Monthly Archives: November 2011

View from a (non-) Jew

by Tammy Bleck (Oak Park, CA)

During the twenty-five years that I was married to a Jewish man, I was often called an honorary Jew. I’m not exactly sure why. In all those years my husband never attended Temple or practiced his faith. No high holidays were ever observed, no Hanukkah candles lit. So why does almost everyone I meet assume that I am a Jew, and why do I sometimes feel like one?

It could be because I shlep, kibbitz, and have done many a mitzvah, and since my divorce ten years ago I have found love once more with a mensch. For almost two years I have been going to Temple with this wonderful man. In that time I’ve witnessed a faith that is open, accepting, loving and giving. I would like to think of myself as all those things.

Each Shabbat I listen to prayers that are offered up asking for God’s blessings for all men and women, for peace and strength, for favor and healing. But mostly I hear prayers of thanks. There is a lot of gratitude in the Jewish faith. I think we could all stand to be a little more grateful.

My father raised, baptized and confirmed me as a Catholic. My mother taught, baptized, and took me to her Baptist church each opportunity she had. I know my catechism, the Stations of the Cross, and I know my Praise the Lord renditions of the old Baptist way. I am not uneducated in the world of organized faiths, but there is no church that has me as a member. I consider myself to be a faithful person but shun the term “religious.”

I am open, and I appreciate all faiths that are open and patient with me. Faith is a good thing, and God, whatever name you choose to call him (or her), is gracious and loving. I have to say, in attending synagogue, there’s something to be said for attending a worship service and not being aggressively recruited or reminded of how much I’ve sinned. I appreciate both of the omissions.

There is so much about the Jewish faith I won’t even pretend to understand. I may study it one day. I’m sure I’d be the better for it. But I do understand the foundation, the music, the feeling of gratitude that fills the synagogue. It uplifts me and it encourages me.

When I attend Shabbat services, I do so without any reservations. I am there with an open mind to support the man who has my heart. With so much of the evening service in Hebrew, I greatly appreciate the rabbi’s woven explanations of the prayers. They are beautiful, positive, hopeful and gracious–all things that I aspire to be.

I am motivated to come back by the music and by the man who sings it. He is called a cantor, and I learned very quickly that we don’t applaud after he finishes singing. Too bad, because he sings with such love, such emotion and such intent, that I want to leap to my feet and put my hands together loudly. (I imagine that the old Baptist way of raising your hands up in the air and swaying to the music would be deemed inappropriate!)

I listen without understanding a word, but I read along in the book (definitely not called the Bible), and am able to get a real translation. I appreciate the words almost as much as I do the voice. I don’t understand why Jews don’t pass a basket in the service for contributions from the congregation for the synagogue. After listening to the cantor, if a basket were passed in front of me, I’d be putting in some big money. It’s what thankful people do: contribute (at least in a perfect world).

It occurs to me that if we really want to make it a better world, we should support those people and those things that do right by us. Synagogues and churches are among those ‘things,’ along with family, friends, and country. Jews live this, and they vehemently support their synagogues and their homeland, Israel. I can only imagine what they are feeling in watching the events unfold in the Middle East. In some strange way, I feel it too; the fear, the uncertainty, the need to prepare and to pray.

The feelings Jews have for Israel are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are committed to Israel in a quiet, precise, and serious way. It feels very American to me. The dedication and quiet resolve is a little off-putting, but in a good way. While I don’t pretend to understand it, I can feel the passion, the purpose of it all, and I share in some of that. I guess you could call me an American-Catholic-Baptist-almost-Jew.

I’m happy just to be invited. The people, the message, the peace, the food–don’t even get me started on the food. Oy Vay! (What do they do to those cabbage rolls that make them so heavenly?)

I have lots of questions. They range from matzo balls, black hats and long curls, the Book of Life, to the sounding of the ram’s horn, the bris ceremony, and bar mitzvahs; all for another time, another discussion. Until then, I will learn, enjoy, eat and try to be a good (American-Catholic- Baptist- almost-) Jew.

Oh, and yes, I will pray.

Tammy Bleck is the author of the book Single Past 50 Now What? You can read more of her writings at www.WittyWomanWriting.com, where a slightly different version of this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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On Creativity

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Dribbling my pen in the poetic backcourt,
I am urged by my Cosmic Coach
“to let the game come to you.
Creativity is such a fickle bounce of the ball;
you can’t force your shots.
You have to pick your time and place
and then fire your words
upwards in a rainbow arc.”
I throw up a wild shot of a poem,
one that possesses little rhyme or reason.
“You’re trying too hard,” Coach reminds me.
“Take a seat on the bench, young man,
and keep your eyes on the flow of the Game.
When I think you’re ready,
I’ll put you back on the floor,
to distribute, like passes,
the words I have given to you,
allowing you to rise to your full height
which will increase your personal stats
by the time the final buzzer sounds.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, poetry

Expanding the Boundaries of Faith

by Emily Goldberg (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)

I am extremely motivated and determined to explore the things that fascinate me in life. From faith-based experiences to leadership opportunities, I am constantly involving myself in programs and groups that will inspire me to be an open-minded Jewish leader in the future. Throughout my years as a high school student, I have chosen to surround myself with driven people who share the same values as me. I am different from other teens my age, however, in the sense that I do not believe that anything in life is out of reach. But my belief was tested recently when reading an incredible book that has both changed my spiritual perspective and enabled me to grow in my faith.

The book, My Jesus Year, chronicles the spiritual journey of Benyamin Cohen, a modern Orthodox Jew who sought inspiration in his daily religious life by exploring the various denominations of Christianity. From interviewing Mormon missionaries to standing among thousands in acclaimed Baptist mega-churches, Cohen, with a yarmulke on his head, compares his “Jesus-filled” experiences with those of Orthodox Judaism. In the end, Cohen realizes his underlying passion for his own faith, but now approaches spirituality with a new and open-minded perspective.

Benyamin Cohen is unlike typical observant Jews for he dared to expand his faith in unimaginable ways. Determined and passionate, Cohen dared to discover the places and people that fascinated him. He opened himself to unique opportunities that would have otherwise remained unattainable if ignored; he then recorded those memorable experiences and shared them with readers all over the world, leaving an impact on spiritual seekers like me.

His book inspired me to take my faith to new boundaries; my Jewish beliefs needed to be taken to new locations, new levels, and new directions. After reading about Cohen’s ability to grow as a Jew through his encounters with non-Jews, I realized that Judaism is not about attempting to come as close as possible to the line without crossing it; it’s about seeing that line and turning in the entirely opposite direction.

Judaism is a religion that’s filled with lines and limits. Practicing Jews find themselves in situations every day where their religious values are challenged. Whether it’s refusing to indulge in a slice of pepperoni pizza or an opportunity to see a popular concert on a Friday night, Jews face cultural issues that affect their personal practices on a daily basis. Intermarriage, conversions, and future non-Jewish generations are just a few of the deeper “lines” that devout Jews try to avoid. Today, the biggest misconception that faithful Jews have is the idea that they must always fit themselves somewhere within these lines. Like Benyamin Cohen, I am a spiritual seeker, always searching for theological enlightenment in some of the most daring ways, whether it is standing among thousands of worshippers at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale or sitting on the floor of a local Hindu temple, willingly coexisting with other faiths in order to discover my own.

I vividly remember my unique “crossing the line” experience when I first entered Calvary Chapel, the most dominant mega-church in the area. This worship center, filled with large screens, innumerable seats, and people of all ages and backgrounds, serves as a weekly spiritual haven for Christians all over South Florida. I stood among hundreds of church goers, a neophyte to the concert-like service that united everyone around me. As the band on stage began to play popular gospel songs, congregants sang along with the lyrics projected on the peripheral screens. I watched in awe as average people suddenly felt humbled by the communal voice that echoed through the church walls. Connected to the powerful music, some people began to raise their hands in the air, while others fell to their knees in prayer. Of course, I first felt uncomfortable and out of place. Growing up in a Jewish bubble, I had never once stood before a large conspicuous cross glowing in a dimmed sanctuary. In fact, I had always been told at my Jewish school to refrain from speaking about “J.C.” or Christmas. I had never known that Jews were even allowed to stand inside of a church.

But there I was, surrounded by hundreds of worshipers who believed in a savior and theological being that differed from my own. I realized that I had stepped outside of my limited Jewish bubble to experience a new form of spirituality, and it was ok that I was not surrounded by hundreds of religious Jews. While I initially worried about my Jewish friends’ reactions to my church visit, I quickly put those thoughts aside as I focused on the service that was taking place before me. It was truly amazing to see all types of people uniting to worship something greater and more empowering than themselves. Communal faith not only connects worshipers of one religious practice, but also people of different beliefs. Religion is truly beautiful when it unifies people.

Some of my friends considered my church visits threatening to my Jewish identity. They assumed that my one visit in church would lead to a life of Christianity, intermarriage, and church membership. Since I had been known among my friends as the “super Jew” or “future rabbi” because of my passion for Judaism, many assumed that my one visit to a new worship service meant I was no longer interested in pursuing a career in the rabbinate or Jewish education. My fellow classmates even asked me if I had converted to Christianity. Amused and entertained by the terrified looks on their faces, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, “I like it. You should come with me next time.”

While I am appalled by the abundance of ignorance toward other religions in my own community, I have become more motivated to explore new religious practices in order to be more open- minded.  After undergoing what seemed like apoplectic shock, all of my friends and family decided that I am and will forever be that spiritual seeker who “goes against the grain” in order to find her purpose in the world. I refuse to recognize the boundaries and limits of faith that others fear.

Why did I seek opportunities to cross these lines? I explored new spiritual havens and worship services in order to reconnect to my own. Standing among hundreds of Christians made me truly appreciate the significance of a tight knit Jewish community. When I took my faith out of the familiar lines I had grown up with my whole life, I became more inspired to reconnect myself to them. Suddenly, those meticulous lines, like kashrut and Shabbat observances, reminded me of home, where I truly belong. I dared to step outside of my Jewish lifestyle in order to truly appreciate it.

There are aspects of Jewish faith that cannot be found in any other religious “bubble.” While listening to the popular gospel rock songs, I longed to see congregants wearing kippot and tallitot, and I missed the uniqueness of the Hebrew language that unifies the Jewish world. I once considered these practices to be second nature; today, because of my experiences at church, I cherish them. My spiritually enlightening experiences at Calvary Chapel cannot be traded or ignored; I would have never discovered my passion and respect for faith if I had stayed within the lines of my own religion.  Sometimes, the greatest spiritual experiences in life can only be found by walking in the opposite direction, limitless and unbounded.

Through my explorations of faith, I proved to myself that Judaism is ever evolving, and there is no one way to connect with your faith. I learned to appreciate Judaism when it was not right in front of me. I needed to see how other people connect to their religions before truly understanding my own. Spiritual seekers do not settle for the bare minimums in life.  They dare to step outside their personal comfort zones in order to reach inner peace and understanding. Benjamin Cohen and his book, My Jesus Year, inspired me to expand my boundaries of faith while gaining a deeper love and understanding for Judaism.

Emily Goldberg is a high school student at the David Posnack Jewish Day School in South Florida. She loves sharing her unorthodox ideas regarding faith and spirituality through her writing. In the future, she hopes to pursue rabbinics, interfaith studies, creative writing, and social work. Also, she hopes to lead a Jewish community of her own some day, one that encourages creative dialogue similar to that in The Jewish Writing Project.

You can read more of her work at her blog, A Leap of Faith: http://www.faithleaping.blogspot.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

Learning a New Language

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

My father is teaching me German.
He still speaks fluently, even though he
escaped from Nazi Germany almost
seventy years ago when he was seventeen.

We study nouns and verbs.
We study when to use the formal pronoun, Sie, you
and when to use the more familiar, Du.
One must be offered permission to use the familiar.

We study dialects.
The word Ich, I.
The Berliners pronounce it Ick.
Those from Frankfurt am Main, Isch.
Those from Schwaben, Ich or I.

He tells me when he was a kid he and
his friends used to say in a Berliner dialect,
“Berlin jeweesen Oranje jejessen und sie war so süss jeweesen.”
I was in Berlin and ate an orange, and it was very sweet.
“And then we added, dass mir die brüh die gosh runterglaufe is,”
with the juices running down my mouth.
He explains: “It is in our Schwäbisch dialect.
I should say, it was our dialect.”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007), a collection of poems about her family and the Shoah. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals such as the Connecticut Review and Limestone, as well as on Beliefnet. She is a teaching fellow at Clal.

This poem has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

For more about Kirchheimer’s work, visit: http://productsearch.barnesandnoble.com/search/results.aspx?WRD=janet+r+kirchheimer&page=index&prod=univ&choice=allproducts&query=Janet+R+Kirchheimer&flag=False&ugrp=2

And to read Kirchheimer’s recent piece on observing Kristallnacht this year, the first without her father, who died this past July, visit: http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/kristallnacht_without_my_father_20111102/

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, poetry