type of ancestry in their DNA), as a white supremicist recently found out, when he was publicly embarrassed (or at least, should have been) when sub-Saharian ancestry was found in his DNA; that disclosure ironically triggered racially-motivated attacks against him:,0,6029460.story#axzz2lUR2Rzg9

        A few more episodes occurring like that could almost make an atheist like me believe in some form of a God. 🙂

        But as I implied above, there’s no way to eliminate all uncertainty in life (and that discomfort is what drives people to seek sources of “perfect knowledge”), and there are those quite willing to profit from that anxiety in others. It’s just easier (and cheaper) simply to embrace not knowing some things in life, accept that racial groupings are largely an artificial division when we’re ALL homo sapiens, and that no one can ever know it all (but that’s not an excuse for not even TRYING to learn something new, every day).


      • Corinna, unfortunately, i right away think of the BRCA genes – which can be hereditary.

        My ethnic background is eastern European. My mother died of Ovarian Cancer 8 years ago; two aunts of Breast cancer. My sisters and I have yearly CA 125 tests, and I encourage my daughters to have tests even though they are in the their 20’s.
        So genetically, yes, there are distinguishable traits in Jewish DNA.

  2. your combination of words to express yourself…… “errant embers” what a stunning way to phrase your thought……..

    • I always read your comments Colleen – you point out things I miss in Corinna’s writing – That I shouldnt !!! 🙂 – so thank you!

  3. Hi Corrina–
    From this and previous posts, it seems Judaism–at least the Orthodox branch–does a much better job of joining tradition and ritual to faith than do most Christian denominations. It also seems, because of the integration of so many rituals into daily life, their faith is never far from their thought, whereas its sometimes to be a “Sunday” Christian and relegate it to the back of one’s mind the other six days of the week. From your point of view as a “None”, is that an accurate summary?

    • Hi Tim, I think from an outside perspective, your observation appears to be true. I think that’s the point of all the rituals both big and small: to always remember faith, to come back to it again and again all day long. However, it’s so hard to say what’s going on inside a person. No doubt there are many Christians who come back to the “bigger picture” throughout their day–maybe they have private rituals that bring them to that place or maybe they just naturally return there. It seems that Judaism makes it a bit easier or has a built in “safety net” for those times when a person might be less inclined to remember the oneness of everything.

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