More than enough

At that moment, as my Passover tablemates and I grinned wildly at one another, it dawned on me. “More than enough” is a theme that runs throughout Judaism; even Hanukkah has it: the lamp oil was only supposed to last a single night but it lasted for eight. Hence, the menorah’s eight lights. The goal is to help us understand not only that we have enough, but that we are enough.

Because the forces that rob us of freedom are just as likely to come from within, from our own thoughts and beliefs that prevent us from living fully. Many of us are imprisoned by the feelings of fear and anger we haul around as a birthright, the sensation of somehow falling short, which can provoke us to act in a myriad of destructive ways—aggressive actions, compulsive thinking, addictive behavior—that temporarily alleviate the suffering by blotting out our demeaning dialogue until they lose that power and become a private punishment, a prison built for us by us. In this sense, the most radical religious undertaking is to work past these difficult and universal feelings to free ourselves from the confines imposed by our human perspective. Overcoming them does not come easily or naturally, which is why we call on the assistance of a supernatural strength, a higher power, God.

Those of us who’ve grown up without any religion may not know this: with faith and assistance and a bit of struggle, we can make peace with and learn to honor not just ourselves but whatever force brought us here and will eventually snatch us away with the hope that we will not just survive, but thrive. Religion might not be the only way, but it has been used for centuries by people whose inner struggles are no different from ours.

After dinner, only the rabbis and their families remained; they had been serving the guests and were just now getting a chance to eat. I didn’t want to leave, so I asked Rachel if I could help clean. She showed me how to scoop up the plastic table coverings—plates, cups, cutlery, everything—into one big trash ball. I cleared the tables and then picked up items that had fallen on the floor—napkins, forks, chunks of matzah. Underneath a table, I found a coloring book page of the ten plagues. Some kid had drawn little germs of pestilence with bright pink and purple.

The mother approached to thank me for helping. I reached for her hands and held them briefly between mine. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

After she left me, I paused to appreciate the room: the rabbis and their families chatting and eating. This was their normal life and I was in the middle of it. I had overcome all that divides us.

I was congratulating myself when Rachel approached and asked if I would mind helping with something in the kitchen.

I followed her to the back where the burners on two industrial stoves were going. It was at least 100 degrees in there. “Would you mind turning them off?” she asked. I paused, considering the situation. I had read about observant Jews employing a non-Jew to stoke their fires and do the activities forbidden on Sabbath, but I had thought the practice was comical and old timey. Hadn’t timers and slow cookers taken their place?

Sweat was beading on my brow. “Are you asking me to be your Sabbath Gentile?”

She laughed and nodded.

I tried to imagine a rabbi roaming the block explaining his need to passersby. It was almost midnight. Would he slip a $20 to a homeless person to do the task?

“It’s nice to have someone who understands,” she said.

Not exactly the honorary status I had imagined but she was right, I did understand—and maybe that was more than enough.

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Dayenu

From their stations at the edges of the room, the rabbis led us through the steps. First, the recollections of enslavement: we scooped a spoonful of the apple mixture on to our plates to remind us of the adobe mortar we molded into bricks, along with a dollop of horseradish for the bitter experience of forced labor.

Then we were freed by the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, after a series of plagues befell his land. Calamities including swarms of lice, flies, and locusts weakened his resolve. Water turned to blood and the sun disappeared and his people developed incurable boils. One of the rabbis instructed us to spill a drop of wine onto our plates as he listed each plague. These were the tears we shed for the Egyptians because any human suffering is sorrowful even if it is the price of freedom. The last plague, the death of every firstborn human and animal, finally swayed Pharaoh to release the slaves, an event commemorated by the hunk of meat on the Passover platter. The Jews smeared a bit of blood from a sacrificed lamb on their houses so death would know which families to “pass over.” The meat is a token of this gesture as well as a nod to the significance of animal sacrifice at the tabernacle and temple.

I chewed some matzah and eyed the big sheet of it I had pulled from the stack. This was most definitely the nourishment of a fleeing people, the basic minimum to sustain life.

I watched my tablemates construct little sandwiches with apple mush and the horseradish by putting this odd combination of fillings between two shards of matzah bread. I built my own and ate it along with them. I was surprised by the overpowering sweetness, perhaps heightened by the contrast to the bitter horseradish. That’s the thing about Passover: it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom. The memory of slavery offers contrast that heightens the joy and gratitude we feel for the ability to live freely.

As the festivities progressed we consumed the requisite four cups of wine and the atmosphere grew more jubilant. No one was required to fill their cup to the top, merely to take a hearty gulp each time, and a grape juice alternative was provided, but most people opted for wine and some, like my Vietnam vet tablemate, took its consumption very seriously. We had a small cup for wine and a large one for water, but he used his water cup for the wine, filling it to the brim each time. Watching him, I abandoned the notion that he was here for the free meal. He knew the Hebrew prayers by heart and his enthusiasm for every aspect of the evening was contagious.

Each time we drank the wine, everyone in the room tilted to the left like we were performing some synchronized dance movement. Per tradition, we were mimicking an angle of repose: reclining to relish our freedom. The Vietnam vet leaned so far over I thought his wine might spill.

The entire room broke out in a traditional song. It’s an inventory of all the good things that have happened before, during, and after Passover, but it’s the single-word chorus everyone sings with such delight that it’s contagious. The word is “Dayenu” and it translates into something like “more than enough.” It expresses a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction even when times are hard and means scarce. We sang the word “Dayenu” over and over again, clapping and shouting. At one point, three rabbis got up and began to dance. Others joined them and for several minutes the joy bubbled over and the crowd egged them on and grown men danced in a circle like ecstatic school children.

The smooch

Before I started attending synagogue services, I thought it would be obvious I wasn’t Jewish based on my looks alone. I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Certainly my pale skin and freckles made me an outlier, but not out of the question. One afternoon my friend, Lisa, and I stopped by her mom’s apartment in Marina Del Rey for a visit. Although not observant, Lisa’s mom is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish genealogy and history. I explained to her that I had blended in so far among the reformed Jews; I suggested that maybe among the orthodox no one would identify me as an outsider. She shook her head in disagreement. “Oh, they’ll know.”

“How?” I asked. The smile that spread across her face was priceless. I saw in it the memory of a dozen lessons learned the hard way. “The second you do something wrong.”

Of course she was right and I found there was very little I did right, especially in the beginning.

For example, I had no idea about the Torah-kissing ritual. Just before the rabbi’s Torah reading during the Sabbath service, he or she, usually with a few helpers, hoisted the holy book in the air and paraded it around the sanctuary. Members of the congregation would crowd toward the aisle to kiss the Torah as it passed, either touching it with a prayer book or with the fringe of a prayer shawl and then bringing it to their lips—whether they were kissing it or letting it kissing them, I was never quite sure.

Even when the women were separate the men would bring the Torah to an opening and we would rush to it as if to glimpse a rock star. Sometimes the Torah passed so quickly hardly anyone got a good kiss in, and a handful were left to toss a kiss in the air as it whizzed past.

The first few times I witnessed the carrying-out of this tradition, I stayed firmly planted in my seat, hopelessly marking myself as an outsider.

I read that this practice of Torah smooching is considered an archaic custom by some, one that reformed synagogues may have abandoned, but I found it in effect almost everywhere I went, lending credence to my observation that many reformed places are embracing old traditions, even passionately so.

For the last Sabbath service of my trip, I went to a hipster synagogue I kept hearing about and was finally able to kiss the Torah not once, but twice. Centrally located in the middle of West L.A., this synagogue caters to liberal Jews from all over the area and has a reputation for being particularly unorthodox; it was the only one I visited with a female rabbi. Yet, besides the rabbi’s gender, the main thing that seemed to distinguish it from more conservative places of worship was the level of enthusiasm with which the congregation embraced even the smallest prayers and rituals. Something as minor as the Torah procession was performed so wholeheartedly everyone was given ample opportunity to kiss the good book as many times as they wanted. The Torah-procession came down the aisle once and then circled back around.

I had rushed through the first kiss, trying to seize the moment quickly, so when it came again I went in for a second. I put my prayer book to my lips and then reached for the Torah and then brought it back to my lips so that no matter what was kissing what, I had it covered.

That last time, I kissed the Torah like I meant it, like it was a dear friend I might not see again.

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.

The mother

The mother explained that for the past several years she had organized a little festival for the Sukkot holiday. They construct a Sukkah hut, a temporary dwelling usually made of palm fronds that observant Jews build every fall to replicate those used by their ancestors after their Exodus from Egypt. “We invite the kids from the street, but they don’t come.”

I thought of how intimidated I had felt just gazing upon their yard, what I understood to be an extension of their secret and sacred world.

Her forehead strained and her eyes grew accusatory. “The neighbors are not friendly with us.”

Now I was getting miffed at her. Instead of recognizing that I was a neighbor reaching out, she was seeing me as representing everyone who hadn’t.

The uncomfortable tension was palpable as she introduced me to her son, the head rabbi. He and I shared a brief, awkward hello with no handshake. When we were kids, it would have been okay for us to talk and play, but now we were officially forbidden from touching and discouraged from engaging in unnecessary chit chat. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he said. I suppose with that, a miniscule corner of the universe was mended.

The mother asked me to stay for the women’s group, which was starting in a few minutes. I felt she was just being polite, but I accepted. She and I waited for the others to join us around a big table; sitting quietly together, the vibe between us began to mellow. I tiptoed back to our previous conversation. “Maybe the neighbors don’t realize you’re open to social interaction with them.” I was trying to be as gentle as possible. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded slowly, her scowl softening.

She invited me to return to the synagogue the following Friday for dinner on the first night of Passover. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d like that.” It would be my first-ever official Passover. When the other women arrived, she introduced me as an old neighbor who had returned. “She didn’t feel comfortable saying hello back then, but she’s come now,” she explained. Everyone raised their tiny cups of white wine at me and I said, “Better late than never.”

The rabbi

The woman at the ultra-orthodox synagogue, Rachel, pointed at a man who had emerged from behind the partition to check on something at the far end of the gymnasium. “My husband. He’s the head rabbi here.” He was dressed almost identically to how I remembered only he and his clothes were bigger now. Even from far away, I spied faint traces of the boy he had been through his enormous beard. “His mom still lives in that apartment building.”

After Rachel left me, I tried to relax. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the Hebrew words being spoken by the men. I imagined each one like a soap bubble, filled with love and gratitude, floating up and out beyond this room.

Mid-way through the service, two men pulled each side of the partition apart. A glare flooded the cozy dark of the women’s side and I squinted. I felt uncomfortably exposed.

A rabbi stood behind a podium. He was the one with the voice like Joe Pesci. He made several announcements in preparation for Passover, which was to begin the following Friday evening. Most importantly, he wanted to remind everyone to get rid of all chametz, which is food made of grain mixed with water that has fermented and risen, or “leaven.” This is given up on Passover in honor of the ancestors who fled Egypt and had neither the time nor accommodations to prepare such elaborate dishes. I always knew flat, cracker-like matzo was eaten instead of bread during this holiday, but I hadn’t realized all the other things that are forbidden; beer, hard alcohol, pastas, cookies, and cereals—the kind of items that are commonly kept in bulk in most pantries. To avoid throwing away these often costly goods, many observant Jews have developed a system whereby they temporarily “sell” them to a non-Jew and then buy them back after Passover. The leavened products may even stay in the house, though they would technically not belong to its inhabitants during that time. Rabbis generally manage this transaction.

The rabbi explained that this was the last chance to pick up the forms labeled DELEGATION OF POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR SALE OF CHAMETZ from a nearby pile. He invited anyone who wanted to help to sweep all chametz from every surface of the synagogue to come back on Thursday evening. When he finished, the men closed the partition again. The women’s side dimmed, the words returned to Hebrew, and I went back to pretending the source of the voice was the great and mighty Oz.

After the service, we did blessings over cups of wine and challah loaves. An older woman approached me. Here was the mother, who had been told about me. Her wig was a chestnut bob. She said her name in Hebrew, a sound like a growl with a hiccup. I tried to imitate the noise, but she looked disappointed in my rendition. “Why didn’t you ever come into our yard to play?” she asked after our brief introduction. I didn’t know what to say, I hadn’t realized that was an option. I don’t recall anyone in her family ever making eye contact with me. She said, “The neighbors are always so standoffish with us.” She seemed upset at me.

Together

With the notion of Tikkun Olam fresh in my mind I decide it’s time to find out what will happen when I try to reconnect with my old neighbors, the family of Hassidic Jews that lived a few doors down from us when I first moved to Los Angeles. Followers of Kabbalah might think of Tikkun Olam as the process by which pieces of the original vessel, shattered by the “Big Bang,” are brought together once again.

I studied a map of my old neighborhood and found an orthodox synagogue seven blocks from the corner of their apartment complex. As ultra-orthodox Jews, I knew they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. This was the only place it could be. Perhaps the family had moved, but it seemed likely that someone at the synagogue would remember them. I would reconnect with their community if not the family itself.

I called the synagogue and made sure they were alright with visitors and to see if I needed to do something with my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”

By the time I left for the Saturday morning service, the only thing showing besides my hair was my face and hands. I arrived early. I thought parking would be a nightmare, but a space directly in front sat waiting. I wondered what the building was before being converted into a synagogue. A WWII dance hall? Inside looked like an old gymnasium. I spotted a couple of elderly women behind a partition and I joined them. They were speaking in hushed tones and they nodded in my direction and went back to whispering. I flipped through a prayer book with no English or phonetic translation, just a sea of squiggles, and listened to the rain falling outside. Everything felt damp and dreary and not at all welcoming. I wondered how often they were visited by non-Jews. I reviewed my motives hoping some element of insincerity would grant me good reason to flee. I decided I was coming from a genuine place and that the discomfort was a sign of this effort’s importance.

No one paid any attention to me. Male voices chanted on the other side of the room divider. More women arrived but they seemed not to notice me. They set about chatting quietly with one another. Every once in a while one would stand, bow, take a step back, and mouth prayers. Occasionally some kids would wander in to say a few words to their moms before being ushered back to their classroom.

I sat mutely for what felt like a very long time. As the sounds and activities went on around me, I was painfully aware of my own presence, even more so because no one else seemed to notice it. After what felt like an eternity, a woman my age approached and asked what brought me here today. I could tell she was trying to be friendly, but she didn’t smile.

I’ll call her Rachel. She looked surprisingly normal. I knew her hair was a wig because most Hassidic women use wigs to cover their real hair, but it looked like my hair except better. My hair was a fuzzy mess from the moisture in the air but hers was smooth. I explained to her about living down the street and how I saw the kids but never spoke to them. “I’ve come back,” I said. Spoken to a stranger, the endeavor seemed bizarre, but she nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She said, “My husband grew up there.”

I stared mutely. I couldn’t believe it. It was that easy. I had found them.