For many Jewish people Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are truly High Holidays, for me they mark yet another year in which “I won’t set a foot in a synagogue.” This phrase is taken from a famous Jewish fable/ Joke for the High Holidays…
“A Jewish sailor was shipwrecked on a desert island and the first thing he did was build two synagogues….
Years later when he was rescued people were bewildered and asked him: Why he built two synagogues… to which he replied.
“Oh that other one… I won’t set a foot there”!*
Sadly this joke reflects a less than funny reality.
When we lived in small university towns in the Midwest we always went to Shul on the High Holidays. We are not religious but being outside Israel we wanted to celebrate the holidays with other Jewish people.
One year, for the High Holidays, my parents came to visit from Israel and we went together to our Shul. Upon hearing the Rosh Hashana Service my father said distastefully “this is Shaatnez”. Shaatnez is a Biblical word which means a cloth containing both wool and linen. Jewish law prohibits an individual from wearing wool and linen fabrics in one garment. What my father meant was that this Reform Service was a forbidden mixture of things that should not mix: English and Hebrew, men and women, instrumental music and prayer etc.
My father grew up in Berlin in between the wars, his family belonged to the Modern Orthodox stream of Judaism. Although on his street, Oranienburger Straße, stood an impressive synagogue, he never set a foot there, as it was a Reform Synagogue.
My father rebelled against his religion, he became a Zionist and immigrated to Israel in 1934. However, for him the Orthodox tradition remained the only legitimate version of Judaism. And since my father became secular we grew up as Israelis with no religion and, apart from my brother’s Bar Mizva, never went to synagogue.
But for us in the diaspora, our Reform Shul was like a second home, it was welcoming and warm and it was our only tie to Judaism. When we were graduate students in Columbia Missouri our Shul was inside the Hillel House at the University. The Rabbi at that time Paul Saiger and his lovely wife Linda, were so welcoming and hospitable that every new Jewish student or a new visitor was immediately invited for Shabbat dinner at their home. Around their dinner table we learnt all the traditional songs and prayers that I had never heard. Judaism for me became a happy and easy tradition to embrace.
Later on in Iowa City our Shul was the center of the Jewish community in town. I loved that synagogue so much that together with another friend founded a Sunday School for toddlers and their parents to offer them an opportunity to learn some Jewish tradition. Our Shul was a place where everyone: a woman or a man could say Kaddish in honor of a loved one.
My father believed that Modern Orthodox was the only “true “ version of Judaism, but if I, his daughter, wanted to honor his memory and say Kaddish, the only place I could do so was in an inclusive “shaatnez” Reform Synagogue.
Going back to Israel, we continued celebrating the High Holidays as a family but never again went to Shul. Unfortunately the Orthodox stream of Judaism, with all the restrictions and regulations, was not a welcoming place for a woman and there are three of us in our family.
Earlier this year I became a member of the Facebook group “I Am A Religious Feminist With No Sense Of Humor.” In Hebrew they refer to each other as Fadlachoushiot which is almost an acronym. I even attended their non virtual conference in Beit Semesh. It was a happy celebration and I was impressed with the spirit of inclusion, acceptance and tolerance which they reintroduced to our religion. It is encouraging to see that this group of feminists and others like it are bringing about important changes in the way Judaism is practiced in Israel.
For the Jewish new year I wish the group of religious feminists with no humor lots of success in their worthy fight for equality. I also hope that next year all of us — women and men could set our foot in the two synagogues on the island and feel at home.