I used to label myself a secular Jew. Then it evolved to non-practising Jew. And even that’s not quite right.
I struggle to find a label that encapsulates both my general detachment from Judaism and the fact that I still pepper my sentences with Yiddish-isms and attend High Holiday dinners. I went to Associated Hebrew Schools, graduated from the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto 13 years later, met my husband at Camp Shalom. I walked with Israel every spring, and I danced every Yom Ha’atzmaut, dressed in blue and white, waving my Israeli flag high up in the air. In Grade 5, I won best Purim costume, and couldn’t have been prouder.
But that was then.
My last foray into Judaism, outside my immediate family, was more than a decade ago. I wonder, now, if my link to Judaism has become too diluted for me to find my way back in any meaningful way. Can one stray from the community too far, for too long, to ever rejoin it again?
I live now in a part of Toronto with one of the smallest Jewish populations, where tzatziki is far more common than hummus. I don’t have children who attend Jewish day schools or summer camps. The synagogue I grew up in has long since felt like the right fit for my more secular views. Yet, the humanist Rosh Hashanah service I dragged my family to, where we sang Blowin In The Wind, swaying hand-in-hand with our neighbours, missed the mark for me as well. My late mother’s candlesticks, the ones she lit as I stood beside her every Friday night, sit candle-less in my home, purely ornamental. They are a decorative reminder of a past, lovingly scripted by my parents, in an effort to raise Jewish children.
I calculate what it cost my parents, year over year, to send me to a Jewish school and camp and I call my father to apologize.
“Do you feel like it was a waste?” I ask him, “to have worked so hard to send me for so many years, when I don’t practise any of it?”
“Of course not,” he says. “I made a choice for myself, to educate my children and expose them to Judaism so that they, in turn, could choose for themselves.”
His words settle on my shoulders: he made a choice. I, too, must make a choice. My Jewishness will never again be a given. It is something I have to choose for myself. It is an effort I have to make, wherever I live, with whomever and whatever surrounds me. It is a faith I need to find and embrace in a way that accommodates the person I have become.
I retrace the steps that carried me away from Judaism, the tip-toes upon tip-toes that have accumulated into this wide chasm.
Our best friends live across the street and my friend suggests we make dinner together Friday night. Like me, she is a former day school graduate also struggling with a Jewish identity.
“Why don’t we try making Shabbat dinner?” she suggests.
Exhausted from the work week, my husband and I usually order in dinner on Friday nights, often too tired to boil water, let alone roast a chicken. Perhaps, though, this is how it starts: first with a state of mind and then with small tiny actions, one step back at a time. Perhaps we can start our own small community right here, exactly where we are, without any need for labels or cause for judgments. We don’t need to have all the trappings – the siddurs and the Havdalah ceremonies and the talmudic debates – just us and our good intentions to carry on.
“Yes,” I tell her. “I’ll bring the challah.” n
Wendy Litner is a lawyer and writer living in Toronto. You can read more of her musings at SadintheCity.com.