My maternal grandfather, born poor on the Lower East Side, the youngest of eight, often said that he was an expert being interviewed—hired on Sunday, fired on Friday when he had to leave his job early enough to get home to observe Shabbat.
My maternal grandmother, despite a disability, went to the mikveh (ritual bath) each month and my paternal grandparents, fresh off the boat from Europe, had two beds, which, according to my grandmother, literally filled the small room they boarded in, to observe taharat hamishpaha (family purity laws) the way they had been taught.
My father flew all over the United States for business, but would never have eaten anything non-kosher nor missed a Shabbat or holiday at home. I don’t know how he did it, and was able to become professionally successful, but he always made it home on time to light Hanukkah candles, or to get to synagogue. On a sequestered jury, he had the bailiff call my mother to deliver his tefillin (phylacteries) for the next day’s morning prayers.
The members of my family were committed Jews, but also educated, smart, and sophisticated, interacting with the larger world of which they were a part.
Growing up, I was taught, with certainty, that the religious and the secular could be syncretized into a meaningful whole. It could. It has.
So why be Jewish?
Because I choose to “be Jewish.” Because living “Jewishly” gives meaning to my life. It gives me the tools to connect to the Divine and the frame within which to relate to all of humankind, all of God’s children, with respect and appreciation for difference. Judaism has taught me a love of learning and teaching, the unique calm and holiness of Shabbat, the thrill of a guest-filled table on holidays, the satisfaction of giving tzedakah (charity) and doing acts of chesed (loving-kindness), which not only help others but teach me humility, appreciation, and compassion.
I believe that Judaism is a rich tapestry from which it is possible to derive meaning and joy in a myriad of different ways for different people.
I am part of the history and destiny of the Jewish people, whatever that has brought and whatever that will bring.