I understand that our 8 minute drash is to be in the style of something one might hear on the Moth Radio hour. I think I am going to flip that on its head and get the punchline out of the way first.
Why am I Jewish?- The short answer to the question and hence the punchline is I don’t know any other way to be.
My Jewishness is intertwined with my identity, my worldview, my sense of humor, my politics, my spiritual practices, in sum, I don’t know where I end and my Jewishness begins.
Unwinding the meaning of the statement “ I don’t know any other way to be” has unfolded over my lifetime showing up in different ways at different times.
I am a child of the 70’s -Our family belonged to a conservative congregation that like so many others moved from the city to the suburbs in the 1950’s . My grandparents were founders and every time I walk into the Beth Emets, Beth Hillel/B’nai Emunahs of the world I am brought back to that very specific time and place in Rochester NY. Like so many others I grew up believing that Sheket acshav was the kid who never seemed to come to class. For those of you uninitiated into the custom of 3 day a week Hebrew school in 1970’s conservative congregation- Sheket Achhav translates to quiet now or, depending on the number of times it had already been said- SHUT UP!! And truly, there is a generation of us who either thought that was their Hebrew name or the kid who never showed up but was talked about anyway.
I had a weekly routine of faking illness or hiding my Hebrew school books until my mother gave up and let me quit. Her comment being something along the lines of “ the bat mitzvah isn’t really a thing it is just a poor copy of the Bar Mitzvah. Interestingly, she insisted that I get tutoring and I went on to learn to read and write Hebrew and to daven the Shabbat morning Liturgy. I never knew what I knew until I started attending a congregation in my early 30’s and realized that there was an order of worship that was roughly consistent across times of day . Until then I was much more interested in what type of cake Mrs. Berman was going to serve me each week.
When I became an adult additional I continued to be motivated by cake but I also added a desire for connection to something bigger than myself and a sense that in order to ask big questions one should start by accessing what one already knows.. At this point in my life I had enough sense of history to recognize the treasures in our faith tradition. Fortunately this coincided with a movement to unpack those treasures and make them more accessible to those of us who, while we might read Hebrew, don’t actually understand much beyond simple sentences that are repeated over and over again in the Torah usually referring to Moses.
To answer the question of belonging my family and I joined a congregation, sent our children to OSRUI and spent summer shabbat evenings comparing notes with our friends about which child appeared most frequently on the bunk 1 website. It was clear that camp and congregational life yielded returns when our daughter hosted our Seder this year and showed her true millennial colors by using a video of Rugrats Passover during the Magid section of the seder. This is actually more of a breakthrough than would seem since both of our children grew up in a household without network or cable television. I don’t think I will ever again underestimate the power of our collective story or a VCR for that matter.
As an aside the lack of television was not a political , ethical , or moral stance , it was sheer laziness. The cat broke the box that converted the tv signal from analog to digital (yes that was thing) and we simply packed everything away until confronted with an empty nest we ran to ABT.
As our children have grown up I began to expand upon my notion of belonging to add the notion of belonging to oneself and perhaps even belong to the Divine. To me this is what I think about when the rabbis talk about Teshuvah, I think of it as returning.
This expanded journey began 12 years ago when my husband, Jeff, and I became part of an 18month cohort program with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This was a 4 retreat, with intersession Study with other members in the cohort that explored Jewish spiritual practices such as Jewish mindfulness and meditation, Tikkun Middot; cultivation of inner sacred character traits, contemplative text study, embodied practice and contemplative prayer.
True to form , on the first day of our first retreat, when we went around in a circle and answered the question “what are we doing here” my answer was “ I have no idea” my rabbi told me to sign up so I did” .
While a good laugh line the real truth is that I felt I was living life on one plane of existence only and suspected that there was more to the world that I did not see and I wanted to explore that from a place I already knew , a Jewish place.
The Jewish spiritual practices that I have worked with over the past 12 years are tools that I have used to cultivate an inner life, a sense of belonging and some times on very very very rare moments a connection to the Divine. They are tools, they are not everybody’s tools, they are not the only tools, they are not better tools than anyone else’s. Some of practices resonate with me , some don’t ( like yoga). Some are more accessible than others. I live most of my life in my head, so contemplative text study fits the bill. I find prayer difficult, and my inner broadcaster comes out whenever I meditate.
What I have found over the years in answer to the question Why am I Jewish , is “because I can be” . I can live a life of belonging, I can cultivate an inner life and even on some rare occasions connect up with the Divine within a larger Jewish framework, one that I understand and find comfortable. So you ask, why am I Jewish, ? Because I do not have to be anything else in order to live a rich examined, fulfilling and might dare say spiritual life.