A year ago tomorrow, my hubby tucked a skullcap in his pocket and loaded our son in the car. The monsterling was sick, but we gambled he'd make it through the evening. We didn't get many nights out and I'd made a promise. My soul, if I had one, was at stake, or something similarly dire.
The trip was short, just a few blocks. The house was like any other on the block, save for the mezuzah (a narrow box containing a Hebrew scroll) on the door. A teenaged boy in a black suit and skullcap answered the door and motioned us inside.
Plosh and I stood there in awkward silence, not knowing anybody, not knowing whether introductions were forthcoming, and wondering if there was still time to escape. I recognized the Rabbi from his photo in the newspaper and from a parade I'd happened upon a few weeks earlier.
Mrs. Rabbi finally rescued us. She introduced herself and all eight of her kids, whose names would take another eight or nine months for me to memorize. I looked at a sea of curious blue eyes and guardedly neutral expressions, and knew they were sizing me up but not in any snobby or holier-than-thou way. Just checking us out.
The living room had been taken over by a banquet table covered with white linen and set with an array of silver candlesticks and a candelabra. I remember thinking it was an awful lot of Shabbat candles -- I only lit two, when I even remembered -- except these weren't candles, but glass votives perched precariously atop. The arrangement would fascinate me the rest of the evening, though I never asked about it. Too nervous.
It was Christmas eve, but it was just another Sabbath to these people, and they were providing a handy excuse not to attend a Christmas party at our neighbor's (which we're attending this year, as it turns out).
The other people around the table included an Orthodox business traveler and Mrs. Rabbi's much younger sister and her husband, also a Rabbi, with the thickest blond beard I've ever seen on someone who wasn't playing a werewolf. Our Rabbi introduced him as a pre-eminent scholar at an important website and a chaplain at UC-Santa Cruz.
His wife dandled a toddler only a little younger than Minitaur, whose blond locks had yet to be cut -- I remembered in a flash that Chasidim don't cut their boys' hair until their third birthday.
These two men -- our Rabbi and the twenty-something scholar -- would work a little Chasidic magic over me that evening, which may be why it's taken so long to write about it. Maybe I had to let so much wisdom sink in, or I worried at some level the effect might wear off, or that I'd go back to my cynical self, despairing that there'd ever be another door that opened to me in this way.
The evening started off with the usual blessings. I remembered the words when I went to ceremonially wash my hands, but didn't know you were supposed to keep quiet afterwards and felt foolish when politely rebuked by my hostess.
I then had to tell Plosh the same thing when he began chatting to the silent group, and he reddened and clamped his mouth shut. Minitaur wouldn't stay in his seat, so Plosh and I took turns holding him as his fever gradually peaked. So far, so bad.
The food was a survey of Ashkenazi cuisine: challah, chicken soup and matzoh balls, gefilte fish, baked chicken and potato AND noodle puddings. My mother was a mediocre cook, so I found it revelatory that Jewish cooking didn't shrivel my taste buds or require a tablespoon of salt (ironically, my agnostic hubby has more pleasant memories of traditional fare served up by his grandma).
I don't remember whether the subject of my father's Yahrzeit (memorial) came up over the main course or afterward, before the concluding prayers. I admitted that I didn't say a proper Yahrzeit for him and for the first few months after his death, I would recite a few psalms in English from atop the Santa Monica mountains. We'd go hiking, and whenever we reached the summit, I'd whip out the dogearred papers and read them aloud.
Others would stop out of respect, even if they weren't in the immediate vicinity. We encountered both Christians and Jews, many of them appearing cut from the usual liberal cloth, but all of them affected, despite not knowing me or why I was praying.
My mother put a stop to it. The next time I went back east -- for my bridal shower, I believe -- she'd shrieked, "When I die, you're going to say Yahrzeit for me in a shul, like you're supposed to!" And that pretty much ruined it for me.
I 'fessed up to the two rabbis that evening, and something amazing happened. I know I say that a lot, but this time I was genuinely awed. They took my side. MY side. Secular, wayward, heathen me, against my mother.
The synagogue wasn't the best thing that ever happened to Judaism, suggested Wolfman Rabbi. The ancient mystics used to go up to the mountains to pray, believing it brought them closer to G-d. Somewhere along the line, we began thinking that proper prayer could only happen within four brick walls. It's a relatively modern development, he said, and not the best one either.
Our Rabbi nodded. "You did your father's soul a lot of good," he said.
He was fascinated that so many people would stop for me, including at least one secular Jew we remembered meeting. I think it's because so many liberal, secular people would love to tap some spiritual vein inside themselves if they could find a way that didn't make them feel goofy and fraudulent.
Not that I'm such a big theologian, but still.
They were also interested in hearing about our trips to Scottsdale, Arizona, to Mom-in-law's, and how she'd found a congregation that had their Sabbath services in the desert so they could watch the sun sink into the foothills. The rabbis approved.
I didn't know anything about their sect's credo to "Love all Jews" then, but I gathered from the course of the conversations that they genuinely admired and cherished Jewish worship in every form. Our Rabbi said rather eloquently that Reform Jews were becoming more conservative and the Chasids were becoming more liberal. But he doubted they'd ever meet in the middle -- or should.
I heard, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, compliments about Jewish women, even about being a Jewish mother! I was transfixed. I'd thought I'd be taking a trip backward in time, but they proved that observant Jews weren't frozen in amber. They lived quite happily in the present, and were well-adjusted, proud, and slyly humorous.
We talked about French Jews and their plight. Rabbi said they had it too good for too long and needed a little reminding they were Jews. I was shocked. I laughed, and recovered.
I haven't talked this much about Judaism since my Bat Mitzvah. Only this was about the why of Judaism, not the dos and don'ts of ritual and observance stripped of context, a jumble of boring rules that drove me out of shul for so many years. I learned more in the space of a few hours than in all the years of fruitless Hebrew lessons, which never taught me any Hebrew in any case.
Not everything sat well with me. The women hustled and bustled to serve everyone, which struck me as sexist. Wasn't it their Sabbath too? And they mostly listened in on the conversation, except when I teased Wolfman Rabbi's wife about the sect posting her husband in Santa Cruz instead of, say, Uzbekistan. I got a laugh out of her.
But I go on too long. It's been a year. Over the past 12 months, I have celebrated every single Jewish holiday except Israeli Arbor Day. I have lit candles every Friday night except when I was in the hospital and for a few weeks afterward, while the new baby had me sleepless and distracted.
We've talked of going kosher, though I've delayed that decision until I can afford to redo the kitchen. About 80% of the foods we bring home have a kosher symbol on them, or are parev (i.e., fruits, veggies, eggs, fish).
I feel better. My son sees a more consistent practice of Judaism than I grew up with. My atheist husband isn't offended either, at least so far. Odd that this occurred on one of the holiest nights in Christendom, but then I've often said that it's the Christians around me who make me more Jewish, for which I thank them.