Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reverse-Commute Jew

"I was inside that place when it was for sale," a woman announced about my parents' former house as we drove past today, not knowing who she was talking to. "Total tear-down."

Uncharacteristically, I decided not to respond. Because it was Yom Kippur -- the Jewish day of atonement, forgiveness and compassion; and because the woman and I were riding on a parking-lot shuttle bus with my girlfriend and daughter to my childhood synagogue, to attend a "family service," despite the fact that our family members who belonged there died 18 and 36 months ago.

As we passed my parents' house, I saw that it was not torn down, but had been recently gutted, extended [above] and its roof tiles removed, which, while certainly needed, in effect negated the months and thousands of dollars I had to put into gussying it up [right] when it did not sell "as-is."

Then our shuttle bus arrived at the temple, which has also been recently transformed. The 1950's sanctuary, where my brothers and I were Bar Mitzvah'ed and both my parents' funerals were held, was retrofitted to house the religious school, and has been supplanted by a new, multi-million dollar, "eco-friendly" space that my late father had vocally opposed as too costly. 

And yet there we were, partaking, despite living 25 miles away in a city teeming with temples. Why? 

I never joined my own synagogue as an adult. I am basically agnostic, and my parents kept inviting me (and my half-Jewish kids) up to theirs, which was certainly more convenient, especially when I found myself moving back and forth to LA several times. We also celebrated Passover Seders and Hanukah at their house. Now I'm stranded.

In working to sustain traditions, I realize, my folks paradoxically never allowed me to forge my own. On Rosh Hashanah this year, also my dad's birthday, I took a the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center; today, instead of fasting (per tradition), as soon as services ended, we headed to the local deli.

I'm sure all this would horrify my Orthodox great-grandfather, who brought his whole family over on a grueling boat trip from the Ukraine, and worked part-time as a cantor and mohel. But I did not initiate this diaspora. When his youngest son, my workaholic lawyer grandfather, moved to New Rochelle and his shul forbade him from working on Saturdays, he switched to a new reform temple that didn't yet perform bar mitzvahs.

And when I turned ten, my Mom lobbied my Dad to switch to a closer (and less formal) temple so I could train for my bar mitzvah with my schoolmates; plus they knew its legendary rabbi Jack Stern, a voice-of-God sermonizer who had married my Dad's college sweetheart, herself a rabbi's daughter. (I don't mean he performed the ceremony, I mean he took her as his bride.) My Dad, after first seeking permission from his childhood rabbi, made the switch -- and three months later, eerily, his father died. We had moved on.

Why did I go back today? Not just familiarity. The truth is, I have always preferred the rabbis at my home temple to anyone I've seen in the city. When Stern retired, he was replaced by soulful, menschy Richard Jacobs, who has cannily modernized the place (Matisyahu performed there; today's services were simulcast on the web!) while holding onto tradition; he recently was on TV [right] as spokesman for religious leaders in favor of the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He patiently endured my father's lobbying against the recent makeover, and he's the one who called me at 3:45 am when my dad died and helped me bury both my folks.

Running today's more casual, all-ages family service was the charming Rabbi/Cantor Dan Sklar (who toured in Beauty and the Beast and served as advisor on the Coen brothers' A Serious Man). We filed into a utility room awkwardly carved out of the old sanctuary's leftovers, the original Ten-Commandment stained glass windows [left] relocated to the back wall, the upper half lopped off from view. (It's like the elders decided "we can't get rid of these" but couldn't really deal with them.)

As I sat, my gaze shifted from those symbolically diminished Commandments, to the congregants around me: these were people who decided to live a way I decided not to, making home in the comforts of suburbia. They ranged from devotees in full prayer shawls to a Dad in a pink peace-sign yarmulke failing to quiet his disrespectful miniskirted teenage daughter.

Where do I fit in, I wondered. This isn't my community any more; except for a few childhood peers who decided to return to raise their own broods, the congregation has turned over. My parents' generation is dying off, mine has moved away, and my relationship to the religion seems destined to dwindle.

Yet saying the prayers, singing the songs, and hearing the words still had meaning. During the silent prayer, I leaned over to say something to my 13 year old and she shushed me: I realized she was actually reading the entire passage. After we were done she confided that every year when I say we're going, she always groans, having forgotten what it's like, but then when we actually attend, she remembers and finds it meaningful.

Sounds familiar.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, David. It makes me ponder, from the ex-Catholic side of wondering.

Alona said...


David Handelman said...

I seemed to have hit a nerve with Catholics. Who knew?

Actually, I think our generation -- at least the educated, non-tea-party types -- is more united about religion as a cultural heritage/touchstone/universal thing than a which side are you on (political party/sports team) thing.

Carl said...

But where did you park?

David Handelman said...

Yes, I could do a whole other blog post about my parents' house as parking lot (or about seeing the tail end of Jack Stern's final Central Synagogue lecture) but it was already running long.

The temple has set up a shuttle bus to the pool parking lot. Since we hit first, coming from the Hutch, it was a no brainer. I'd say only about two dozen other people utilized it.

Anonymous said...

were you around for the Yizkor? I had a very intense and (for me) unprecedented experience in shul this year. definitely saw the Thestrals, shall we say ...

David VT said...

didn't mean that to be anonymous. It's me, DVT.

David Handelman said...

I did Yizkor last year -- yes it was heavy. Maybe Thestrals should meet at 1:30 AM? We both seem free.

bruce said...

What did you order at your Yom Kippur deli lunch?

I, too, skipped fasting, choosing to lunch in Chinatown-- pork and crab soup dumplings. I also skipped going to synagogue.

--Bruce P.