The Jewish holidays are right around the corner and my husband and I are dreading them.
It’s not just because we have young babies and the logistics of the holidays are enough to send me to the couch with a cool compress. (How do you keep to a nap schedule during the high holy days? Please explain.) Rather, at the risk of sounding like a teenager forced to go to Hebrew school year after year, we really don’t like temple.
My dad is a Rabbi, my mom is a prominent Jewish educator, and Jon grew up in an orthodox home—so this isn’t socially acceptable, to say the least.
And yet, here’s a typical conversation between us lately:
Jon: “I took off three days for Rosh Hashanah… Ugh.”
Me: “Wish you didn’t have to waste your vacation days on the holidays.”
Jon: “I really don’t like this time of year.”
Me: “My parents bought us tickets for services at their temple.”
Jon: “Ugh. My mom bought us tickets, too.”
Me: “I guess we don’t have to go to synagogue. We have Maya and Avi as an excuse. Who takes five month old twins to temple? Ugh.”
Jon: “How are we going to raise our kids with religion if we don’t like synagogue?
The truth is, there are things I like about Rosh Hashanah… I like kugel and apple cake, for starters. I also like being with family, the mix of crisp fall air and talk of renewal. I even kind of like tashlich, a tradition of “casting away one’s wrongdoings” by tossing pieces of bread into a body of water (my family has always been partial to a pond at a park near our home on Long Island).
But I don’t feel any connection to the liturgy in the prayer books and I’m not particularly spiritual. In synagogue, I have a hard time reading responsively. I reflexively sing certain songs, because they’re familiar and they make me feel warm and I know that means something. But I do not raise my hand to cover my eyes during the shema. Why should I? What does it mean?
Suddenly I am a teenager again, railing against things I don’t understand, can’t control.
Except I can’t act like a teenager and neither can Jon. We have children now; we aren’t really entitled to the kind of angst that marked our twenties. And we both want Avi and Maya to have a strong connection to Judaism. We stressed over the particulars of their Jewish baby naming ceremony; we gave them Hebrew names; I sing to them in Hebrew during bath-time. Their grandparents are very spiritual—religion really matters to them and they really matter to us.
We frustrate family and friends. They don’t understand why we’re “half in” and “half out.” Some want to categorize us. Affiliated or not? Why avoid non-kosher meat if we roll our eyes at the idiosyncratic rules we studied in the mishna during our elementary school days? We’re in our thirties—can’t we respectfully decline the invites to synagogue?
Our intellectual selves are engaged in a prolonged battle with our emotional selves. We’re too cynical but we have a need to feel connected. We need community. We want Avi and Maya to feel secure and supported and to love the best of Judaism’s traditions. This matters to us, a lot. We want them to have a foundation upon which to live as strong, curious, confident, and happy people. Can Judaism give them that? Very possibly. Can synagogue attendance give them that? I don’t know but I certainly don’t want to be the one to decide that it can’t.
So what to do? Join a synagogue of our own, and suffer through services? Maybe we need to let our emotional needs trump intellect for a while. Maybe it’s okay to cringe a bit during services but enjoy the Kiddush because that’s where we get to chat with friends. Maybe it’s okay to let synagogue function as a place to find community and not question ourselves too much for using it in that way—a place to just be together and feel happy as Jews.
This year I’d like to eat holiday meals with family. I’d like to put on a skirt and take a long walk around the neighborhood. I’d like to write down my hopes for the coming year and tack it on the wall. I’d like to talk to Avi and Maya about what it means to be Jewish. And maybe by talking it out we’ll figure it out. Maybe doing these things is what it means to be Jewish. Maybe synagogue is a tool we can utilize but not the only one in the belt. And maybe somewhere out there is a synagogue community that Jon and I can learn to love. I hope there is.