I'm not a very good Jew. I am married to a gentile, I don't keep the Sabbath, and today, the beginning of our High Holy Days, I have decided to stay home and catch up on work instead of attending Rosh Hashanah services.
On the other hand, I am not so bad. After years of nagging, explaning and cajoling, I finally persuaded Gareth that we needed to become part of a Synagogue. He always insists that Megan is not Jewish or Christian, but Jewish and Christian. I tell him she can't be both. The truth is, he is not a religious person - he just wants equal representation.
The same quarrel came up when we were planning our wedding, which was co-officiated by a rabbi and Gareth's Aunt Glenys, who was one of the first women ordained by the Church of England as a priest (she was actually the first one to conduct Mass in the U.K. and had her photo on the front page of the London Times, which she proudly sent us). Gareth complained that there were so many Jewish rituals that had to be included, that there wasn't enough Christianity in it. Never mind that the Christian traditions grew out of the Jewish ones -- for every chuppah and smashed glass I insisted upon, he needed something, too. (Glenys was the one who put a stop to it; she told him that many of the things he wanted were inconsequential - and then she outright refused to use the word "obey" in the marriage vows.)
So it was inevitable that we would have the same argument when Megan was born. I told him that children of interfaith marriages often end up with no faith at all, and while I will be supportive of whatever tradition (or not) Megan chooses for herself, if we do not give her the building blocks, she will have nothing. Living in the United States, she cannot help but learn something of Christian holidays and teachings.
But Judaism is not so easy to absorb - if she is to grow up with any understanding of this side of her heritage, we would need to join a congregation and send her to religious school.
It's also a matter of cultural literacy. The Bible is not only a religious instrument but an important literary document. And so much of what we read and see references Old and New Testament stories. She needs to have a basic understanding of this building block of our Judeo-Christian culture.
My own religious education was very spotty (my parents decided that Bat Mitzvah's were optional for girls, so whenever the dues obligation became too much, they would quit. So I got one year of religious school in kindergarten, another in third grade, and one last shot in ninth -- including Hebrew school, where I towered over the other 1st year students, who were all in 4th grade). My parents also admitted that if their children had been boys, they would have gone into debt to ensure that they had met this rite of passage. That was when I decided that I didn't want to be part of a tradition that did not include women, and I turned my back on the religion. And when my parents wondered why both of their daughters married outside the faith, I pointed at this as a core reason. (Jewish guilt works both ways.)
I am unsure what triggered Gareth to come around. Maybe it was when we visited my sister's house, and my teenage nephew told his mom that he didn't feel he was anything (i.e., Jewish or Christian) - which mirrored one of my arguments. Maybe it was my grandfather's death during High Holy Days in 2001 (one week after 9/11) - and with that anniversary, my desire to honor him with a Yahrzeit in the temple. Or maybe I just wore Gareth down. Whatever the reason, two years ago we became members of Temple Ahavat Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Northridge.
Ironically, this was the same synagogue my parents joined during their final half-hearted attempt to connect with the Jewish community. Back then, services were held in a Congregational Church in Sepulveda, while classes were conducted in a couple of bungalows on an empty lot in the middle of nowhere. Today, that lot holds a modern synagogue and classroom complex, surrounded by an established neighborhood of very expensive homes. (Heck -- real estate in California is ridiculous - even our modest, slightly rundown house could be listed for over $450,000 right now. And we would get it. But would not be able to find anyplace else to live at that price. It's just nuts.)
I like our temple. At the first day of Sunday school this week, the Rabbi told the parents that if any of us had doubts about the existence of God, we were in the right place, because it is Jewish tradition to question everything - even that. Ambiguity is welcome, he said. Also a Jewish tradition. I find this very comforting -- much more so than that "repent or ye shall rot in hell" flavor of religiosity that flourishes on the evangelical channels Gareth watches just to irritate me.
I especially like the fact that on High Holy Days, they put on a separate family service for children who are too young to endure the traditional worship. We attended last night. It's held in the Activity Building, simultaneously with the "real" service in the sanctuary. It's casual, very noisy, and instead of big hard-cover prayerbooks with lots of Hebrew writing, we are given handouts -- about 15 Xeroxed pages stapled together with a distillation of the songs and prayers we need for a one-hour service.
Gareth likes the fact that we know so many of the families there - that we are part of a community. And he's right; for as long as I've lived in Los Angeles (45 out of my 48 years), I never had that sense of community. I do now, and the reasons are (1) we have a child in school and (2) we joined the temple.
Last night, we sat in front of Gina and Ralph and Gina's sister Katie and her family. Megan got to sit with her friend Mary, and we all greeted our other friends with hugs and wishes for a Happy New Year. The new rabbi -- a woman -- led the service with a guest cantor. (Our usual cantor -- also a woman, and a preschool mom -- leads the music in the main service in the sanctuary.) The rabbi bookended the service by leading everyone in songs she played on her guitar.
This is a far cry from the High Holy Day services I attended as a child. Most years, this was the only time I set foot in a synagogue. We would go to the old one my great-grandfather belonged to, near downtown Los Angeles, and all I can remember is endless chanting in Hebrew by bearded old men in black. That synagogue had a beautiful stained glass dome at the top, with a blue star of David in the center, and I would spend much of the time just staring at that, listening to the incomprehensible praying (with me praying it would end soon). I only perked up when they did the Shema, a simple and beautiful prayer/tune that I found very uplifting - despite the fact that I did not know what it meant.
We stopped going to High Holy Day services there when my great-grandfather died.
The Rosh Hashanah service last night emphasized the dual nature of the holiday - that it is an end to a year and also a new beginning; a time to apologize to those you may have wronged and vow not to wrong them again.
I thought a lot of Helen and her horrible discovery yesterday. I hesitate to use the word "pray," but I guess I was praying for her and her family to get through this without any lasting repercussions. And I prayed I would never have to deal with something like that myself.
I had been too harried this week to think about a holidau meal, so we decided to have an inappropriate restaurant dinner. So following the service, we went out for the traditional Rosh Hashanah sushi.