Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Becoming the Jew I Always Wanted to Be

After attending high holiday services at a new synagogue and then going to a memorial service, I realized something startling: Building on years of study and Shabbat services, I’m becoming the Jew I always wanted to be, but never felt like. This process stretched over 40 years of irregular but dogged effort, from a time when I couldn’t tell an alef from a zayin. But here I am, conversant with the prayers, knowing enough Hebrew to mostly follow along in siddurs, and able to distinguish between the red heifer and the Golden Calf.

Given that I never set foot in a synagogue until I was a teen, this insight means a lot to me. Starting from a base of almost no Jewish knowledge (long family story covered here), I had a meandering Jewish path marked with series of “firsts,” all etched in my memory. I didn’t know where the journey would take me, but I knew I wanted to embark upon it and become the kind of more traditionally aware, if not observant, Jew that felt right to me. I could have opted for ditching all religion, or Reform, but something tugged me toward the more conservative side of Jewish thinking and practice. Some memorable firsts (both for religious practice and Jewish cultural matters):

  • First time to attend high holiday services (September 1974, McAllen, Texas)
  • First time to attend a seder (April 1980, Mill Basin, Brooklyn)
  • First time to wear a tallis (Fall 1980, Society for the Advancement of Judaism, West 86th Street, New York)
  • First time to visit Israel (May 1982)
  • First time to write about visiting Israel (November 1982, in the English-language Friday section of the Jewish Daily Forward)
  • First time to talk to a rabbi about my convoluted religious journey (1983, Kane Street Synagogue, Brooklyn)
  • First (and only) time to be married under a chuppah according to the laws of Moses and Israel (Kane Street Synagogue, again)
  • First (and by no means last) attempt to study Hebrew (Winter 1991, Ulpan Center, New York)
  • First bris of a son (July 1994, Westport, Connecticut)
  • First time to subscribe to JDate (winter 2003, Stamford, Connecticut)
  • First time (but by no means last) to write about Jewish dating experiences (January 2004, Princeton Alumni Weekly, “Technology Drives the Heart Afield”)
  • First time to regularly wear tefillin at a Sunday morning minyan (2009, Beit Chaverim, Westport, Connecticut)
  • First shiva call (2011, Stamford, Connecticut)
  • First time to have an aliyah during services, an honor that always causes me to break out in a cold sweat through some primordial fear of doing something wrong, although on an intellectual basis I know I can’t really break the Torah or accidentally offer up strange fire and draw the wrath of the Almighty, as did the unfortunate Nadav and Avihu (2009 onward, Beit Chaverim)
  • First time to attend a post-wedding shevah brachot dinner (2014, Fairfield, Connecticut)
  • First time to attend a wedding, other than my own, where both the bride and groom were halakhically Jewish (April 2015, Teaneck, New Jersey)
  • Now, in 2015, I am more aware not of my first times in Judaism, but the fruits of those earlier first times, grown through hundreds of services, minyans, parashot readings and spasmodic attempts to brush up on my Hebrew. The upshot: Services make sense. Prayers sound familiar. I can follow the Hebrew in a service, even if my lips aren’t nearly as fast as my eye.

    The fruits of my labor became apparent during the high holidays. I recently moved from Connecticut to Westchester County, New York. That meant leaving my Modern Orthodox shul, Beit Chaverim, where I had only to walk across the back yard of my apartment to reach the building — about a 45-second jaunt. I was a Beit Chaverim regular for almost six years. In that time, my knowledge of services and Hebrew grew enormously simply through raw exposure week and after week, like learning the multiplication tables.

    Over the summer I moved. Now I’m in shul-shopping mode, looking for a place where my girlfriend Naomi and I both feel connected. While that process continues, I decided to buy tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the Mt. Kisco Hebrew Congregation. Like Beit Chaverim, it is Modern Orthodox and I had once attended a bat mitzvah there, so I signed up and showed up, with no idea about the service, the visiting rabbi, the attendance. In technical terms, I knew bupkis about the atmosphere.

    But once I got there and settled in with a siddur, I knew what was going on in the actual service. I couldn’t always follow the rolling jetstreams of prayers without page announcements, except for milestone sections like the Sh’ma. Still, I felt both welcome and comfortable. Without even knowing me, the gabbai offered me the honor of opening the ark at a certain point.

    The cold sweat broke out on me. No matter how many times I have done such acts, I still get edgy. But I took the card and told him, “OK, just give me all the stage directions.” He nodded I went up, opened the curtains and the ark doors, waited during the passage, got the bat-signal to close the doors and curtains, did so and then returned to my seat. As members of the congregation shook my hand as I walked back, I heaved a sigh of relief and felt the adrenaline rush ease back down.

    And once again, I did not break the Torah.

    A week after Yom Kippur, Naomi and I attended a memorial service for a father of a friend of hers. I was familiar with the rabbi, Mark Golub of Stamford’s Chavurat Aytz Chayim, having attended free public services he leads in the area. He provided books with the readings for the service. The streamlined service included the major Jewish prayers and they all sounded very familiar to me. I could read along, although my efforts at singing, I’m told, left something to be desired.

    Coming so close together, my experiences at Mt. Kisco Hebrew and the memorial service spoke to how far I’ve come in Jewish practice and belief. I used to think of myself, with a note of self-pity, as the one who did not know to ask. I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I’ve grown in the direction that matters to me — in faith and in the ancient-yet-modern mechanics that make Judaism a force in my life.

    In my own imperfect way, I try to live out the statement of the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai: “na’aseh v’nishma“ — “We will do and we will hear/understand.” After a lifetime of firsts that are my way of doing, I’ll keep working on the part about understanding.

    About the Author
    Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.