I don’t know how to be Jewish

History is Always Complicated

I was born into a UK Liberal Jewish family. At the time, my Shul was a member of ULPS (United Liberal and Progressive Synagogues), an organisation now known as Liberal Judaism. I think I had a baby blessing – I can’t actually remember:-) I remember going to Shul in North London now and then when I was very young, usually for Passover. The Communal Seder meal has a smell and taste that’s been the same in all the Shuls that I’ve attended:-) Boiled eggs, salt water, salmon of some kind, often cold, and of course matzos.

When I was four, we moved to South Wales, and started attending the ‘local’ Reform Shul in Cardiff – only 15 miles away. I had my Bat Mizvah at Cardiff, and then did it all over again in London in the Liberal Shul because that’s where most of our Jewish family lived.

I went to Cheder, or Jewish Religion school, every week from the age of about three until thirteen. Ten years. And I learned a lot – working backwards, I learned my Parshah (specific reading from the Torah scrolls, handwritten in Hebrew and without vowels). Mine was the bit of Genesis just after Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac and ended up sacrificing a ram instead. It gave instructions on what to do with the dead ram in order to sacrifice it properly – so basically, a recipe for a burnt offering.

I learned about life in the Shtetl (the Jewish towns or villages and sometimes ghettos in Central and Eastern Europe). I learned about the creation of the State of Israel. I learned about the stories in the Torah. I learned Hebrew, and some of the more common prayers in the services. I learned about the Kosher laws, and also learned why in my household, we didn’t keep Kosher.

But at no point did I learn about the daily requirements of Judaism, especially those which are not performed in the community. Nor about how the prayerbook works or how the services work. I didn’t learn the why behind each of the prayers, or about the commentators on the Torah.

My practice when I was young consisted of going to Shul once or twice a week until I was 13 and had my Bat Mitzvah, going to the services for the High Holy days, not eating bread at Passover, and lighting the candles at Chanukah. We always lit the candles and said the blessings on Friday night, but never celebrated Havdallah.

I fell away from Judaism, as many young people fall away from religion, and then when I was nearing 30, on the spur of the moment I dragged the Husband to Israel for a touring holiday. Around the same time, I found the local Shul, which was another Reform Shul in Kent, and became a member there. I attended Friday night services, occasionally Saturday morning services, Festival services, and social events. I was a member of the committee for some years. But still the gaps in my education remained, and I wasn’t really very aware that they existed.

And My Family Is Even More Complicated!

My parents were both Jewish. My father was brought up Christian – his maternal Grandmother was Jewish from Frankfurt, but converted to Christianity to marry. However, when my father and mother got married, he decided to convert to Judaism. His sister, my aunt, married my mother’s brother, my uncle, and she also converted to Judaism. I have two Jewish cousins, and a positive rainbow of other persuasions in my family – Methodism by marriage, Welsh Baptist, Salvation Army, Dawkins-loving Atheists.

Even though The Husband is a (Methodist-born) Pagan, we had established early on that any children we had would be brought up Jewish until they were old enough to decide their own spiritual or religious paths. I’m very lucky that The Husband is fascinated by all religion and completely accepting of my Judaism and that of the children. I’m even luckier that every community we’ve been involved with has welcomed him as part of the community without judgement and without any pressure on him to convert – even though he can’t technically become a member of a Synagogue.

So when the children arrived, they all had baby blessings. They all attended Cheder, and actually still do. Eldest is coming up to Bar Mitzvah age and now attends most Shabbat morning services with me, and usually has a small part in the service. The younger two come to festivals, social gatherings and Family services. We have Shabbat Evening meal at Grandma’s (my own Jewish Mother), and light the candles, drink the wine, eat the er, challah substitute which is often croissants or brioche.

To all intents and purposes we look like a typical Reform Jewish family – well, if there is such a thing! Of course we teach our children that no one way is the only right way, that Judaism is their culture, heritage and history as well as their religion, and we also teach them about what Daddy believes. Luckily for us, the curriculum on Comparative Religion is pretty excellent – they know a lot more about some other religions than we do.

If Not Now, When?

And recently I’ve been feeling that this is not enough.

I’ve been reading some Jewish blogs and various articles, mostly Reform although that does have a slightly different meaning in the US. I’ve read about students converting, and about people learning to be Rabbis. They talk about Mitzvot, and observance and how these things seem to give structure and meaning to their lives.

There are a great many services in the Siddur – but I get confused reading through them. Some are for communities, some for families, some for solo observance. I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to do when. I don’t have a list of the appropriate blessings for the various events in our lives. I only knew there was a blessing to put on the Tallit when I saw someone else saying it before he put his on. I know that one, the Shabbat blessings and Shechekiyanu, and that’s all.

I have looked up the Reform Jewish website but there’s nothing really on there about such things. Most Reform Jews I know are observant to the same degree as me, or maybe they don’t talk about what they do. In my circle it seems somehow uncool, untrendy, to be observant.

No-one ever taught me any of the rules. Somewhere, between Fiddler on the Roof (my great-grandparents did indeed come over to the UK from Russia, from towns and villages very similar to that depicted in the film, with lives and practices very similar too), and 2014, something was lost. Something that it seems, everyone else either knows and assumes I know too, or doesn’t care about.

Maybe It Really Is Hip To Be Square

From what I have read, from sources varying from Chabad.org to the Coffee Shop Rabbi and a good many places in between, I have realised I would like to know more. I’m very careful about dogma – I’m not one for doing something just because someone said I should, or because someone else says HaShem  might want me to. (HaShem means The Name and is a respectful way to write G-d, since it’s not polite to use His name unless we’re actually praying  - I guess I know some things then!) I cannot believe that HaShem cares right now if I wear wool with linen or eat bacon for breakfast. If HaShem is anything like my impressions of er, Them, They will care that my clothes are not made by slave labour, and that the origin of the bacon is a happy, outdoor reared pig.

But I want to know more. I think it’s entirely appropriate to say Sheckekiyanu when I wake up, purely because I am grateful to wake up at all, and for the new day. Although I will probably never learn a consistent way to spell it in English:-) And if I wake up feeling awful, which I sometimes do, it might just help me to remember that not all days are bad, and I still have many blessings in my life.

I’m not saying for a single second that I could go from zero to Tevye and Golde overnight – nor would I want to. I am not an Orthodox Jew, and have no desire to be one. But I do want to know what it is, as a Reform Jew, I might be expected to do – so I can make my own choices what and how to observe, rather than falling into a pattern through ignorance.

I believe one of the main strengths of Judaism is that each Jew has their own relationship with HaShem. Yes there are Rabbis, wise, learned, available to give guidance, but I know I have my own relationship with G-d. That relationship does not have to go through anyone else. I yell, and He listens. One day, He might even answer:-) So I say to You, G-d, what do I do now? Where should I go, read, look, discuss, learn? What do I do?

And let’s see what answer pops out of the blue into my inbox:-)

13 thoughts on “I don’t know how to be Jewish

  1. I like the idea of saying that prayer when waking! Good idea – I must incorporate that into my own practice. The most common translation of that word that I’ve seen is actually Shehecheyanu, with the “ch” pronounced like the German gutteral “ch” and the emphasis on “ya”.

    I think it’s great that you’re looking into how to make yourself “be more Jewish,” but I also think the most important thing is to take it one step at a time and find what’s meaningful to you. For me, that starts with prayer – brachot over meals, learning the Modeh Ani for morning prayers, singing “Shomer Israel” and “L’dor Vador” along with the Israeli pop artists I’ve discovered. A gratitude practice (as I outlined in the blog I published today) also seems, to me, to be very Jewish. I make a point of wearing a kippah and a Mogen David. But frankly, your Jewish practice at this point far outstrips mine!

    • See Adam, this is the thing – I don’t know what morning prayers are. I don’t know the brachot over meals (although to be fair I could look that up:-) I don’t know what Shomer Israel or Ldor Vador are. My practice is around the weekly services – I’m pretty good about those! Will look at your post shortly:-)

  2. Your story mirror’s mine in a few ways except I grew up Reform US style. Life happened…so many questions…then came the answers…and more answers. The journey was slow, exciting, hard, esoteric. So many other words can describe it. BTW, now I’m living in Israel!

  3. Eleanor, I just now found this. I am always looking for topics on which to write – when you have a question, shoot it my way and I’ll make a blog post of it, and leave your name and link in or out of it, as you prefer. And yes, you absolutely have to sort out your own authentic way through the various available answers – that’s the toughest part of being a liberal Jew! Now I am going to reblog this, because it’s wonderful.

  4. Reblogged this on Coffee Shop Rabbi and commented:
    For my readers who are beginners at Judaism: I know that you sometimes wonder when you will “know enough” and that sometimes you feel intimidated by Jews who have generations of experience behind them. This is a wonderful, honest, forthright account by a women who was born Jewish and is very much like many people who will see at synagogue. We never stop learning, even the rabbis, especially the rabbis.

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