It's not always easy being Jewish
Once, when I was younger, I heard a Rabbi tell the youth group that I belonged to something to the effect of; "If it were easy being a Jew, then everyone one would be doing it and we would not be such a big deal."
In this piece, I hope to share a few of my experiences, with some humor, about the things I noted through my life through all three phases of my being a Jew... as a practicing Reformed Jew, in my youth, to a confused, non-practicing Jew, in my teens to a practicing Conservative Jew as an adult.
As a very young child, I actually recall very little about "being Jewish". I have no recollection of celebrations or prayers at all while my mother and I lived in Taft, and while she was still married to him.
The best I can determine based on commentary from my Mother and other family members, my father was a-religious, that is not to say he was an Atheist, because I do believe that he felt strongly about G-d. But I think he had a problem with religions in general. This was explained to me by one family member that it was because of what he saw when he was in the Air Force and how various churches were spending their money. Money that was supposed to be going to the needy was going to build big, beautiful churches and houses for the people that worked them.
This, as I was told, turned him off of the religion thing and he spend most of the rest of the time that I knew him, as a very quiet man about religion.
My first real experiences with Judaism and a congregation was after my Mother and Father split up in 1974 and we moved the forty miles from Taft, California to the burgeoning metropolis of Bakersfield, California. Bakerfields population in 1974 was hovering right around the 100k mark, less than a third of what it is today. When we got here, one of the first things that my Mother set out to do, in addition to getting a job, was to get involved in a Temple. And so she did and we became members of Temple Beth El, in the north-eastern area of town.
Temple Beth El
Temple Beth El was great for me as a kid. I was going to a temple and with a congregation that were very accepting of my Mother and I... in spite of our financial difficulties. You see, Beth El, at least at that time, was mostly populated by attorneys, doctors, etc... people that made a lot more than my Mother, who at the time was a Soil Analyst for a company called BioChemical Labs.
Our Rabbi, when we started going there was a wonderful man named Rabbi Stanley Robin. He and his family were very helpful in our efforts to fit in, not only in the Temple, but in the community as well. He even tried to set my mother up with a couple of the single men in the congregation. None of those relationships bloomed, but my Mother did walk away from them with some new friends.
As I grew older and started to grow out of the children's programs in the temple, I started taking a more active roll in functions there. When Rabbi Robin left our Synagog for another task, we receieved another great Rabbi. One that would become more of a mentor to me, without his knowing it until years later, than most of the other male role models in my life.
Rabbi Steven Peskind was a fun, charismatic and idealistic Rabbi for our temple. At first, when he came aboard, I really did not like him. I did not like interacting with others, and he was one of those people that encouraged people to interact with one another. So it was either that or I would look like a bump on a log. So I joined in the fun.
When the time came for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, he took on the task of preparing me like R.Lee Ermy would take on a root canal. While this may sound cliche, it is entirely true... but I rode my ten-speed bike from the far south-west side of Bakersfield, uphill, to the Temple, once a week to attend his prep classes. Where I would stand at the Bema and read from pages copied from the Torah.
One memory stands out for me on this topic. I used to be very late to get up there, and it was for no other reason than laziness on my part. Rabbi repeatedly scolded me on this and we would carry on. Then one day, in summer, I rode up there on my bike and actually got there ALMOST on time. But the Rabbi was not there. I waited and waited, but he never showed. So I rode home. A week later, when I saw him again, I asked him about it. While I do not recall his EXACT words, they were basically to the effect of; "How does it feel?"
I was not late again.
To this day I still communicate with Rabbi Steven, but he lives in Pennsylvania now and is not as easy to reach as he once was. These days it is just through the occasional email.
Losing my religion
In the early 80s, I started High School. One thing that most people will agree with about High School is that unless you are already in a family that is particularly dedicated to going to temple to begin with, it is hard to find the time to go on a regular basis. Add to this that going to Temple on Friday nights is not really that cool, so you either don't go, or you do not talk about it when you do.
So we, my Mother, Brother and I, became the seasonal Jews. We attended for the High Holidays and on other special occasions, but not regularly. Attending became one of those CHORES that you, as a teen, feel you are being hog-tied into and pulled along kicking and screaming.
Then, in 1986, I joined the Marines, and my participation waned once again. That is until I discovered that going to Friday night services would get me off base during my Basic Training period, for a few hours. Then I suddenly became devout, and enjoyed the twenty minute ride from MCRD (Marine Recruit Training Depot) to the Navy Base for services. I was, as you can understand, attending for the wrong reasons.
One of the final nails in my loss of faith was the death, in 1991, of my Father. A man I barely knew, who barely said more than a handful of words to me in the course of his life, died. During the period prior to his death, however, he started talking to me and sharing bits and pieces of his life with me. And for the first time in many years, I prayed.
I prayed hard, like I had never done before. Not for myself, not to ease any pain or burden. But to have a little more time with my Father. Another day, week, month, year... anything.
But in the end, my father passed away and at the time I did not see that for what it truly was. I saw that as a personal slap in the face by G-d himself, and as such, I found it hard to stay true to my beliefs. And I stayed this way for some time, it took time, growth and experience for me to start seeing things again that would help me rediscover my faith.
Ultimately, it was the creation of another life that helped me complete that migration back to my faith.
Renewal of Faith
It took me some year of thought and introspection before I really understood that really nothing could have saved my father. He had, for all intent in purposes, given up on himself and let himself die. The cancer was just a means, if he had kept up his will, it probably could have overcome it. But he did not, and so it consumed him.
With this epiphany on my part, I found that I was able to move on. And so with this under my belt, I let my wife take my hand and we went back to Temple. This time, though, we both decided that we needed more structure in our lives than Reformed Judaism was offering, so we began attending Congregation B'Nai Jacob.
This decision was not made easily. Too many years I found that the relaxed nature of Reformed Judaism allowed us to be Jews, and still get away with some things. Like eating meat and cheese, bacon, etc...
The greater structure and dedication that in built into Conservative Judaism helped us feel more grounded and stronger in our faith.
Keeping Kosher and keeping the Faith
When my wife and I decided to take the step to keep as kosher as we could, I was a little nervous about it at first. To someone from outside Judaism, it might not seem like a big deal, because you may only be thinking; "Fine, so you just do not eat pork anymore, what's the problem?"
When you really start to get into it, though, there is so much more to it than that. Kosher is not just a set of dietary laws that we must follow, but I would even go to far as to say that it is a subculture WITHIN Judaism itself that must be followed and maintained in order to honor our covenant with G-d.
I am not going to go into all the details, but you not only have the obvious no-nos, like the afore mentioned pork, but you also have certain combinations you are not allowed, like meat and dairy, certain ways you can and cannot cook meat, etc... It is not easy. And thus it once again goes back to what I quoted at the beginning of this piece, if it were easy...
The biggest problem you run into is eating out. When you, as a Kosher practicing Jew, go to a restaurant, and especially in Bakersfield, you can pretty well bet that they are not keeping a Kosher kitchen. So you learn ways around it. You only eat certain foods that you know will be within the guidelines. You also learn things like I recently did that certain restaurants are "accidentally kosher" because the people that run them are following similar practices.
For example, while there are some major differences, the Muslim dietary laws (Halal) and the Kosher (Kashrut) have many similarities and if careful, one can go into a restaurant that is Halal and eat with a little better confidence about the conditions of the kitchen and the food than if a Jew where to walk into an Outback Restaurant.
Many times, when I go out, I will chose foods that I can be pretty sure are OK. Like I will order salmon, which is a favorite of mine anyway. This way I can also have a salad with blue cheese dressing on it and not have to worry about the combination.
I will not kid you, it can be daunting sometimes. And if I were to tell you that my wife and I were perfect at this, then that would most certainly be a lie. There have been many times that we would be eating something and then, in the middle of it, realize that we were eating a combination that was trefah, or not Kosher. But do I believe that this means that we are going to be sent to some special punishment when we move on? No. I think that there is an understanding that life it full of mistakes. It is not the process of making them that might make you a bad person, it is what you take away from the mistake that defines who.
Likewise with our faith altogether. There are moments that we question our paths in life and what we are meant to be or accomplish. Trust me, there have been many time that I have been firmly of the opinion that G-d's design for me was nothing more than comic relief. But then I see other things in my life that make me realize that things really are not all that bad and maybe there is something else, just around the corner, I just have to try a little harder.
I am not one of those people that believe that G-d is going to hand me everything I need to get by. I think it is a case where we are all given the tools we need for our lives as it is meant to be, we just have to walk the path and make the decisions ourselves. Sometimes we go the right way and others, maybe not so much. But we have to listen to that little voice in our heads that sometimes pops up and says, "Good work, that's it!", or as is more common in my case, that nagging little buzzing saying, "You dolt, you did it every wrong way before you did it right!".
When it boils down to it, and this applies if you are a religious person or not, all life is is a series of choices that we make. How we handle those choices and what influence they have on us is what makes us who we are. Personally, I like to think that G-d is there, silently whispering, "Warmer... warmer... warmer..." as we get things right, and, "Colder" as we get further away from the path. Face it... we have all had that feeling when something is not quite right about something we are doing and then when it fails we say, "I should have listened to my gut!"
Why can that not be a little gentle scolding from G-d?
Final words and thoughts
If you have made it this far, then you must have enjoyed at least part of what I have written, and I thank you, sincerely, for your time. I do hope that you have gotten some enjoyment out of this piece and maybe I have sparked some interest for you to understand Judaism better.
This would not be an invitation to convert, I would not assume to be so forward and Jews live with the understanding that we do not ASK or ENCOURAGE people to convert. In fact, if you were to go into a Synagog and ask a Rabbi about converting, it would probably sound like he is talking you out of it.
Another reason for this piece was to prepare me for another item I am working on for publication called "A California Jew in a Pork Chop world", and is a small piece about my life as a Jew in Bakersfield, the Marines and elsewhere and how I dealt with the way the world tends to treat non-Christians these days. I encourage you to keep your eyes open for it and I should have it published on Kindle in the next two or three months.
Again... I thank you for your time, readership and comments.