Despite years of being a Jew in a Jewish family, Jewish tradition and, more specifically, Jewish practice often feel very alien to me. Shabbat meals, Shabbat services, Jewish prayers and rituals. And despite being a bat mitzvah and many years a student in Hebrew school, there is little that I feel confident practicing, and there’s lots that I don’t.
In the past, this ignorance would sometimes surface as fear and loathing when, for instance, I was a teenager at USY events and I didn’t know how to do the Birkat HaMazon (“Grace after Meals”), let alone joyfully pound on the tables at just the right moments, like my friends did (the ones who had been doing it for years at Camp Ramah or Hebrew day school). Or when my college boyfriend took me to a Shabbat lunch at his friend’s apartment at the Jewish Theological Seminary and I was wearing jeans and a tank top, and all the other women covered their shoulders and knees. Or even in recent years, when I found myself in synagogue, standing next to my mother who was saying Kaddish for her father or when we chose a reform Mohel for my son’s Brit Milah, and accidentally offended my in-laws.
What surfaced as fear and loathing back then was likely fear and shame, as I understand it now. Feeling all the time that I was an impostor…stupid…uninformed. That there was something I should have learned along the way, but didn’t. As someone who thrives on information and knowledge (and who shrinks at feeling ignorant), I rejected Judaism. Flat out. I wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t until I got married in a Jewish ceremony that I started considering, even for a second, that there was beauty in Jewish practice and that certain elements of the practice might be accessible and available to me. It wasn’t until I sent my kids to Jewish preschool that I once again found delight in singing Jewish songs and chanting Jewish prayers, a joy that was familiar to me from childhood, but so distant. It wasn’t until I moved to Israel a year ago that I started understanding and accepted that it was safe for me to open my heart to Judaism, even though I still had lots of questions and found few answers.
Last week, I traveled back to my home town in New Jersey for my grandmother’s funeral. And for the first time ever, that I can remember, felt comforted by Jewish practice.
In the past, when I found myself in uncomfortable or anxious situations, whether it was a painful experience like childbirth or an emotionally challenging experience like public speaking, I would soothe myself by humming a chant or a mantra I learned in yoga class 12 years ago.
Shri ram, jai ram, jai jai ram
I learned this chant in 1999 at a yoga studio in Manhattan. It stuck and I’ve been humming it for over a decade — I’ve even taught it to my kids and encourage us all to use it when things get a little…hairy…around the house.
But in New Jersey recently, on the way to my Bubbi’s funeral, I found myself humming something different. A nigun we often sing as we enter into prayer on Hannaton for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Laiiiii lai lai lai lai lai
And humming the nigun soothed my nerves and eased me into the Jewish practices yet to come. Mourning and remembrance.
Over the next few days, as I participated in the rituals that followed — Shiva, prayer, Mourner’s Kaddish — I hummed the tune. I taught it to my brother who figured the melody out on his guitar. I’d even say we bonded over this nigun, something we haven’t done for years.
Over five days, I realized that I actually knew so much more “Judaism” than I thought I had. And even more impactful, I understood that it was okay that there were practices and rituals I didn’t know. That I could take from the ones that served and supported me; and refrain from those that didn’t. That there is a time for learning and a time for engaging. That, in fact, I could know absolutely nothing about Jewish practice and ritual…and still benefit from participating in it.
That this is okay. That practicing a ritual you do not fully understand is not hypocritical or stupid or insincere.
I also realized that once your heart is open, even a little, it may be easily filled by the power of those rituals — the ones you’ve chosen; the ones that fit your needs at that moment.
It’s easy for me to say that living here in Israel is opening my heart to Judaism. That living on a Masorti kibbutz in Israel and participating in its activities have acclimated me more to Judaism. I imagine that’s what it looks like to my friends and family observing the process. That, suddenly, I have “found” religion.
But, it could also be that I’ve entered that time of life when we need the comfort of prayer and ritual more often. Or that my heart has softened after years of marriage and raising children, of losing friends to illness, of losing grandparents to age, of watching my parents age and lose their parents. That my awareness is growing day by day that life is fragile and community is comforting and ritual is soothing.
It may be that my path of spiritual seeking has become more refined or less judgmental.
It may be a mix of all the above.
But, for certain, the key is my opening heart. And my willingess to let strangers –or strangeness–in.
Jen Maidenberg is is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.