Over the past month I have had multiple occasions to partake in Jewish high holiday rituals even though I am what Isaac Deutscher called a non-Jewish Jew.
My first encounter was a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of my wife’s former student, a relatively observant Iranian émigré. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Unlike January 1st for non-Jews, our New Year has much more religious significance. It marks the beginning of ten days of introspection culminated by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I don’t remember much about Rosh Hashanah from my early years in a Jewish household but the service involves blowing a ram’s horn—the Shofar.
I wore a yarmulke throughout, a skull cap that is nowadays called a kippah—a word that I never heard many years ago when I was observant myself, mostly a result of parental pressure than anything else. The etymology of yarmulke is interesting. It means “rainwear” and comes from the Turkish word yağmurluk. Yağmur, pronounced yahmur, means rain, the “luk” is a suffix that in this instance means “intended for”. This is something I will have to mention to my wife’s nephew from Istanbul who came to the dinner with us. He had a bit of a grin on his face when he put the yarmulke on. Wait until he finds out that it was a Turkish cap, not necessarily a Jewish one.
In all my years growing up in a Jewish household, we never had a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Our host explained that this was customary in Iran although I suspect that it was something that also occurred in Jewish households more orthodox than ours. Our host led us in a ritual that consisted of taking bites from dishes that had some special significance like an apple dipped in honey, a pomegranate, and the head of a fish. After each food was sampled, a prayer was recited. It has been many years since I recited a Hebrew prayer but the opening words, common to nearly all of them, starts “baruch atoh adenoai elochaynu…” words affirming that God is the Greatest, tailored to the occasion upon which they are being invoked. I remember them all these years even though nothing else I learned in Hebrew school sticks with me.
A week after the dinner I went to Shaaray Tefila, the Reform Synagogue on Second Avenue and Seventy-Ninth Street, on Saturday afternoon for Yizkor services as I have done ever since my mom died in 2008. This is part of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that is the most solemn for Jews. I always go with an old friend from high school who first suggested that I join him back in 2009.
Yizkor services are for remembering a dead relative. At Shaaray Tefila, you get a mixture of Hebrew prayers that have been around for hundreds of years and modern verses composed by men and women with a flair for the moribund. The verses are essentially a statement about the fleetingness of life and the need to take consolation in the Lord, all in all evoking the Book of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
When I was a religion major at Bard College, I was convinced by a professor’s claim that Greek Stoicism influenced the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. From The Enchiridion by Epictetus:
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views.
No matter how many times I hear such sentiments, it is hard for me to slough off the prospects of mortality, now much more immediate than ever as I approach my seventieth birthday dealing with one old man’s disorder or another, like hypertension. My old friend has a tougher row to hoe, a year into Parkinson’s disease. Death is “nothing terrible” when you are 30 or so but when you hit your seventies, you feel like you are walking in a minefield. They say that religion is mostly about getting a person to be reconciled to death through the promise of an afterlife. That’s little consolation to a hard-core materialist like me. The main thing I get out of prayers for the dead is a feeling that I am paying respect to my mom, who never found a way to make me more observant, even in the weak tea Reform Judaism she upheld.
Shaaray Tefila was in the news recently. The NY Times interviewed rabbis across the nation from Reform to Orthodox to see how they were handling the Gaza controversy. In almost all cases, a decision was made to not talk about it at all for fear of pissing off young antiwar Jews or old and well-to-do Zionists. The former rabbi at Shaaray Tefila weighed in:
“There is the sense that the ability to criticize Israel has been diminished because of the war, because of the atrocities that Hamas perpetrates among its own people, and because Israel needs our support since the international community is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a recently retired senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.
“The easy sermon for a rabbi to give this year will be on the rise of anti-Semitism across the world. That is a softball,” said Rabbi Stein, who is also the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform movement. “The more difficult sermon to give will be one that has any kind of critical posture.”
In keeping with the general thrust of the article, Stein made sure not to say anything demonstrating atonement for the deaths of women and children in Gaza.
That was a subject very much on my mind as I walked past the Chabad missionaries parked in front of my high-rise for the past few days celebrating Sukkot, a holiday that though proximate to Yom Kippur is tied to another Old Testament legend, the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Supposedly they lived in a kind of grass hut called a sukkah that serious Jews build for the occasion. They look like a tree house but sit on the ground. The holiday calls for eating your meals in a sukkah but hardly any of the Jews I grew up with built a sukkah let alone dined in them.
For some reason the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who are to the Chabad as Mormons are to their mandatory missionary service, are gung-ho on this holiday and implore apostates like me or simply secular Jews to take part in a ritual that involves waving a palm frond, the so-called lulav. The ritual is inspired by this verse in Leviticus:
On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches, and willows [that grow near] the brook. You shall rejoice before God for seven days.
Of course, Leviticus has all sorts of strictures that might strike a sensible person as odd, especially when the punishment for violating them is death by stoning:
Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
Two days ago, the last time the missionaries showed up in front of my building, one asked me if I was Jewish—the start of a pitch to get someone to wave the lulav. I told him that I used to be Jewish, but no longer. He reassured me that I would always be Jewish as long as I had a Jewish mother. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
Me: So what defines a Jew, his bloodlines or his deeds?
Him: (Pretty much ignoring my question) You will always be a Jew. It is in your soul.
Me: If I kill someone, will that mean I am still a good Jew as long as I wave the branch and eat Kosher?
Him: Yes, your soul will suffer but in god’s eyes you will be Jewish.
That was enough theology to last me until next year. Back to the materialist grindstone.