Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Place To Start

I am looking for a place where I can feel comfortable praying. This is complicated by two factors – the fact that I am not comfortable praying in the first place, and the fact that each place I visit inspires in me the response “This isn’t how I used to do it!” I must then remind myself that I didn’t like how I used to do it, either.

From second grade through high school, I more-or-less attended a Reform temple in the suburbs of Chapel Hill-Durham, North Carolina. There I received – sorry - a poor religious education, surrounded by classmates who hated being there. The underground description of religious education among Jews is “the only place good Jewish kids go to be total assholes.” They threw chalk and spitballs at each other (I know, so retro), talked dirty in chevruta, and hijacked every in-class discussion to return the conversation topic to Duke-UNC basketball games. When our synagogue published the inevitable “Where are they going to college?” issue of its bulletin, highlighting the successes of the few remaining non-dropouts in our religious school program, I was astonished to see that a girl whom I had never heard utter a blessed word since I joined the religious education program in second grade was attending an outstanding university. An arrogant teenager, I had mistaken her decade-long catatonia for idiocy, when it was in fact her defense mechanism against her peers. As she explained to me later, “there wasn’t anything I wanted to say.”

We made Seder plates out of paper, year after year. We learned the tunes for the prayers. What we did not learn – or what we failed to retain – is anything that would place us within the broader Jewish spectrum. A confession: my mother was not Jewish at the time of my birth. In what the Reform movement would probably term a success, and what I would term a failure, I was unaware that the vast majority of the Jewish community worldwide would not consider me Jewish for this reason. This brought me up short during the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer trip to Israel for 26 students of different Jewish backgrounds: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and “other.” I’ve gotten over the pain of being told I wasn’t Jewish – in fact, thanks to the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, I can sit at a lunch table and listen to a fellow Jew say just about anything about me without losing my cool – but I haven’t gotten over my anger at the movement that raised me for drawing its shutters so emphatically against the larger Jewish community. This does no justice to the Reform Jewish community, as it does no justice to the Jewish community anywhere. Too often I see Reform rabbis today crouched in this same defensive position. “They don’t recognize us, so why should we talk to them?” Because you’re pissing off your children, that’s why. You want to be part of the community? You are obligated to sit at the lunch table and take whatever they throw at you, until they’re exhausted. Then the real conversation begins.

1 comment:

Josephine said...


Rachel Sussman's mom here! You know,
I've been on a spiritual quest for
a very long time...Orthodox conversion to Judaism 30 years ago,

Anyway, as to praying. I hated the
whole idea....but something in the
last 5 years made me think that I
should just TRY. So, I went with
the method of talking aloud to God/dess. At first, it's very weird. And then, well, it's pretty
darn wonderful.

Thought I'd let you know. I usually meditate in the bathtub, then talk. Meditation, of course, is the WAY TO GO!!