Yesterday I gave this dvar Torah at my shul, Beit Chaverim in Westport, Connecticut, on the topic of “It’s the Little Things That Count.” Here is the text, which might be useful for individuals seeking renewal or connection with Judaism as the New Year begins.
My book, “A Kosher Dating Odyssey,” covers a lot of territory: The ups and down of online dating, including dating right here in Westport with a featured appearance by the Black Duck Café. It’s about identity, running the numbers of romance, and even my experiences dating rabbis and therapists. Sometimes women who were BOTH rabbis and therapists.
But the heart of the book is a spiritual journey. Of leaving one place for a vague destination, with a lot of meandering. Jews know a lot about that process. The journey took me from the First Baptist Church of Mission, Texas to Beit Chaverim in Westport. How did it happen? It wasn’t so much Mt. Sinai hanging over my head but an accumulation of little things over decades that added up to a Jewish life. This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, captures that nicely, when it says, in paraphrase,
For this commandment that I command you today – it is not in heaven, nor is it across the sea. Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart, to perform it.
The Stone Chumash commentary points out, in a wonderful passage, that Jews learn the Torah in their mothers’ wombs, then forget everything when they are born. So it was with me. I forgot it all and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to remember.
So, some basic facts. I’m 100 percent Jewish. In fact, my mother’s great-grandfather, Chayyim Schwarz from Kempen, Germany, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas, in the 1870s. Both my parents were Jewish and they married in Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas in 1955. The marriage didn’t work and after they separated my mother returned to Mission, her home town on the Texas-Mexico border. My father left and wasn’t in the picture for a decade. After my mother had a falling-out with the Jewish community, she left religious upbringing to our landlady, Mrs. Reed, a devout Southern Baptist. My brother and I were in Sunday School regularly.
And I got into it and yes, I did become a Christian. It filled the need in my life for structure, role models, a community for me. I had no Jewish friends, no Jewish family around to be an influence, but lots of positive reinforcement from the other tradition.
So by logic, I shouldn’t be here today. I was dedicated to the Christian tradition. At least, I tried to dedicate myself. How did I return to Judaism, a faith I never even knew?
Based on my experience and conversations over the years, I’m convinced that a spark of Yiddishkeit remained in me. I could change it, bury it, deny it – it was still there. How did it rise from under the years of church attendance and life in a 100 percent Christian environment?
Small things in my life added up to fan the little flame of Yiddishkeit that stayed in me. And that’s my point today. You can have a huge impact in somebody’s life. You may be doing just that and not even realize your impact. But you can have it.
I’m talking about a word, a kind gesture, an example of faith in action. Like Perkei Avot says, it’s not up to us to finish the task, but we must begin it. Every act you do can be a new beginning of the task.
First influence: my mother. She had zero interest in Judaism or religion. Her parents, as far as I can tell, were the same. She was totally alienated from the Jewish community in McAllen. Yet for reasons I doubt she could even explain, my mother provided a remnant of Judaism, some tiny surviving part that stayed to me. In the greatest act of Jewish continuity, she taught my brother and me the Sh’ma from a very young age. She married a Jew, and saved her ketubah, which I now have. Our home had a brass menorah. We had Jewish books like The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud from 1920 and The Union Prayer Book. A bottle of Manischewitz was in the refrigerator, which accounts for my great love of sweet sticky wine. In what I only recently learned was a very Jewish culinary preference, she loved to cook brisket, tongue and, yes, liver. Why did she do any of this? I like to think that the spirit of Rabbi Schwarz remained in her, and she passed that on to me in her own unconscious way.
She even told stories with a Jewish twist. Her father, Jared Lissner, was a native Texan who spoke Spanish. As a young man, so the story goes, he joined a surveying team working in Latin America. The other men immediately named him the treasurer for the expedition. Why? Because he was a Jew and didn’t drink, and he was the only man there they trusted with their money. Over 100 years later, that story still tickles me.
So, lesson one: you never know what a child or adult will remember. Mom gave me a start, even if she also provided enough mixed messages to leave me thoroughly confused. I’ve taken a more consistent approach with my son, who I’ve brought here to Beit Chaverim for minyans. Now a college student, he rejects religion as superstition. 10-20-50 years from now, who knows? The times I brought him to Beit Chaverim may be a beloved family story told in the 22nd century to generations I cannot even imagine.
Lesson no. 2: You should define Judaism through the small things, or others will do it for you. Speak up, live it, show what it’s about. Otherwise, you’re giving up the playing field of influence. Some examples. Mission was not an anti-semitic place. But people never let us forget we were the town Jews. And they shared THEIR vision of Judaism. If any of you have lived in an overwhelmingly Christian, Southern environment, you’ll get my drift. No matter how far away you from Jewish observance, no matter if you’re intermarried, reject anything Jewish – if you’re identified as a Jew, boy, do they like to remind you of it.
I remember the wife of the minister at the First Baptist once telling me how great kosher laws were 2,000 years ago because pork spoiled so easily and keeping kosher prevented the Jews from eating unhealthy foods. So THAT’S what kashrut is all about! My brother, who was on the golf team at our high school, wanted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a very big deal in Texas. The sponsor, who was also his golf coach, said, “Cooper, you can’t join the Fellowship. You’re a Jew!”
Another family story: My Aunt Charlotte married a Southern Baptist and became very devout. Judaism must have faded deep into the background. So deep that her daughter Linda once had a squabble with another little girl and called her “a dirty Jew.” So SOMEBODY was talking about Jewishness to Linda, with disastrous effect. Aunt Charlotte and Linda, by the way, are both mentioned in the book.
So lesson two: If you’re not exemplifying Judaism in a positive way, then the larger society will do. The result might easily be misinformation, bigotry, just plain ignorance. Like Balaam and the ass, prophecy may come from unlikely sources. It’s better that you be Moshe and Devorah rather than depend on Balaam to delivery the message.
But even if you’re enthusiastic about your faith, don’t ever use it as a weapon against somebody with a different view. If my mother avoided Judaism, my father went the opposite way, constantly invoking it as an emotional weapon. My brother and I visited him while we were in high school in the early 1970s. He really disliked my mother, Texas and Southern Baptists. Judaism was one way he contrasted himself to that upbringing. As much as I disliked his style, I took the message about Judaism as a valid faith to heart, combined with my own form of teenage rebellion. I started seeing myself as Jewish and slowly drifted away from Christianity to Judaism. While he got me to thinking about Judaism as another take on reality, his tone poisoned our relationship for decades.
Finally, idea no. 3: Be open to those who do not know to ask. That’s the category I was in. If somebody has a question, answer it. Be a role model, speak up for your faith. At Princeton, I was terribly tongue-tied and embarrassed by my background. Nobody really picked up on that, and I never could get myself as involved in Hillel as I wanted. I wish I had spoken up, and that others reached out to me. But I didn’t, and they didn’t, not until my senior year when two classmates invited me to seders. They were Steve and Marc, who are now a lawyer and a doctor, respectively, with very proud Jewish mothers. I mention them in the book for what I called their great mitzvah of showing me what a seder is – helping me out of my own personal Egypt of isolation.
Later, while living in Brooklyn, I finally sat down with the rabbi of the Kane Street Synagogue and thrashed out all these issues. He listened patiently and to my surprise, did not freak out. I discovered for the first time I’m not the first Jew to lack a Jewish education or childhood filled with seders and dreydls. After that, I had confidence in the path ahead.
That meeting, maybe 30 minutes in length, was the hinge that divided my Jewish life in half. It was the ultimate little thing, just a conversation. After that, I never felt tormented. The Jewish acts in my life kept accumulating. I first attended High Holiday services in 1974 in McAllen, my first seders in 1980 at Princeton, a visit to Israel in 1982, married under the chuppah at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn exactly 23 years ago, ulpan in 1991, a bris for my son in 1994, my son’s bar mitzvah in 2007, my first shiva call in 2009. I learned to wear tefillin – right here at Beit Chaverim in 2009. They have great meaning to me because I chose to do all of them as deliberate Jewish acts. There’s always something new to learn, or relearn.
Reach out. Speak up. You never know when something you say or do will resonate for generations. Things I’ve heard rabbis say stay with me. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at Lincoln Square Synagogue 30 years ago – a real pulpit-pounding rabbi, not so far away from Southern evangelists in his energy level. That enthusiasm created a very positive impression of modern Orthodoxy. I’ve had good experiences with Chabad, detailed in the book. I especially remember a tour guide in Israel in 1982 who took our group to the Kotel, or Western Wall. To explain religion in Israel, he pointed to the Kotel and said, “This is our spirituality.”
I remember Rabbi David Walk at Torah study at Agudath Shalom in Stamford saying, “There are no days off in Judaism,” something that always animates me when I roll over here for morning minyan. These men all exemplified the power of Judaism.
Here at Beit Chaverim, Rabbi Yossi Pollak said something that really stayed with me: take the time to say the prayer and think about what you’re saying. Not just blasting through them, but really hearing the words, how they resonate, what they mean? This applies to all the little things of Judaism. Are you a role model? Do you take it seriously? What are you doing today that people will remember 100 years from now?
So, my last thought is simply to say: live your faith, however you define it, in words and deeds. The person you meet who may have a tiny spark of Yiddishkeit waiting for you to fan it into life. The one who does not know to ask. You don’t have to cross the sea or climb a mountain to do any of this. Just act on what’s in your mouth and your heart.