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I am a mom. I work. I sing. I look for God. A lot. I look for grace. A lot. Sometimes I even think I find God--- and grace. I teach. I would rather play a game of backgammon than do dishes. I have extra cats but can't seem to be too moved to find the extras a new home. I'm divorced. I get scared that I will fail. I get scared that I won't. I am human, and sometimes, that scares me most of all. Check in every so often, as I rant and write about life and work and parenthood and God and prayer and community and connections. Join in the fun and post a comment. It's all good.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jew By Choice

I am a Jew by choice.

And before you ask-- both my parents are Jewish.  One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandfather, sheltered by his tallit, as he gave the benediction to his congregation on Rosh Hashana. We celebrated the major Jewish holidays (the really, really major ones) (of course, there were only four holidays a year anyway-- Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach; anything else being an esoteric holdover of a bygone age), mainly with a meal.  Occasionally, we even made it to synagogue.  

I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Sunday and Hebrew school, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation class. I was dropped off and sent inside, while my parents had a quiet Sunday morning, or a free hour or two on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late afternoon. I sat, every Saturday morning for almost a year, reading ancient Hebrew and what seemed like even more ancient English, littered with "thees" and "thous" and flowery beyond belief, alone among a handful of old men, as required by the dictates of my upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Alone, because my parents had other things to do.

I devoured religious school. I felt as if I had found the place where I belonged (had always belonged), a familiar and sheltering home, as we navigated through Jewish history and holidays. I ran through all the primers for Hebrew that our Rabbi could throw at me, so that by the time my family switched synagogues, I was a year ahead of the rest of the kids in my (secular school) grade.  And it wasn't just schooling.  There was youth group and music.  Debbie Friedman's (z"l) songs were fresh and new and grabbed something inside us, got our hands clapping and hearts soaring. We sang a new song to God, and did it with joy.

When I became a Bat Mitzvah (although, when I became a Bat Mitzvah, we still had  a Bat Mitzvah; there was none of this "becoming" stuff), -- from the bima (think: pulpit), as I gave my Bat Mitzvah speech-- I declared my parents to be Lox and Bagel Jews--- people who ate their way through Jewish culture, but who, when push came to shove, really felt more comfortable on the golf course than the sanctuary floor on a Saturday morning.  I further declared that I would never be like them (remember, I was a teenager).  Most important, I declared my intention, my desire, to become a rabbi.

All of my fervent declarations were met with a hearty chuckle, most especially from my parents. Although they were willing to play along with my more participatory adventures in Judaism, they drew the line at the rabbinate.  "That's really not a job for a nice Jewish girl," they told me.  Funny thing, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a girl--- after all, we were living in the modern world of 1974, and women could do anything (sort of).  No, they didn't think the calling appropriate because they figured I'd never make enough money by praying professionally.

Like most teenagers, I was adamant, intractable, supercilious and superior.  At thirteen, I knew the answers to life, the universe and everything.

By fifteen, I knew that there was no God and that religion--- specifically Judaism--- was nonsense.  I refused to participate because I refused to be a hypocrite.  Of course, I still took off from school, and later, work, for all the major Jewish holidays, and ate all the major Jewish meals at their appointed times, each in its season.  I mean, really--- a girl has to eat, right?

From then unitl my early forties, I was a Jew by birth, and that's about it.  I did not disavow my Judaism, did not seek other religious options (though I flirted with alcohol as an emergency spiritual plan, then a kind of universal (not to be confused with Universalist) just-be-a-good-person, kind of peace-and-love amorphous spirituality that had no form, and certainly no God).  It was easier for me to be disconnected and contemptuous, and so I was.

Somewhere along my way, something happened, something changed.  Getting sober helped.  Getting married certainly didn't hurt.  Having a child pushed me over the edge, turned my contempt into something quite like hope.  Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon a grace note of faith.

And now?  Now I am a Jew by choice.  Every day--- let me repeat that--- every day I choose to be a Jew.  Choose to engage and connect and participate and act and worship and pray as a Jew.  It is a conscious act, like the King who says to Scheherazade: "Good story.  I guess I won't kill you today. Maybe tomorrow."  Some days, I am the King; some Scheherazade.  I must both act and choose.  With that, I find a measure of peace, a sense of wonder, the joy of obligation and the freedom of service.

I still like riotous, raucous, chaotic family meals to celebrate the holidays.  But there is so much more, for me, to being Jewish.  It is family tradition and ritual, faith and intent.  It is cultural and religious and social.  It is how I live my life as an individual and as a member of a community. It is family meals and silent prayer.  It is difficult and simple and resonates within me and fills me with light.

I am a Jew because I act. I am a Jew because I choose.  

7 comments:

  1. Stacy, I met you at a BBG reunion hosted by Julie Achler and have been moved by many of your postings on Facebook. I just read your blog, as I am searching to connect and to feel what you feel in your faith. I enjoyed your blog and appreciate your share. Your writing is fun, easy and touching.
    Please keep on sharing. S

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  2. Stacy,

    I'd love permission to share this post on InterfaithFamily.com. Please be in touch! benjaminm@interfaithfamily.com

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  3. Very, very pleasant reading and I'm not Jew :)). Too many lines to quote...and you have a sensitive tooth there, you can't hide it. Unlike Benjamin above I won't ask for permission to share this: is soo good I'll share it without permission hahahahha.

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  4. It's easy to choose to be Jewish when the environment around you is safe. Would you be Jewish in a ghetto?

    And more importantly, Stacey, if choice is how you determine your religion, as opposed to say mother's religion, then why tell us your parents were Jewish. Why is that relevant?

    Where it becomes relevant, however, you reveal to us. If parents to not enjoy their Jewishness, in that they do not observe the rituals and demands in meaningful devotion, the child suffers because the Jewish education thereby falters and fades.

    Take your choosing for example. It could well be that in a ghetto too you would enjoy being Jewish, if your parents forsook golf on Saturdays and went to pray instead, for the little sacrifice that they'd had made doing that may have been amplified in you. That way, if one day you feel down, a day when Scheherazade may well be killed, you would still feel Jewish even if you made no conscious choice of it.

    Francene

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    1. Anonymous--- Thank you for writing. Perhaps I need to clarify. The impetus for my writing this essay sprang from my frustration with seeing so much written these days about "Jews-by-Choice." First, I believe that a Jew is a Jew-- by choice or by birth. We are taught that there is no distinction, that there are no degrees that are ascribed to a Jew by birth or by choice. As I said, a Jew is a Jew.

      Yes: I am a Jew because I was born one. However, I also believe that the quality of my Judaism is all about choice. More-- it is all about how I act and choose and live my Judaism. Perhaps I was a bit too artful in my essay, or perhaps I just assumed that everyone would follow the conversation I am having in my head. :}

      My parents-- Jews by birth-- understood their Judaism in one way, and did their best to instill a sense of people, of faith, of commitment and obligation in me, to the best of their ability, and I honor them for that (which is much easier to do at fifty than at fifteen...). It was not necessarily enough for me then, and surely not enough for me and my family now.

      I crave depth. I want a richness and involvement and connection that I missed for a long time. I demand that I live as Jewishly as I know how--- as I have learned and studied and prayed. I demand that I live my life as a prayer, that I create-- not on my own, but with others, and with God-- a holy community, a makom hakodesh.

      I do not insist that others do this. I make this space within my life, and within the life of my son, because I believe that we are, after all, she'asani b'tzelem Elohim (made in the image of God), and that we are commanded to be holy, because God is holy.

      Would I choose all this, live this life, if I were in the ghetto? I don't know. I would hope so. Is the fact that I was born to a Jewish mother relevant? I don't know how to answer that. Yes-- it made me a Jew, halachically. I still believe though, that I have a choice, every day, to live as Jewishly as I know how, and this is what I strive to do. It may not be everyone's particular brand of Judaism; so be it. But it is richer and more passionate and more active and more enveloping because I choose it, because I live it.

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    2. You want to make the most of life count for you and your boy but sounds to me your premises are shaky, because on the one hand you quote holy sources whereas on the other you ignore them. Your philosophy wobbles as a result.

      It makes no sense, for example, to say you're a Jew because you were born one, and in the same breath say because you practice it. You can claim poetic license but we're not talking poetry here.

      Francene

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  5. Francene, I do not claim poetic license. I do, however, make a distinction between the "accident of birth" fact that I am a Jew, and the choices that I make to live a full and rich Jewish life.

    We all make choices. All of us. I choose to make informed ones, that make sense for me (and by extension, my son). I choose to exercise my Judaism by my actions and my understanding. Are there holes? Probably. I'm ok with that.

    I am as comfortable with spending Saturday morning in synagogue, praying and chanting Torah and studying with my holy community, as I am with driving to get there. I am as comfortable wearing a kippah and a tallit when I pray as I am with not offering sacrifices at a Temple that no longer stands, or stoning someone who turns on a light on Shabbat.

    These are things that make sense to me, are part of my Jewish life. I was born a Jew. For me, it is more of a wonder to live as a Jew--- fully, consciously, mindfully.

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