How Do You Jew?

Growing up, my family and I attended synagogue twice a year.  Once for Rosh Hashanah[1] and once for Yom Kippur.[2]  We dressed up, drove across town to the temple, saw people we hadn’t seen since the previous year’s High Holidays, had a big meal and called it a day.

We did not celebrate two days for Rosh, nor did we (the kids, that is) go to Kol Nidre[3] services.  (I do recall my parents going periodically, but, if we are being honest, it was probably more to get away from us kids for a few hours than a true religious calling.)  In fact, I am kinda sure that it wasn’t until my first marriage – which my then mother-in-law not-so-lovingly referred to as a “mixed marriage” because I had grown up reform[4] and he conservative[5] – that I even knew that there was a second day of Rosh Hashanah.

My brothers and I all attended Hebrew school on Sunday morning as well as Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  And, despite occasionally skipping class and, instead, hanging out at the IHOP which was conveniently located directly across the road (and, not for nothing, happened to have great french fries)  we all crushed it at our respective Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.

We did not keep a kosher[6] home.  Nor did we know anyone who did.

We did not eschew pork products, but actually enjoyed bacon on the somewhat regular.

We chanted our Haftorah[7] portions beautifully, but, in my case (and I am relatively certain at least one of my brothers…) it was mostly from memory having listened to the tape recorded lessons over and over and over and over and over again.

We, along with the Lewis family, consistently got the giggles during services resulting in my father’s shoulders shaking up and down in a vain attempt at suppressing his laughter. This inevitably led to my mother (repeatedly) nudging him to stop.  Note: more often than not, her pokes would backfire, resulting in peals of laughter from every Levinson and Lewis in attendance. Was it appropriate? No.  Was it our little tradition and now fond memory?  Yes.

None of us know how to daven[8], but we are great with humming along to all the familiar prayers, songs and melodies.  I’ve even managed to master the beginning and the end of the Kaddish[9].  Sort of.

All that being said, both of my brothers and I created our families with Jewish partners.  I even did it twice – the marry part, that is.   It never occurred to any of us to do otherwise. In fact, when my brother (yeah, the same one who memorized his Torah portion) forced me to try online dating I reluctantly agreed but would only go on JDate…and we all know how that worked out!

Our Jewish identity, in our iteration, is solid, strong and undeniable.

Now…Barry grew up wayyyyyyy more observant than I did.  He went to Jewish Day School (but only for four years – a distinction he asked that I include).  He can daven, and follow a service (hell, he could lead the service).  He bows and bounces on his toes at the right moment. He knows when to stand and when to sit.  Likewise, he dutifully wears and removes his Tallit[10] at the right moment, without having to look around the room to see what others are doing.  He follows the Torah portion – IN HEBREW – as opposed to vaguely following along in English.  And, while we do not keep a Kosher home…bacon is verboten.

I respect his level of observance.  I marvel at the depth of his knowledge and commitment.  I readily acknowledge that he is more learned and schooled than I.  And I am okay with that.  It is he that chafes at my lack of what he deems commitment to my religion.  So today, over a delicious meal of Greek yummies, we entered into a philosophical discussion about what it means to be Jewish.

(Below are photos from our post Rosh Hashanah services this year.  Following temple, we went home, changed into comfy clothes, grabbed iced lattes and enjoyed the beauty of the beach…)


Shabbat services (which, I should note for the record, we attend every other week during the school year) are, for me, a time to be quiet with my thoughts.  I take in the melodic rhythm of the Hebrew, the music, the whispers around us.  I try to embrace one of the main tenets of Shabbat and let go of the week that has passed and reflect on what was wonderful and try to push past the stuff that sucked.  I’m dressed a little nicer, my mind is a little quieter and my soul often feels just a little bit more whole.  That’s what works for me.

For Barry, services are much more of an audience participation event.  He follows the prayers, the Hebrew, the English, the traditions and the rules of what needs to be done.  He davens.  He chants.  He, in his own inimitable way, relaxes and reflects. That’s what works for him.

So, in our chat over pastitzio, lamb gyro and Greek salad, we discussed, here in the midst of the High Holydays that neither one of our ways was right.  Okay, so full disclosure, I, um,  started the conversation…feeling a bit defensive if you really want to know).

Me: This is how I “Jewish”.

Him: But don’t you want to learn to daven and read Torah and know the service?

Me: No.

At the end of the day, we each need to respect the other’s needs, experience and process.  We need to be kind: I won’t make bacon if you don’t give me shit about not knowing how to read Hebrew.  (But did I mention that I killed it at my Bat Mitzvah?  “Chanted beautifully”, they said.)

Yes, I do find joy in listening to Barry and his youngest son singing a night time (at least I think it is unique-to-nighttime) prayer as the little guy readies for bed.  I love hearing them share that moment.  It is nothing that ever happened in either my home growing up, nor while my children were kids in my own home…mostly because I didn’t know the prayer.  Or the tune.  Or, frankly, the meaning. But it doesn’t make me any less Jewish.

On this High Holiday season my wish is for happiness, health and good fortune for my family and friends.  I pray for this year to be better than the last, for the insanity of our world to become even a little less insane and for no one to feel alienated, fearful or alone in the world. I reflect on the mistakes and wrongs of last year and hope that I will be forgiven by those who I have wronged, upset or pissed off and, that if those I hurt cannot move from that, I will find a way to redeem myself.  I want my kids to be comfortable in their skin and with their path in life.  Bring it on 5777.

I will admit, however, that my prayers are in English and I’ve been known to do my reflecting while enjoying a good ol’ BLT.

 p.s. My email address that I have had forever is  That, just so ya know,  happens to be my hebrew name.  So there.




[1]  Jewish New Year.  This year is 5777. That explains the photo above.

[2]  Day of Atonement

[3] Evening service of Yom Kippur.  Think of it as the kick off to the fast the following day.

[4] One of the major movements of Judaism, believing that Jewish law was inspired by G-d and one can choose which laws to follow.  Pretty chill.

[5] One of the major movements of Judaism, accepting the binding nature of Jewish law but believing that the law can change.  In laymen’s terms: the stricter movement.  (No judgment)

[6] Describes food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws.

[7]  A reading from the Prophets, read along with the weekly Torah portion.

[8] Pray. Observant Jews daven three times a day, in addition to reciting blessings over many common activities

[9] prayer in Aramaic praising G-d, commonly associated with mourning practices

[10] Prayer shawl

2 thoughts on “How Do You Jew?

  1. Well, I guess I need to stipulate a few things here, considering the fact that I rarely comment on anything my wife posts (and I guess, that’s OK here).

    The “Him” comment referenced here was something I said a long time ago, and actually never brought back up again. The _actual_ comment made today is something we all should aspire to (myself strongly included):

    We should all aspire to be more than what we are. We can not be the true role model for our kids (and our partner) if we tell them to do one thing, but we do not follow it or believe in it……”do as I say, not as I do”.

    Religion (IMHO) is an anchor, particularly for children. Yes, this opens up a Pandora’s Box about this subject, but to be truthful, no religion is perfect (not even mine). So long as what your religion teaches does not harm others, or spurns hatred of others, and allows for religious tolerance of others, that is better than nothing at all (again, IMHO). Off the soap box I go…

    In regards to being more than what we are, that is the _true glue_ that keeps a marriage together, makes the bonds stronger, and plays a great role in the children’s happiness. One cannot go through life… through a happy marriage, with well adjusted children….. without _growing old together_ ; emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. THAT is what I am referring to in being more than what we are, and becoming more than what we are.

    The more we grow, the more we are intrinsically to each other and the greater positive effect we have on our children.

    To all those out there who understand: Shannah Tovah O Meh’Tu’kah – happy, healthy, sweet and prosperous New Year to you and your extended family. May this year be better than the last year. May you and yours be written in the Book of Life and the Book of Sustenance.

    Baruch (and yes, that is my real name…. Julie should tell you about that in a future blog)

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