More Than a Twice A Year Jew

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The holidays are finally over. I have a love-hate relationship with  the High Holidays. I love them in terms of sweet challah, apple picking and dancing with the Torah; I loathe the unruly, lethargic strangers that clog my sanctuary out of guilt three times a year, and the general discomfort that comes with the unending hullabaloo of holy days back-to-back-to-back-to-back. As my three year old wisely observed upon entering our packed shul on Yom Kippur, “No. No.” I, too, wanted to turn around and head for the peace of my quiet home. But, I forged ahead and took him with me, to set the example of what it meant to be a good – no – a responsible Jew.

After all, that’s what I’d learned growing up. Being a responsible Jew in America means going to shul, especially on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then there’s my Israeli husband. For the first time since we’d joined a synagogue my husband took off work for the High Holidays. Last year’s Yom Kippur attendance was a fluke; the holiday fell on a Saturday and since no work was to be done (because the office was closed, not because it was Shabbat) he came along for the ride. For him these holidays mean little more than compulsory attendance at his mother’s dining room table to hug his Grandmother and say hello to cousins he won’t see again until Passover.

Keep in mind this good Jewish boy was raised in the Jewish day school/synagogue/Hebrew High School system when his parents moved him here from Israel as a young pup. But, when your parents speak Hebrew at home, and your beloved Aunt Skypes from Israel on the weekend it’s rather hard to fit into the American Ashkenormative life of shul, work and play. Factor in a father whose career is in the Jewish world and forget it. Other Jewish kids in America had a dividing line between Jewish life and daily life. For my husband there was never a boundary, only one strict sense of self that never quite fit in anywhere else but home. He likes our shul for the boys, but he’s always going to be one of those guys who best communes with God over tools on a sunny Saturday afternoon instead of pouring over a siddur on a Shabbat morning.

The holidays remind me why I can’t blame him. Holidays can make the most religious shul-goer feel alienated in his own spiritual home. Weekly Shabbat services afford me the opportunity to catch up with friends in whispers between prayers and at length over kiddush. My son who hates crowds is comfortable with our small but loyal band of regulars. He doesn’t need hundreds of strangers flooding the sanctuary that acts as an indoor playground for his motley crew once services have ended. How could he possibly run up the ramp to the bema, greet the Torahs with “boker tov” and beg a story from the parsha with all these people here? How could my son commune with God in the midst of a crowd of strange faces pulling at uncomfortable suit collars and adjusting tight pantyhose? And what’s with all these kids in the hall? The kids in the hall are supposed to play together, not stare at phones and complain about when they’ll finally get to leave.

As we gather into the shul to hear the shofar together my son looks at me as if to ask, “What am I doing here, anyway?” And how do I explain that standing in the midst of a group of strangers in order to hear the sound of an animal’s horn equates to being a responsible Jew?

Everything about the holidays is so confusing and strange. All my son wants to do is go outside and fix cars with his Dad, and that’s all his Dad wants to do, too. But, we live in America so we have to grab these Jewish experiences whenever and wherever we can find them. We aren’t in Israel. We don’t speak Hebrew on a daily basis and we aren’t surrounded by other Jews who may live in all kinds of ways, but who live Jewish above all else.

After the insanity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have beaten us to a pulp, we pack up our boys and trek once again to synagogue for Sukkot. We do this one secular Israeli style, skipping the religious service in the morning, but showing up to shul in time for lunch in the sukkah and an afternoon of walking around the adjoining neighborhood to visit congregants’ backyard sukkot.

As we pull up to the shul my three year old grows nervous. “Go home,” he says, “no shul!” He eyes the crowd making their way from the sanctuary to the sukkah and shakes his head. I convince him to get out of the car with the promise that I’ll carry him, I’ll hold him, and I’ll hug him the whole time. He clings to me and we make it through kiddush with his head buried in my shoulder. The crowd returns inside to get food and we stay in the quiet of the sukkah. Finally, he looks up.

“Do you want to explore?” I ask, noticing that the Hebrew school’s paper chains have caught his eye.

“Yes,” he admits. He hops down and roams around in the quiet. I explain to him the various parts of the sukkah, being sure to reiterate his favorite word, s’chach, multiple times for laughs.

SUKKAH!” he suddenly shouts, running up and down, back and forth in the makeshift hut. “HELLO, SUKKAH! HELLO!”

Once I tell him we’re going to visit other sukkot he is excited. Suddenly he is running from house to house, the group of us regulars in tow. His friend’s dad quickly grabs him and picks him up, preventing him from running into the street. For the first time since the High Holidays began, my son is unafraid of arms that don’t belong to his mom or dad. He enters each sukkah, eyes up the candy, hears the Rabbi say a few Hebrew words, and makes a quick exit before the crowd overwhelms him. He finds his friends and gets filthy playing in the dirt. For the first time he conquers a six-step staircase without clinging to the banister. When it’s time to leave he waves goodbye to the last sukkah. For the first time since the holidays began all is right in his world. And I am exceedingly grateful.

The sukkah hop, as it so happens, is my husband’s favorite holiday celebration. Looking at them both I now understand why. The sukkah hop has very little to do with being Jewish, and everything to do with doing Jewish – that is, living Jewishly. It is the eating, the drinking; the walking and the neighboring; the holy and the ordinary that makes up everyday life. American Jews work hard twice a year at being Jewish, but they forget that the being is nothing compared to the doing. In fact, in Jewish culture being requires doing. There is no verb “to be” in Hebrew. Ani, the pronoun for “I” literally means “I am”. You are already being; the real question is what are you going to do about it?

And so this very nervous Jewish mother who is so overly attentive to making sure her children know they are proud Jews has been reminded by her Israeli husband and his very Israeli son that the doing is what Jewish is all about. The eating, drinking, running, sitting, praying and playing is what we do as a klal. These things are what turn a twice-a-year sanctuary into an everyday sukkah for us Diaspora types. My children are not twice-a-year Jews. For our family the holidays aren’t a vaguely inconvenient reminder of who we are. They are a living reminder of our responsibility to act upon the identity we’ve been given.

On Yom Kippur the head of our synagogue’s ritual committee approached me. “Can your son screw in a lightbulb?” he asked of our three year old. I nodded and he led us both to the memorial plaques lining the wall adjacent to the bema. One light had gone out. My son, not yet old enough to be responsible for the mitzvot of the holiday, was responsible enough to screw in the light bulb. But the bulb was stuck too firmly for his little fingers to fix.

“Can I help him?” I asked.

The man pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders. “Sure,” he answered, “I won’t look,” and he walked away.

So I helped my son adjust the bulb that sat crooked in the socket and it lit up.

“Thank you,” I heard from behind, and turned to find a man who I’d never seen before extending his hand in my direction. The light was in honor of his parents and it had broken his heart that it was not lit up for Yom Kippur services. He wanted to thank my son, but my shy boy shirked away from his presence. “Please,” the stranger said, “when he grows up, tell him what a mitzvah he did today. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

My Israeli boys find their Jewish in the doing. And now I do, too.

About the Author
Susan L.M. Goldberg is a mother, writer and passionate Zionist with a Master’s degree in media studies. With her Israeli-American husband she stands at the crossroads of Israeli and Jewish American culture, politics and religious practice.
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