I got a call from the Rabbi today.
He’s been watching me on Facebook and he had something to say. Getting a call from Rabbi Yossi might as well be getting a call from G-d (that’s how we Jews spell it) himself. Well, that’s how it feels, anyway. Let me first explain that I am not a member of a synagogue. I am not even sure I’m a “good Jew.”
My father is the son of Norwegian immigrants. He and his identical twin were raised Presbyterian, though church was more of an expression of community, rather than spirituality.
My mother was raised Jewish in Manhattan at a time when all her family’s friends had Christmas trees. She has command of the complete Yiddish lexicon and yet I am not convinced she has ever made a Seder. My sister—and only sibling—is the Norwegian daughter and I’m the Jew.
Some years ago, she said to me, “I can’t believe you consider yourself Jewish.” And I replied, “I can’t believe you don’t!” Over the years, we’ve met somewhere in the middle, largely in the sort of spirituality offered to us as yoga.
We were raised in Tappan, New York in a small suburban town about 16 miles North of the George Washington Bridge on the West side of the Hudson River. The television series, “The Wonder Years,” was based on its creator’s experiences growing up in my very neighborhood at approximately the same time as me.
Although it was a time of national angst with the unfolding horror of the Vietnam War followed by the political polarization of Watergate, my friends and I felt safe and happy.
About 90 percent of the families in Tappan were Jewish. Since we moved there when I was three-years-old, it is understandable that I thought the vast majority of the world was Jewish. At the time, I had no idea why my parents thought that notion was hilarious. They tried to explain, but I was happy with my view of the world and I was sticking to it. When the time came, all my friends went to Hebrew School at the Orangetown Jewish Community Center. I begged my parents to let me go. I wanted to be with my friends. I wanted to be initiated into the club of which I already felt a member. My parents were not compliant. My mother explained that in order for me to go to Hebrew School there, they would have to become members. And because it was a conservative synagogue, my father would have to convert.
I got the message loud and clear: my parents would rather poke knitting needles in their eyes than be members of an organized religious community.
Oh the injustice.
I understood my parents’ position. And I longed for a Jewish education. I attended dozens of bar and bat mitzvahs with both pride and envy. It wasn’t the party I wanted, or even to be like the others. It was a deep desire to know the secrets, to experience something that couldn’t be—and even shouldn’t be —explained. I wanted to be in an environment where the existence of the unknowable was acknowledged and embraced.
When I was a sophomore at The University of Pennsylvania, I flirted with the idea of joining Hillel, the student Jewish organization. By then, I felt like an outsider. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to participate. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t had achieved bat mitzvah. I didn’t even know the story of Passover.
And what were those questions I was supposed to know the answer to?
In short, I was severely undereducated in Judaism.
So what was my identification as a Jew based on, anyway? That’s something I can’t pinpoint articulately. I could talk about a deep knowing, a kind of familiarity with Jewish culture and history, a sense of belonging to a tribe that defies whether or not I know what questions are posed at a Seder.
And even then at the age of 19, I knew there were no definitive answers to the questions I was asking. They had to do with the mysterious intersection of the mind and the spirit. What is faith and what is it based on? How do I negotiate the growing battle between my thoughts and my feelings? Most of all, what is this longing I felt in the depth of my being?
Many years later and living in Los Angeles, I was shopping for preschools for my son and I chose the school associated with the Jewish Community Center. It also happens to be the local Chabad—a traditional orthodox synagogue.
It is an exceptional school filled with warm, loving teachers who value individuality and embody tolerance. To say my son embraced his Jewish identity is putting it mildly. I recognized his thirst.
At one point, he realized that most of his classmates had Hebrew names. Because his father is not Jewish, my son did not have a bris and did not receive a Hebrew name. We asked Rabbi Yossi if he could bend the traditional rules and give my son his name now, at age five. He warmly embraced the opportunity to initiate Oliver into the brotherhood and had us come to shul for Shabbat services the next Saturday morning.
At the same time, he took the opportunity to finally name me. It was a celebration to remember, the birth of Eliora and Moshe. Our little non-traditional family was embraced by the ultra-traditional community.
My son is now seven. It’s been two years since we’ve been part of Rabbi Yossi MIntz’s community. Although he is an orthodox rabbi, he is modern, brilliant, accessible, a scholar, and a humanitarian.
He’s also on Facebook.
He sees what I am up to; that I am writing popular articles about sex and intimacy. That I am coaching women and reaching people. So he picked up the phone and called me this morning, and this is what he said:
Light a candle, Zoë. There is so much light in the world, but there is also great darkness. Many people are lost. I speak to them every day. You have the ability to reach people; to light a candle so that they might find their way. When you go into a pitch black room and you light a match, what happens? The darkness dissolves. There is no limit to light. It is regenerative and infinite.
Don’t ever squander the opportunity to light a candle and bring in light.
This from the man who blessed me with the name, Eliora, which means “My G-d is light.” Perhaps this is the essence of being a good Jew.
I am holding this call from Rabbi Yossi as a reminder to be of service in all that I do. Every Friday is Shabbat. I invite you each to light a candle with me that we may illuminate the way for others.
Amen. Shabbat Shalom.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman