How walking with my Dad on the High Holidays kept me from walking away from my faith
My Dad, of blessed memory, passed away just before Election Day in 2016. I think of him all the time, especially during the high holidays, because when I was growing up, we walked to the synagogue together on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. When I moved out on my own, I started abandoning my faith. But the memory of those walks and refusing to drive on the high holidays keeping me from drifting away totally. I originally wrote the below eighteen years ago. Since the word for the number 18 in Hebrew is chai, meaning life, and we are approaching Yom Kippur, I felt it’s a good time to post it (with some changes).
My face felt flushed. I tried to regain 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 Synagogue’s board of trustees.
When I ran out of reasons (and breath), there was a moment of silence as he studied me. He leaned back into the chair and began to speak very softly, which had a very calming effect on me. The Rabbi had his own checklist of reasons why I should remain in my position, but it was his last item that 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.”
Heck, until recently, I was a three-day-a-year Jew who practically had a booth named after him at the local McDonald’s. I used to stop there religiously on the way to the golf course for my 7:25am tee-off 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 and had a big meal on Passover (our Seder consisted of two words, “let’s eat”); we even lit an electric Chanukah Menorah every year.
Despite our low observance level, my parents worked very hard to instill strong feelings for my Jewish faith and heritage. 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 and pro-Israel organizations (even back then, I was an activist). Most importantly, 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 Oceanside Jewish Center on the High Holidays, both ways. It was such a special time, just my father and me. It was strange that my Dad felt the need to walk. Maybe he knew that years later, those walks would keep an ember burning inside me. As I aged and drifted away from the limited practice of Judaism I had when growing up, the memory of those walks kept that tiny ember from becoming extinguished.
For some reason, I always felt comfortable hanging around people who were more observant than me. I worked at the Hebrew Academy Of Nassau County 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 felt it would be too hard to join them. 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 one couldn’t do it all—I was a hypocrite for observing some commandments and skipping others.
Not wanting to become a hypocrite, I went in the other direction, 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 used to keep. I still took off for the High Holidays and would never drive on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because I always waked to Shul with my father.
Once I got married (my wife is Jewish, so my mom was spared that slow suicide via electric oven), I started driving on the High Holidays but only so we could attend services at my in-laws’ shul an hour’s drive away.
After my in-laws moved to the other Jewish ancestral homeland (Florida), I would sneak into my sister’s Reform Temple for an hour on the Holidays. I told myself that it was really for my daughter so she could have some Judaism in her life. But somewhere inside, I knew I was really going for myself. I wanted to be in a Synagogue.
We moved to a bigger house after our second child was born. The house met all my requirements: big backyard, cable TV and internet 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.
Just eight months after my first High Holiday walk to the 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 warmly embraced us. During the Shiva (the seven-day mourning period), the Rabbi visited or called every day, and the daily minyan came to our home in the evening. This was a new experience for me. When I was growing up, the minyan only came to the big donors’ homes or to the homes of regular Shul attendees. At my new Shul, they didn’t care about our level of observance or how much I gave; they just cared to comfort mourners and keep the community together.
After the seven days of Shiva, my wife went to our conservative Shul twice a day to say Kaddish (it’s done for 11 months minus one day). I joined her when I could, which usually didn’t include Shabbat (my golf day). However, 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 Synagogues) started a home study program. Each day we read one chapter of the Tanach (the Jewish canon) and discussed it via an e-mailing list. Being a commuter, I thought it might be fun to read on my way to work, 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 participate in the Torah discussion we’d 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, he told us, isn’t all or nothing; any step toward a life of Torah was positive. Remember the story of Jacob and the ladder? It wasn’t where you were on the ladder that was important … it was the direction you were heading.
WOW! This felt like a new religion — “No-Guilt Judaism,” the more I read, the more I learned that approach is not unique. (Note: don’t be shocked—guilt is still a huge part of Jewish parenting. My close friend Ed, an observant Catholic, claims his people invented guilt. That may be true, but the Jewish people marketed it much better.)
I began to do little things (rationalizing that it was for the kids), like lighting candles Friday night to welcome the Sabbath. We went as a family to services every Friday night too. When golf season was over, I started going on Saturday mornings. I even built my first Sukkah (fooling myself into thinking that it was not for religious reasons-it was a good project for the children (it is), and they love eating outside anyway). But the kids were asleep every morning when I went into the Sukkah 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. The more often I went, the stronger the feeling that I was connecting with God. So I gave up the Saturday tee-time and found a time on Sundays. Strangely my golf game worsened, which just goes on to prove that old proverb that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
We began to do a full Seder on Passover, but we made it fun. Who knew? That was how it was supposed to be done. We even added “cheap parlor tricks.” For example, we recreated the ten plagues (a glass with a thick bottom and Kosher strawberry Jello powder on the bottom of the glass. All you need to do is pour water into the glass, and it looks like water turning to blood).
Over the next two years, slowly, more mitzvot 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. I began to go to shul for all the Festivals (Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot). I started to eat only dairy, pasta, or fish when Lois and I went to restaurants. Eventually, my freezer at home was stocked with kosher meat even though my house was not all kosher.
I have learned much about the spirit of practicing Judaism. Jewish rituals are not purely the solemn rites done in Synagogue as I had always thought they were. God is much smarter than that. Almost every Jewish holiday has an important element practiced at home, so they are a chance to relish your time making holy memories with family and friends.
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 that dish of peanuts. That’s what adding mitzvot to one’s life is like. The key is you don’t have to eat the whole bowl in one sitting, nor do you have to feel bad when there are peanuts left.
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 because when 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 someone performs one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, one of those sparks is purified and sent back to heaven. I don’t know if sparks have anything to do with it but each time I observe one of those 613 commandments, I feel a little closer to God, and it is that bit of closeness that makes me want more.
The guilt that I used to feel for not observing everything at once is now replaced with joy about the direction I am heading on the ladder. My friend Faith, a Conservative Rabbi, put it well. She said that it’s not that I don’t observe a particular commandment … it’s that I don’t observe it … yet.
The day after my discussion with the Rabbi, my Dad called me and 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.”
He doesn’t realize that I would have never gotten there if he drove to Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was clinging to that one mitzvah, that 26 block walk with my dad, that put me on the road to observance.
When I moved to my new home I still walked to Shul on the High Holidays. It wasn’t 26 blocks; it was a mile and a quarter over two big hills and a valley. So I got to walk to Shul with my kids. Some day when they look back at these walks, I hope they will be as important to them as they were for my Dad and me.
Because of some physical problems, I can’t do the walk to Shul anymore, but because of the ties to the Jewish community that my Dad helped me build, going to Shul and observing the Jewish faith is still a key part of my life.
This year for the second year in a row is very different. Because of COVID-19 and social distancing, services will be held in Shul and broadcast to the congregation. I will be watching the services with my family in my den. And my dad will be right there with me … in my heart.
Gmar Chatimah Tova גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed in the book of life for a happy and healthy New Year.
Cross posted at The Lid