My face felt flushed, I tried to retain my composure “This is volunteer work. I don’t need the fights, the name calling.” The Rabbi sat across from me quietly. I was telling him why I felt it necessary to resign from the board of trustees. When I ran out of reasons (and breath) there was a moment of silence as he studied me. He leaned backwards into the chair and began to spoke very softly, which in itself had a very calming effect on me. The Rabbi had his own checklist of reasons why I should remain in my position… the last item stopped me dead in my tracks. He said I was an observant Jew who encouraged other people to embrace Judaism.
Observant Jew? Wow! That was the first time in my life anyone had called me that. I never thought of myself as “observant.” Until recently, I was a three-day a year Jew who practically had a booth named after him at the local McDonalds. I stopped there weekly on the way to my 7:25 tee off at the golf course every Saturday morning. My Rabbi’s very generous use of those words made me suddenly realize how much has changed over such a short period of time.
I didn’t grow up very observant. Sure, we would go to services two or three times a year on a Friday night, we always went on the High Holidays, had a big meal on Passover, and lit an electric Chanukah Menorah every year. My parents worked very worked hard to instill in me strong feelings for being Jewish; they encouraged me to hang out with Jewish kids, allowed me to continue my religious studies after my Bar Mitzvah; and drove me to countless meetings of Jewish organizations. And of course, I was told if I ever brought home a “shiksa,” a non-Jewish girl, my Mom would put her head in the oven (it was an idle threat, our oven was electric not gas).
The most vivid thing I remember about growing up is walking with my Dad, all 26 blocks between my house and the Shul on the High Holidays, both ways. It was such a special time, just my father and me. I would see most everyone else drive their cars, park two blocks away from the locked synagogue parking lot, and walk the rest of the way. It was strange that my Dad felt the need to walk. Maybe he knew that those walks would light an ember inside me, because as I got as I got older and drifted away from Judaism, the remembrances of those walks kept me from moving completely away.
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For some reason I always felt comfortable hanging around people who were more religious than me. I worked at the Hebrew Academy Day Camp; many of the girls I dated in high school kept kosher and were Sabbath observant. I admired my observant friends for their willpower and wished that I could join them in their observance, but I couldn’t do it. I believed very strongly in God, but I felt that becoming more observant was too high a mountain to scale, especially all at once. And if you couldn’t do it all, you were a hypocrite to do just some if it.
So I went the other direction and became a kind of a “social” Jew. I wrapped myself in the blanket of Jewish causes and organizations, using them to protect myself from the guilt I felt as I drifted further and further away from the few mitzvot that I did keep. I still took off for the High Holidays and I wouldn’t drive on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but I stopped going to Shul.
Once I married Lois (she is Jewish, so my mom was been spared that slow suicide via electric oven), I started driving on the High Holidays so we could attend services at my in-law’s shul, an hour’s drive away. After they retired to Florida, I would sneak into my sister’s Temple for an hour on the Holidays, I told myself that it was really for my daughter, I wanted her to have some Judaism in her life. But somewhere inside I knew it was for me.
We moved to a bigger house after our second child was born. The house met all my requirements: big backyard, cable TV in each bedroom, and a reasonable walking distance to the nearest shul….which we promptly joined. I had no intention of doing anything more than sending my kids to religious school and of course, walking to synagogue three days a year.
In the spring, just eight months after the first High Holiday walk to my new shul, Lois’s mom, of blessed memory, succumbed to a long illness. Even though we were not active in the shul or observant, the Rabbi and the congregation immediately embraced us with warmth. During the shiva, the Rabbi visited or called every day and the daily minyon came to our home. This was a new experience for me; when I was growing up, the minyon only came to the big donators homes or to the regular shul attendees. My new shul they didn’t care about my level of observance, or how much I gave; they just cared to provide comfort to the mourners.
After shiva, my wife went to shul every day to say Kaddish. I joined her when I could, which usually didn’t include Shabbat — my golf day. The more I went, the more those old feelings began to seep out that locked box stored in the back of my mind, that desire to do more.
Around the same time, The United Synagogue (an organization of Conservative shuls in the US) started a Perek Yomi program. Each day we read one chapter of the Tanach and discussed it via an e-mailing list. Being a commuter I thought it might be fun so I joined. The more I read, the more I wanted to read, and within a few months I was on every Jewish study e-mail list that I could find. I began to attend Shabbat afternoon services just to be able to be able to participate in the Torah discussion that we would have between afternoon and evening services.
Those old feelings of wanting to become more observant became strong again, but this time it was different. My Rabbi encouraged the congregation to become more observant but it was O.K. to do it gradually. Judaism isn’t all or nothing; any step toward Torah is positive. This felt like a new religion — “Non-Guilt Judaism.” The more I studied the more I learned that the approach is not unique.
I began to do little things (for the kids of course) like lighting candles Friday night. We went as a family to services every Friday night too. Since golf season was over, I would go Saturday mornings. Even built my first Succah, fooling myself into thinking that it was not for religions reasons — it was a good project for the children and they love eating outside anyway. Of course the kids were asleep every morning when I went into the Succah before going to work to say the blessings over the lulav and the etrog.
Almost a year into my journey I took the most difficult step of all. I gave up my prime real estate, my 7:25 Saturday morning tee off. Even though my only Saturday observance was going to shul, I didn’t want to give up the few hours of Shabbat that I did keep, and the more I went, the more I felt that I was connecting with God and with myself. So I gave it up and eventually found a time on Sundays. (Of course my golf game got a lot worse, which just goes to prove the Lord works in mysterious ways).
Over the next two years, slowly, more mitzvoth began to sneak into my routine, never by design. Every once in a while I would wake up wanting to do more: first I decided to stop eating meat from non-kosher animals, and mixing dairy with meat, and began to go to shul for all the Festivals. I started to eat only dairy or fish when Lois and I went out to restaurants. Eventually my freezer at home was stocked with kosher meat even though my house is not at all kosher, and a few months ago I started wearing a Kippah all the time.
My family spends part of every holiday at the home of the Hazzan of my synagogue. They have become our close friends. I have learned much about the sprit of practicing Judaism in your home from them. Jewish rituals are not purely the solemn rites as I had always thought they were. They are a chance to have joy, to relish your time with family, community and God.
Have you ever sat in front of a dish of peanuts at a party? You try one peanut, wait a while and soon you have another. The more you have, the faster you want them. Eventually you’re jealously guarding your spot on the couch by the dish. That’s what adding mitzvot to your life is like. The key is you don’t have to eat the whole bowl in one sitting.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, a great scholar and former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America once defined a good Jew as someone who was trying to become a better Jew. That is the key, you don’t have to do it all at once, but if you do one mitzvah regularly, something as easy as lighting candles every Friday night, eventually you will want to do another and another
I once read that when God created the world, sparks of his holiness were spread across the earth. Every time that a Jew performs one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah one of those sparks are purified and sent back to heaven. I don’t know if sparks have anything to do with but each time I add an observance, I feel a little closer to God, and it is that bit of closeness makes me want more. The guilt that I used to feel for not being observant has been replaced with joy that I am on the right road. My friend Faith, a Rabbinical student, put it well. She said that its not that I don’t observe a particular commandment…its that I don’t observe it…yet.
My Dad called me today; he asked me if I changed my mind about quitting the board. I told him that I had. He said, “Good because that’s where you belong.” What he doesn’t realize is that I would have never gotten there if he drove to Shul on Rosh Hashanah, it was clinging to that one mitzvah that put me on the road to observance.
I still walk to shul on the High Holidays. Its not 26 blocks; just two big hills and a valley. Now my parents sleep at our house because my father still doesn’t like to drive on the holidays. So I get to walk to shul with my Dad again, but my kids come with us. Some day when she looks back at these walks, I hope that will be as important for them as it has been for my Dad and me
Happy Father’s Day Dad, and to all of the Dads out There