Tuesday, August 23, 2005

family, revelations, and burdens

I think I've always been pretty open-minded and tolerant of other people's religious practices. I was even briefly part of a weird cult-like organization once myself, so I'm usually hip to any ritual I happen to stumble into, even if I have to mumble along to the words. Which made my reaction at a shabbat dinner at my sister's house earlier this summer seem exceptionally strange - I felt completely alienated and distanced from what they were doing. I couldn't have been much more rude if I had stuck a post-it note saying "not a Jew" on my forehead.

My sister Zoe and my brother-in-law Elliot aren't really hard-core Jews either - it's more a matter of ethnic heritage and family ties, which are becoming more important for them as they raise my nephew Isaac. Their shabbat ritual consists of some tasty sweet bread, which Elliot makes fresh each week, and they light some candles, chant some Hebrew, and pass around this challah bread and some wine for everyone in the house to share, including the baby and their two dogs. After I told them how uncomfortable I felt they were able to set me at ease and explain it all and make me realize that it's all very sweet, a celebration of the life and family they have together.

That prompted a fascinating conversation about our family - my brother Dan was also there visiting, and we realized how the three of us had taken away very different attitudes towards Judaism. Our mother is Jewish by birth, while our father is sort of non-denominational whateverish - still, it was he rather than Mom who got us started going to a Jewish temple school every Saturday morning when my brother and I were 4, my sister 6 or 7. Unfortunately, this was around the same time their marriage was splintering. One of my clearest memories of that time was waiting for what seemed like hours one Saturday outside the temple - Dad had moved out of the house, and apparently had forgotten to pick us up that day.

Divorce meant confusion, fighting, and disorder for me, and my brother and I both seemed to take out a lot of our hostility in that temple class. We were being taught there about all these miserable victimized people, wandering through deserts and drinking their own tears - the last people we wanted to identify with as angry 4-year-old boys. So we drew lots of dirty pictures and made nuisances of ourselves until we got kicked out of the class.

Interestingly, my sister told us about her very different experience of that time. For her, at 7, Judaism wasn't about wimpy passivity, but a lost ideal of familial togetherness and bliss. After we had settled into our very secular life with Mom, she said, she still longed for that sense of tradition and ritual that she remembered from the Jewish temple. When she married Elliot, who grew up in a reform Jewish family, it was she who wanted a traditional Jewish wedding, and who was most determined to raise Isaac according to Jewish customs.

a souvenir yarmulke from my sister's wedding Posted by Picasa

For my part, I've always been pretty skeptical about organized religion. I realize that according to tradition I am Jewish, since my mother's side of the family has always been, but I figure that if I didn't recognize those traditions I needn't identify myself as Jewish - sort of a catch-22. I had one experience in high school that made me wonder about that assumption, though.

It was my sophomore English class, and Ms. Clark was asking us for examples of evil to write on the eraser board. This was 1994, and it's hard to remember what we came up with - no one there had ever heard of al Qaeda, I'm sure. One thing that certainly was on the list, though, was the Holocaust. That is, it was until an evangelical Christian girl raised her hand and explained that since the Jews had been responsible for Christ's death, the Holocaust wasn't really evil. Amazingly, Ms. Clark actually erased "Holocaust" off the board and went on with her lesson.

I was probably the closest thing to a Jewish kid in that class, and I was almost certainly the only person who was going to speak up - still, it was kind of daunting to take on that role. It turned out that the Christian girl also felt terrible about it, she hadn't meant that at all, and Ms. Clark was happy to use it as a teaching point on cultural sensitivity. It also helped me write a really effective college admissions essay, so that was good.

So, returning to the dinner conversation at my sister's shabbat - we were all talking about our attitudes towards being Jewish, and Elliot had some ideas about that as well. He explained how he felt this awesome sense of responsibility to preserve the Jewish faith, knowing the price so many had paid for it. I wondered how, not knowing a word of Hebrew, I could ever take that responsibility, and why I would ever want to. Still, he said, he hoped I one day would, and that I would realize the joy of being part of something so much greater than any individual.

I kind of took exception to that, since in one way or another I think my whole life is devoted to being part of things greater than myself - an orchestra, a tradition of music and literature and ideas, etc. Still, I can see how religion in so many cases gives people's life an added dimension of meaning beyond any of these other things. So it made me wonder, if one day I were in a position to sacrifice myself for a faith, whether I would - or whether I would even have a choice.

Sorry to burden my loyal readers with such a long, navel-gazing post - it's been on my mind a lot lately, though. I recently discovered a wonderful essay called "On Forgetting" by Nicole Krauss which I would recommend to anyone. It's about family history, memory, writing and her own recent novel, which I am anxious to read. As she writes, "There is the burden of memory, but there is also the burden of those who know they must remember but cannot" - that's me, I guess.

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