Last night, my husband Jon fished out the half-empty bottle of Gold’s horseradish from the fridge, left over from the seder. Before he spooned some onto his veggie burger, he stuck the glass bottle under my nose. “Smell this. What does it remind you of?”
You know the answer. That smell is my childhood. It’s my mother’s kitchen, the early spring light on the long seder table, the feeling of promise. It’s new clothes and trips to Florida and my grandmother’s thick Ukrainian fingers and my great aunt’s seder antics. It’s matzah ball soup and nutty haroset and I close my eyes and I am home.
In early May, I sat in a concert hall with thousands of strangers. For two hours, jammed into a small theater, we listened as Ben Folds sang his hits to the tune of a chamber music ensemble. It was the kind of experience that reminded me that I am a person beyond my parenting, profession, age, and address. It reminded me that I am human, and I am moved by music.
It also reminded me of what’s so great about being Jewish.
See, Ben Folds likes to make his audiences sing along to his songs (his audiences tend to like it too). He walks toward the front of the stage, and with the air of a conductor—except in dirty khakis with messy hair—he leads the crowd in a simple harmony experiment. Then he returns to his piano, and as he begins to play, the crowd inserts harmonies at the appropriate moments.
That night, when our moment came to sing, we did. It was loud. We sounded great. And I can pretty much bet that everyone in the theater was smiling as they sang, because it feels good to have a shared language with strangers. We all knew all the words to the songs by heart.
* * *
During a very long week in October of 2012, my father lay in a hospital in Manhattan. My mom, sisters, and I spent all of our time there, with him, but occasionally we would each return home to shower, see our children. I would drive back over the Brooklyn Bridge and then hurtle myself back again, toward him. We were keeping him company as he died. You either know this experience or you don’t. I hope you don’t.
I didn’t know enough people who had lost a parent when I lost mine. Now, I know many. We didn’t go looking for each other but here we are. We connect over email, meet for lunch. We sit down and start talking and our heads begin to nod as we listen to one another. We are comforted in the presence of each other. This, too, is a formative experience, a shared language, even if it’s one we all wish we could avoid. This, too, is a kind of community.
When we moved to the suburbs, we found a nursery school. This nursery school in a synagogue is just like many others of its kind and yet, it’s also one-of-a-kind. They give us challah on Fridays and teach my kids to sing “Hineh Mah Tov” and plan Purim parades and model seders.
When I hear my kids singing “Hineh Mah Tov” while they’re in the bathtub in the early evening, I feel happy. They are beginning to develop the second skin of Jewish knowledge that I have. For many of us, the Jewish preschool experience offers a template that helps make this happen. We can alter the template, so that it suits our own values, but the goal is the same: to provide our kids with the same comforting and warm associations that we had, and still have. To provide them with that feeling of belonging that’s so crucial, as they move through life.
This world is big—too big, sometimes—and though we try, through yoga classes and book clubs and online neighborhood listservs and mom events and dinner dates and brunches to whittle it down, to make it small enough so that we don’t feel invisible, often we still do.
Why be Jewish? Because identifying with Judaism brings us closer to other people. Provides familiarity and context in which to relate to people who might otherwise be strangers. Gives us a map on those days when we feel woefully lost. Offers an open-source guide for raising children. Plunges us back into our own childhoods, to those memories that sustain us as we move through turbulent, unknowable, scary, surprising life.
Lots of religions do this. But Judaism is mine. I choose to be Jewish again and again and again despite my doubts, my lack of belief. I can’t go it alone, don’t want to. I can pick and choose that which speaks to me and explore and question all I want. I can twist and turn this religion over and over and rip it apart and put it back together and there it is: my most important moments, my most beloved people, my most moving melodies, my most essential me.