Chosen

The life-affirming rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah is born of the most basic notion in Judaism: the idea of being “chosen.” To be a Jew is to understand that your life is a purposeful creation; you have been selected by God to exist. The belief that one’s existence is intentional lends meaning to all aspects of the struggle—each day and experience, whether painful or joyous, is significant.

From what I can tell, it’s this notion—the belief in being “chosen”—more than any other that seems to rub non-Jews the wrong way. The problem, I think, is one of misunderstanding: “I am here on purpose” may get interpreted as “God favors me above you.” Or maybe non-Jews understand perfectly well, but the willingness to embrace such a bold claim runs counter to every fiber in their beings. Yet, Jews intended this belief to be embraced by all of humanity, which is why Genesis begins with one man and one woman, both intentionally created, from which all people descend. It is so radical a notion, so powerfully positive. Could it be the bedrock of other affirmative ideas like love and gratitude?

The Jews I grew up with didn’t go around talking about being “chosen.” They never once made reference to it or acted like they were better than anyone else. Yet I sensed a subtle difference in how they existed in the world. They didn’t seem uncertain about whether they deserved to be here, as I was. They may have had a host of other insecurities, but that most fundamental one didn’t appear to be among them. They took up their little bit of space in the world with a confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. During my teenage years, I remained tentative, but my proximity to an alternative outlook was a powerful antidote. I believe it was just enough get me through.

Rosh Hashanah’s encouragement to review my misdeeds brought up these memories because for all the good my time in L.A. did me, and despite how much I appreciated my friends and classmates, once I left the city I rarely returned. My constant moving made staying in touch with anyone from my past challenging and over the years the lines of communication between me and my L.A. gang slowly unraveled. I kept in sporadic contact with one of them, Lisa, who acted as a sort of a lifeline to the others.

In the time since I had last seen my L.A. friends, they had endured the usual hardships 20 years in any life brings, including the death of parents and, heartbreakingly, a would-be fiancé in a horrific auto accident. Yet, I had not offered a phone call or even an email of condolence. What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?

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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.

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.