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Measuring ‘Jewish’

Event at synagogue

“We’re not very Jewish, are we, Mom?” The question from my six-year-old daughter Maya blindsided me on a Friday afternoon. The two of us were on a road trip in Olympia, Wash., and as dusk crept stealthily upon us in the mid-afternoon, she realized Shabbat was coming, and our usual celebration thereof was nowhere in sight. A caveat: I’d made challah and Shabbat dinner plans for the family back home before we left, but somehow I’d neglected to make arrangements for the two of us.

My mind started racing. We could pick up grape juice, candles and a challah-substitute from a grocery store in town and make Kiddush in our hotel room, I told her. It was better than nothing, but even as I said it, I knew it would be a pretty flat way to ring in Shabbat with just two of us in attendance. So I started surfing the Internet and learned the city had three synagogues. One of them, a Reconstructionist shul, was just a hop, skip and a jump from our hotel and had regular Friday night services, followed by an Oneg Shabbat. So we purchased an edible contribution to the Oneg and headed over in time for the 7:30 p.m. service.

I’m not overly familiar with the liturgy of a Reconstructionist synagogue, but Jews are Jews, and it was comforting to find ourselves in a Jewish sanctuary, even if the prayer book looked quite different from the one I was familiar with. A group of comparative religion students sat at the back of the synagogue, their cellphones nested in the palms of their hands. As I walked past them to the front pew, I said a silent prayer that they’d have the decency to put the phones away once the service began.

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The rabbi was out of town and two lay leaders, clearly thrilled to have a couple of new faces in the room, led the service from the bimah that night. There was lots of singing and light in the shul over the next hour, and at Maya’s suggestion, she and I volunteered to light Shabbat candles before the congregation and recite the prayer that welcomes the Sabbath. Later, at the Oneg, we sipped grape juice, munched on challah, hummus and vegetables and chatted with members of the community before heading back to the hotel.

That’s when I started pondering my daughter’s comment earlier that day. How Jewish were we? In her books, when compared to our rabbi back home, it didn’t seem very Jewish to be out on a Friday night with no plans for Shabbat. She was right, of course. I should have been much better prepared.

Our visit to the synagogue had redeemed the situation significantly, but I needed her to understand that Jewishness was not a gauge measured by synagogue attendance. “You are very Jewish,” I told her. “No matter how many times you go to shul, you are Jewish and you have a very special Jewish soul.”

Six-year-old eyes looked back at me, clearly wondering what on earth I was talking about. It was true, though. It had been Maya’s questions, her prompting that led us to the doors of the synagogue that night. She’d reminded me it was not OK to skip even an occasional Shabbat, that there was no reason to, and especially not when we were strangers in a strange town.

It had taken a little effort to get to the right place at the right time, but we left the synagogue doors feeling connected and deeply comforted by the combination of Shabbat songs, familiar foods and warm “Shabbat Shalom” greetings.

I knew then that if Jewishness were measurable, hers would be one of great depth, even at so young an age. So the next time she wonders how Jewish we are, I’ll be able to say with confidence, “Very, my darling. Very, very Jewish.”