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The Tent Connection

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL)

“and it came to pass that everyone that sought the Lord went out into the tent of Meeting…” Exodus 33:7

When I first moved to rural Woodstock in the ‘80’s, I had just barely shed my role as a suburban New Jersey divorced wife and single mother. My three children had sprung the nest and were ensconced in colleges of their choices all over the country. What I discovered in the isolated, eclectic pine cabin that I had built, ringed by fields of hay and mountains, was the fledgling connection to myself and to my life as a writer. It would take many years for me to reinvent myself, and during that time, while adapting to the culture of fading hippies, I felt an intuitive connection to the Jewish services that were held nearby under a tent.

Discovering services down the road from the cabin and under the tent was, at first, daunting, even uncomfortable. I had been raised to be proper and staid, reflective and sorrowful in silence inside a proper temple of brick and mortar, and I tried to duplicate that kind of Jewish experience for my own children as I raised them. But my connection to a spiritualism beyond the words that I mouthed in English and Hebrew in that environment was watery at best. What I began to discover under the tent was an inner connection, a physicality of feeling that I had no words to express. Singing, smiling, even laughing and feeling a lightness of spirit, at first felt wrong at such a holy time, but gradually this way of celebrating became the norm that I yearned to experience. I felt connected to something ancient, and I was proud to be a part of such a bond. Yet by the following year when it was time to make plans to return, I again questioned the sincerity of my action.

When I sold my cabin of wood and glass in Woodstock, NY, packed my quilt, books and computer, and moved south for sun and warmth, I felt the need to make a pilgrimage north each fall to re-experience the interaction of a Judaism that spoke to me of ancient connections and rhythms, a living energy that mingled psychological, philosophical, literary and religious themes in a meaningful way that I had never experienced before in any other synagogue of stone walls and stained glass windows. It became an annual ritual that provided a beginning for the New Year, a ritual that helped me understand where I was in my life at the time, as well as shining a light ahead that would help illuminate my path when I had to return to my home in the south and cope with everyday realities.

That first year, as I drove north on the highway, I thought of Rabbi Jonathan who played his guitar as we sang and danced on the earthen floor. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation Kehillat Lev Shalem is, as their motto says, “the congregation of a full heart.” It is “an egalitarian congregation whose members range from cultural atheists to traditional Jews,” says Rabbi Jonathan Kliger, who was trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, served as spiritual leader under the tent for twenty-six years, and is now Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute, a center for learning, creativity, healing, and spiritual growth located at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Was I returning for this experience alone, and how did that connect to the religiosity of a new year?

I’ve struggled for two decades to understand the true reason for my annual pilgrimage to the tent for High Holiday services. I know I’m seeking a connection, but a connection to what? Even though I celebrate Shabbat each week by lighting the candles and saying the prayers over the bread and the wine, I feel at times like I’m going through the motions for the sake of tradition. So I drive the twenty-five hundred mile trip alone, from Sarasota, FL to Woodstock, NY, searching for something deeper. And I look forward to the experience of emotional freedom and, if only temporary, a spiritual connection while sitting on a metal folding chair on the earth, sheltered from the elements by a white canvas tent, surrounded by fifteen hundred like-minded strangers.

In my struggle to define the truth for this rite of return, questions pile on questions. Is it just nostalgia to return to a place that had once been my home at a crossroads in my life? Is it the novelty of celebrating the High Holidays under a tent with dancing and singing instead of with the austerity and solemnity encased by stained glass windows? Is it because I desire to be included in a community that welcomes all people, Jewish or not, straight, gay, single and married, a community that openly acknowledges the power of expressing feelings and emotions? Is it because I need to confirm the person I reinvented — or began to reinvent — in this mountain community of artists where individualism is recognized, not scorned?

On reflection, I can say, yes, definitely, it is nostalgic to remember every thread and every morsel of a new life that I had made for myself in a rural rather than suburban environment, and where bear, deer and pheasant were my neighbors instead of people.  It was where an eclectic cabin of pine with wide board floors and two story glass windows, surrounded by pasture and mountains, held treasured memories of a home I had built to declare both my choice of aesthetics, as well as my personal independence as a newly unmarried woman with three grown children.  Yes, it had been exciting to continue to create my fiction in this cabin, which overlooked undulating fields of hay, as well as inspiring to recall the birth of the writing program that has sustained me financially on my future path.

This quest for connection on a deep level is a pervasive theme in my life, as well as in my fiction writing, and it is the power of this quest that draws me to the tent each year.  The tent is where I feel the ancient and the modern connect.  A few children and grandchildren have joined me over the years, and for a few hours it feels like we are home again, a family under one roof. We stand before the bimah to receive a blessing before the Torah is opened. Together we hear the shofar blown, the children standing on metal folding chairs to see over the adults’ heads, or astride their father’s shoulders.

I am on a new chapter in my life now as a widow after twenty years of a second marriage. In the past I haven’t been swayed by practicality. Imagination and desire have always trumped reality. Yet I know that this rite of return helps me feel cleansed and inspired to begin a new year. The service under the tent strengthens my religiosity and my spiritualism, and, after it’s over, I know I’ll carry these feelings, along with the words from Rabbi Jonathan’s sermons, in my heart and mind as I drive south again over interstate highways from the Catskill Mountains, past the low country of the Carolina’s, and into the flat terrain beside the Gulf of Mexico.  This ritual of ebb and flow, this traveling up and back, comforts me. It provides a beginning for the year, a meaningful way for me to mark a distinction between the endings and beginnings in my life.

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information. 

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Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

by Laura Greene (Whitefish Bay, WI)

In 1957 I boarded the SS United States and sailed from New York to Germany to marry a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” Neither of our parents attended our wedding, although they both approved of the marriage. The Army Chaplin provided the men for the minyan, and they held the chupah. I didn’t know any of the guests or what a minyan or a chupah were. At the end of the ceremony the rabbi folded my hands around a sheet of paper. I thought it rather strange to be handed a marriage license at the end of my wedding. The rabbi looked directly into my eyes and his last words to me before releasing my hands were, “The responsibility of having a Jewish home is yours.”

I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t fair. I had no knowledge of such things. Why was this my responsibility? Why hadn’t he warned me that he was going to say this in front of God! I would have argued, protested, refused. But now it was too late.

I am the daughter of two American-born, secular Jewish parents. I grew up in New Jersey which Jewishly is a suburb of New York. My Jewish grandparents on both sides went back to Moscow and Constantinople. They and my parents spoke Yiddish and attended Yiddish theatre. Yet none of them celebrated a Jewish holiday.

My mother never lit a Shabbat candle. Our so-called Seders meant bread on one plate and matzah on another. Hagaddah?  I never heard of it. I stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it didn’t look nice for me to be in school. My parents usually had an argument on Yom Kippur because my father, who stayed home from work, insisted on eating. To him religion was superstitious nonsense. Sometimes he referred to it as black magic and he mocked the religious. Yet, I always knew I was Jewish. My brother had a bar mitzvah by memorizing his portion. My mother made chicken soup, chopped liver, kugel, bacon and shrimp.

In college a sorority sister invited me to her family Seder. Her brother was studying to be a cantor and he sang the liturgy. The family explained the proceedings as the family read from the Hagaddah and sang the traditional melodies. How kind and gentle the family were. How non-judgmental. I felt cheated at how much I had missed. If I married a Jewish boy, maybe I could catch up. My parents wanted me to marry Jewish. They were pleased when I found Victor.

Victor and I met in college. Like me, Victor was Jewish all the way back. In fact his father lay t’fillin every morning. I found out much later that his father never told him why or taught him how. Victor’s Hebrew and religious school experiences were fraught with unhappy memories. He entered the army after college graduation and was sent to Germany. We decided not to wait to get married, and instead, took the opportunity to visit Europe during his leave time.

When we returned home, we both enrolled in school. He earned a Ph. D degree and I earned an MA degree. Our friends were academics. We hosted Seders and invited our non-Jewish friends. Victor knew how to lead a Seder and I knew how to cook. I lit my grandmother’s brass candlesticks that my mother had tucked into my luggage when I left for Germany. Victor’s first teaching job was in Manhattan, Kansas and there I had my next Jewish experience.

There were two resident Jewish families in Manhattan. They adopted the itinerant, and, for the most part, uncommitted Jewish university faculty members. The ever-fluid Jewish community owned a one room building and from time to time a student rabbi from Fort Riley would pay a call. For Passover the two resident families ordered supplies from Topeka and arranged for shipment to Manhattan. I ordered two boxes of matzah.

Nina Becker taught me how to light Shabbat candles and how to bench. I was awkward, but I did it. I never forgot what the rabbi said at my wedding. What was I going to do when I had children? I knew nothing.

While in Kansas, I gave birth to a daughter.  Then, since academics travel, our son was born in Ohio. Knowing nothing about the importance of names, and neither family making suggestions, we just picked our children’s names because we both liked them. Our son was circumcised, but there was no brit milah. It didn’t matter to anyone. The decision still haunts me. We never missed hosting a Seder, and I never missed lighting Shabbat candles.

Victor’s next teaching job was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so we said good-bye to Kansas. By then our daughter was eight-years-old and our son, three. Victor drove a U-haul truck with all our belongings and I followed him in our VW Bug with the children. They had been the only Jewish children in that college town. There were no child car seats or seat belts in those days. To avoid the summer heat and traffic, we left about 3 a.m. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit a guardrail. The car went airborne over a fifty-foot embankment, plunged down, hit the ground, and bounced a few feet before stopping.

Miracle number one: The car did not turn over. Miracle number two: My children were not hurt. They had bounced between and among the nest of pillows and stuffed animals.

“That was fun, Mommy, can we do it again?” said my three year old when the car stopped moving.

I did everything wrong after that. Believing it was safer in the car than on the road, I told my children to stay in the car. Dazed and shaken, I climbed up the hill to get help.

Miracle number three: The car did not catch fire. My daughter had the good sense to turn off the motor. We stayed in voice contact. Victor, unaware of the accident, continued his journey.

A trucker spotted me. It must have been very strange to see a woman pacing the interstate road in the dark and screaming over an embankment. There were no cell phones in those days.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

Shivering in the 80-degree heat, I pointed.

“Stay here. I’ll report the accident at the next exit.” He drove away.

Two cars passed without slowing. Meanwhile, I kept telling my children to stay put. It seemed forever before a police car arrived. The officer was kind. He asked me where I got my jacket. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the trucker had put his jacket on my shoulders.

The policeman stayed with me until Victor arrived. When Victor saw only me and not the children, his face contorted in pain.

“The kids are fine,” I said.

He put his head on the rolled-down window and cried for a few moments, then climbed down the hill and retrieved our children. Geoffrey’s pajamas were the color of the rising sun. I still cannot see the orange sun without remembering that accident.

Miracle number four: The VW Bug had not rolled over, but the guardrail had ripped a hole through the door of the driver’s seat. The hole was large enough to put my head through, but we walked away from that accident. We completed our trip scrunched in the cab of the U-haul truck. I never knew who the truck driver was. I never had the chance to thank him or return his coat. I wondered why I was still alive and my children safe. What made him stop when others didn’t?

We arrived in Milwaukee in August. I wanted to attend High Holiday Services. I needed to thank God I hadn’t killed my children. I needed to thank God for being alive. I needed to thank God for sending us the truck driver.

We visited all the Reform and Conservative synagogues in town. At each one we were told that without tickets we couldn’t attend the High Holidays. I asked why a person needed a ticket to pray. The answers did not satisfy me. Defeated, I told one Conservative rabbi that we’d pray in the park. He responded differently than the others. “A Jew should not pray alone on the High Holidays. If you decide to join us fine, if not, that’s fine too.  Come and welcome.”

We joined that day and enrolled our daughter in his religious school. Shortly after, at my daughter’s public school orientation, a woman approached me. “You’re new in town,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”

Her question shocked me. People in Kansas and New Jersey just don’t go around asking that question. I must have looked stunned because she laughed.

“I’m a speech therapist. I can tell by your accent you’re from the east coast. So I guess you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Give me your phone number and I’ll invite you for Shabbat.”

To my surprise, she did. We talked. She said the synagogue I had just joined was looking for teachers and I should apply. I laughed.

“I don’t know anything,”’ I said.

“So, you’ll learn. You’ll keep one step ahead of the kids. I’ll help you.”

She did, and I did. We became good friends. Bit by bit I learned. Many people mentored me. I took courses through the Jewish community and the university. I attended Jewish conferences. It wasn’t long before I identified strongly as a Reform Jew. In time I received certification from HUC and teacher certification from the University of Wisconsin. I learned Hebrew, and, through the years, have received numerous teaching awards. I love what I do. My life was enriched because of my involvement in Jewish education. After 40 years of teaching in religious school and Hebrew school and helping kids prepare for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, I have gained far more than I have given. Perhaps my debt to the truck driver is now paid in full. I wonder if he got his jacket back.

Just as I have been influenced by my many teachers, so have I influenced the children I’ve taught. I think about my Jewish journey and how far I have come. Was I led here? I like to think so. My husband is no longer reluctant to attend services with me or display Jewish artifacts in our home. When we recently downsized from a house to an apartment, he requested that a mezuzah be on every doorpost of our apartment, not just the front door. I wish I had treasured that strange paper the rabbi placed between my hands on my wedding day, but I didn’t know what a ketubah was. When I told this story to my present rabbi he smiled.

“You could have said no.”

His answer surprised me. Until then it never occurred to me that I had that option.

My daughter didn’t marry, but my son married a Jewish girl and they recently joined a synagogue. They live far away from me. My oldest grandchild now attends religious school kindergarten. He will learn Hebrew, see his grandmother light Shabbat candles and understand why. My brother, an atheist, is a strong supporter of Israel and his daughter and her family are active members of an Orthodox Jewish community. Our parents must have done something right, and maybe we did, too. I am blessed. L’dor v’dor.

Laura Greene holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has written twelve books for children and has received commendations for her work from the National Council of Teachers of the Social Sciences, Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the Writers League of Texas. She is currently seeking publication of her first adult novel: Walking on the Razor, a literary thriller about Eli Cohn, an Israeli spy whose courage saved a nation. Married, with two children, and three grandchildren, Laura enjoys reading, knitting, ballet, music, travel, cooking, and teaching. 

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