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Living Jewishly: Why Bother?

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The (abrupt) end of my Jewish hibernation 


Dana holding up the chuppah during her windy wedding ceremony

It is windy but ass-melting hot the day Benny and I tie the knot under a Kemper Lakes weeping willow. Cantor Jeff sweats buckets as he sings Yhiyeh Tov. Rabbi Eleanor dashes to rescue the ketubah as it blows toward the water. And the chuppah corners fly off the poles nine times during our short ceremony. It’s a metaphor for marriage and for life, the rabbi improvises. There is always a corner flying loose. Benny breaks the glass, I reluctantly dance the horah, and then we take a break.

It is a long break. For four years, we don’t step foot in a synagogue. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur. We barely say bless you after someone sneezes. My Reform Judaism and his secular Israeli Judaism merge and the sum total during the early years of our marriage is a long and lazy Jewish hibernation.  It takes two little girls – along with their music, expectations and tissue paper art – to wake us up.

When the Jewish calendar is your country’s calendar, when Hebrew is your native language and the Homeland is your home, you don’t need to go out of your way to express yourself Jewishly. Au contraire. Benny’s family grills pork chops on Shabbat and drives to neighboring Nazareth in the green, green Galilee to pick up fresh pita during Passover. While the people next door chant Kol Nidre, my in-laws bang their pots and pans, they picnic in the park.

Growing up a card-carrying Reform Jew in the Midwest, my taste buds are also exposed to a pork chop or two. It’s a Jewish smorgasbord – I give up bubble gum for Passover at age six and am careful not to swallow my toothpaste on Yom Kippur at 16. I love Hebrew school. I learn to kiss at Jewish overnight camp. And I spend so much time at our JCC and synagogue, I can lead you to the boiler rooms with a blindfold on.

Judaism isn’t my nationality, but it is my life – so what if the halachic side of things is a bit murky. Off I go at 23 on my first visit to Israel, naively expecting to find natives dancing the horah in green fields. Instead I find dogs pissing in the post office while natives push ahead of me in line. The one I marry doesn’t push.

And then we have kids. Amen.

Together we push Emma Sigal into this world on September 28, 2002. Even though we are in the habit of blowing off all things Jewish at that point, the fact that it is Simchat Torah and Shabbat does not escape us. Nineteen months later, out pops Noa Ariel during Shavuot, on Shabbat, in an elevator (we’ll save that story for another time).

Thank God they are both girls. The prospect of hosting any major event eight days after giving birth holds zero appeal. Suffice it to say, the love is deep, their eyelashes are endless, and they both powerpoop up to their necks whenever we are walking out the door.

While we are spared the whole mohel thing at day eight, twelve weeks later we drop off baby Emma at JCC day care, marking the beginning of the end of our Jewish hiatus.

At 18 months, Emma starts singing Passover songs before the snow has melted. That year, we have a seder – one punctuated by her random, ruthless dayeinus which are sweet enough to kill me. At two, Emma’s tekiahs mark the new year. Benny, who hasn’t been to services in 24 years, suggests we go for the High Holidays. Whether Emma is leading him by the hand or the heart, I do not know.

Next comes the endless stream of Jewish art projects, all of which deserve to be put to good use. Plastic kiddush cups with jewels and tissue paper squares lovingly glued on, seder plates, rowdy gregors, menorahs with nine nuts in a row, shoebox Shabbat boxes, cinnamon spice boxes and glitter-covered tzedakah boxes.


Our priceless collection of pre-school Judaica

It’s the tzedakah thing which really hooks me. For years, my daughters call all coins “tzedakah.” They have no other vocabulary for money – not penny or nickel or dime.  They watch us record their good deeds on a leaf for the mitzvah trees on their classroom walls. When the girls start reciting the lyrics of every theme song on the Disney Channel, we unplug the TV on Shabbat and start doing family mitzvah projects instead. When it is time to say good-bye to pacifier, we make a special pacifier tzedakah box which my daughter proudly “donates” to the infant/toddler room. (Okay, so all hell breaks loose that night, but it was nice in theory.)

Next come the tough questions. Some from the girls and some of my own. Does God have a birthday? We’ll have to ask the rabbi, sweetheart. Is the rabbi God? No. Is the bathtub connected to the floor? Yes, sweetheart. Is that the way God made it?

How do we answer that? As a preschooler in the cornfields of Iowa, I thought Santa Claus was God. And it progressed from there. God is a cloud painter in the sky. He wears a mint green beret.  A She, not a He. God to G-d to god to a word I won’t say at all. In English. Unless it is followed by dammit. Except on highly turbulent flights.

Benny believes in God. My little girls believe in everything. I believe in a big, fat question mark on my good days. Am I a complete hypocrite? Is it okay to do Judaism as it suits us?

We ask questions and help each other find answers. They have expectations. We try not to crush them. Emma plants parsley with Grandpa for Tu B’shvat. Noa insists her Princess Barbie goblets are Kiddush cups – no ifs, ands or buts. When they are clever enough to notice, we expand our Passover observance to include bread and cereal. We finally join a synagogue.

I realize Judaism is our rhythm, a way to mark the seasons, a shared history and culture, a starting point for forming values, a community to celebrate with and a support system on days we don’t want to be alone. Shabbat is family time – a value we embrace. We light the candles. We eat pork kabobs. And we dance.

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