By Channa Verbian.
I am told by my daughter that there is an emphasis on engaging young Jews to find their way to a meaningful Judaism. For me, an “old’ Jew, engaging with a meaningful Judaism means returning to a home I never quite knew. Throughout my adult life I crept, if not ran, away from a world that felt unwelcoming to a non-affluent, unaffiliated and unschooled-in-religious-life Jew.
For me Judaism was a deep soulful feeling influenced by my attachment to my Polish grandparents with whom I lived as a child. It was Shabbat dinners of farfel, chicken soup, roast chicken, and potatoes sprinkled with paprika, shared with extended family, refugees from a foreign land. It was Yiddish, talk of beloved relatives lost to Auschwitz, and Saturday night poker games. It was my grandfather reading the Yiddish news. My parents’ influence, on the other hand, was often cerebral and mostly uncomfortable.
To my father, Al Jolson, Belle Barth, Mickey Katz, Chinese food on paper plates, Schwartz’s Deli and street fights in Duddy Kravitz’s Montreal defined his Judaism. But it was my mother’s influence that taught me to feel shame, internalized antisemitism, and how to “pass” in an often antisemitic Gentile world. The mocking of my father, unable to read Torah (or worse still, unable to hold a job), by my wealthy and devout Conservadox uncle did not help. My uncle was not a mensch, and if wealth and devoutness to Torah alone brought him esteem, this was not a faith that I could embrace. By the time I reached my early twenties, seeking defined my Jewish place in the world. I adopted New York intellectuals and writers as my mentors and influencers. I copied Lewis Hine’s haunting portrait of a young Jewish woman “fresh off the boat”, calling it a self-portrait. I introduced myself to Allen Ginsberg, who like many other disenfranchised Jews, had embraced Buddhism. I tried to find my Jewish self in places unknown.
Over the years, my affiliation with Judaism became more difficult as I tried to reconcile what it meant to have a Jewish soul in an intermarriage with a lapsed Catholic. We agreed to raise our children with Jewish identities, though there were limits I imposed for the sake of the marriage. No Jewish rights of passage, no Hebrew school, bar or bat mitzvahs. We lived downtown where there were few other Jews. Though we agreed that the celebration of Passover with its focus on liberation was important to tell, our telling was exclusively in English with chairs around the table filled by non-Jewish friends. Here, in this unusual place, I felt free from the feeling that I was the “evil child”, from the seder telling of the Four Children, who was completely outside.
Regardless of my facade of an ambivalent identity, I longed to belong and connect with other Jews and felt a deep need to banish the self-hatred that my parents’ irresolute relationship with their faith had taught me. Years later, when my marriage ended, the journey to a find a Judaism that felt authentic began to take place. From synagogue to synagogue, movement to movement, my exploration began. And though I was touched in deep ways along this journey, somehow it never felt deep enough. Not until I entered Holy Blossom Temple did I find my way back.
What was it that beckoned me to this temple that once intimidated this child of economically challenged parents and grandparents? Was it the sanctuary, majestic in comparison to the tiny shul on Gilgorm where my grandfather took me as a child? Was it the cantorial richness of Beny Maissner’s voice, reaching deep into my soul, or the angels singing through cantorial soloist Lindi Rivers? Perhaps it was Rabbi Splansky’s eloquence or the feeling I had when Rabbi Helfman handed me the Torah on the day we “rejoice in Jewish law”? Or was it Rabbi Satz’s embodiment of menschkeit and dedication to human rights? Perhaps it was simpler, the feeling of familiarity of the schmoozers in the hall after services. I’m not sure.
It was my daughter, who found her way into Jewish community leadership through the unspoken kinship I passed to her, who introduced me to Rabbi Satz. Sitting in his office, my first ever meeting with a rabbi, I spoke my heart. Offering me reassurance, the Rabbi said not knowing how to read or speak Hebrew was not a barrier to living a spiritual life. Sharing Jay Michaelson’s book Everything is God: the Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, and inviting me to join his Mussar sessions, I felt known and accepted. On March 13th, at age 63, I attended, marking the the beginning of my first formal Jewish studies. Here, surrounded by similar seekers, I found the Jewish soulfulness I had been seeking for so long. After a life held distant from organized religion, I feel this distance slipping away.