The Walk Back

Originally published: 2011-11-18

On October 29th, 2011 which happened to be the first of Heshvan, I went to shul at Or Shalom attend the davenening for the first time in 15 some odd years. It is, I think, a good first step.

I was born and raised in Vancouver. For most of my childhood, I lived in East Van., and my mother enrolled me in the Hebrew School at Or Shalom. I think I was somewhere around the age of ten (I came in just as they were acquiring and renovating their current location in the Scotts Presbyterian church at 10th and Fraser – and that happened in ’93 according to their website).

My mother, by her own admission, was and remains a lazy Jew. It was important for her that I should have a historical context and a cultural understanding of Judaism, but not beyond what was convenient or easy for her. I didn’t really know that Judaism had more than just Passover and Hanukah as holidays until I attended Hebrew school. (Just as I didn’t really understand that Yiddish is its own language, and not just a colourful way to add swearing and slang to English)

I knew the Sabbath as the “day of rest” and that it occurred on Saturdays for Jews, and Sundays for Christians, but the only prayer I knew was for the Hanukah candles.

I went to Hebrew school, I learned quite a bit, and my parents participated in what was required. Mostly I remember my mother badgering my father into wearing the <i>kippah</i>, and my father mostly bored and half-asleep. It was firmly established by both parents that I should look at this as a learning opportunity, but that there was no reason to take a belief in G-d away from it, or to really attempt to integrate into the larger community. (ironically – my mother always pestered me to make friends, but never once bothered me about the other kids in my Hebrew class)

When it came time to make the decision to either continue studying Torah towards my bat-Mitzvah, or to drop out, I dropped out. I knew it wouldn’t be a meaningful experience for me at that time, and if that was not the case, I shouldn’t do it.

Asides for family Hanukah and Passover get-togethers, weddings, and memorial services, I had very little contact with my religion between that decision and meeting Robin. Although in university, I did occasionally check in with the local Hillel chapter.

The question of marrying a goy was pretty much a non-issue – I had never actively practiced Judaism, never kept kosher, and was myself the product of an intermarriage.

Even still – I wanted Jewish elements in my wedding ceremony. Somehow, despite my best intentions, Robin’s group was the most marginalized/under-represented in symbology. We were married by a justice of the peace, we had some Jewish elements, and a Lutheran minister (my father’s 3/4 brother) spoke.

Robin and I moved in together a year before we were married – very close to the first house I had lived in in East Van. I was aware I was once again living very close to Or Shalom, and kept toying with the idea of going back. I kept tabs on their website, and followed closely their decision to allow same-sex (though fully Jewish couple) marriages. I knew Laura had originally chosen them for being part of the Judaism Renewal movement, which I gather is the most “progressive” of the interpretations.

However – at that time I was planning a wedding, and trying to find work. When I became a security guard, I started working nights full-time on a schedule that did not allow me time on the Sabbath to attend shul, so that went to the back burner again.

I had heard about the BirthRight Israel program since, I think, Hebrew school. It’s a program sponsored by the Israeli government, and several private corporations/organizations. If you are Jewish (by dint of either parent being Jewish) and between the ages of 18 – 26 they will sponsor you for a free trip to Israel for 10-days, everything included (airfare, accommodation, food, chartered bus) provided you make your own way to Toronto as the jumping-off point.

But when I had had time before, Laura had forbade me to go because the Gaza strip conflicts and so on were just starting to heat up. When that cooled off for a bit; I was too busy. When I could go; more political fracas broke out.

Last year, down to the wire before my 27th birthday when I would become ineligible, I finally went to Israel in January.

I’m not sure if “disappointment” is the correct word. I was looking for the physical counter-part of the historical context I was familiar with – and I got that. I got to climb Masada and watch a rabbi who is sitting in the temple there, hand-transcribing a copy of the Torah, a project anticipated to take three years.

I got to float, nude, in the Dead Sea. I got to visit kibbutzim. I got to watch the desert flood. I got to go to the Wall. I think I even put something in it – can’t remember what, though. I got to experience Shabbat in Jerusalem.

But I came there hoping to develop a greater sense of Judaism, and I don’t think I found that. I had trouble connecting to the other people on my group – as established, it takes me a long time to warm up to new people, and I had little in common with them. They all lived in Montreal or Toronto (with only one or two Western exceptions), they were mostly unmarried (I think one other was married), and they were all self-starters or entrepreneurs. (Group size: 30) They mostly wanted to do the single mingle thing, I mostly wanted nothing more than to sleep after a day of touring. I was consistently the first one to bed, and I was desperately homesick for my husbands.

(Oh, yeah, and I had to let one girl gel my hair, just to get her off my back about my “shlumpy” appearance – I wasn’t trying to look good; I was trying to look practical and maximize my pockets. It’s called “travelling.” That was lovely and humiliating – then she chose my outfit, and paraded me around, “Everyone – doesn’t Miriam look nice?” I thought we got past this superficial clap-trap in high school…)

Worse, I was struggling with the idea that the conflicts with the Arabs had created an extremely racist climate, and as I didn’t feel that view would be shared, I found myself withdrawing. I find it hard to reconcile that a people, marginalized by thousands of years of persecution, Diaspora, the holocaust, etc would turn around and come up with the solution of building a tree fort in someone else’s backyard and hang a sign on it, “No Arabs allowed!”

There were a series of seminars, exploring Jewish identity or some such, which we all had to participate in. I largely felt that my responses were in the minority. There was also the subtle, but not too subtle ever-present whisper, “You want to immigrate here. You want to have a litter of Jewish babies and grow our population. You want to add your distinction to our own.” Eep!

On the way home, I experienced my most devastating loss. I accidentally left my ancient Palm [pilot] and its folding keyboard, on which I had faithfully written pages upon pages of diary entries, impressions and notes over the trip, in the seat-back pocket on the plane. I called the airline; but they never found it or got back in contact with me. It’s very old, and it doesn’t have the type of memory which will keep the data even if the battery dies. Once the internal battery dies; the memory is gone. I was using it because Robin didn’t want to risk me taking my modern and more expensive laptop.

This is the second worst data-loss I’ve experienced – the first was losing my backpack in high school (accidentally left it under the table at a Boston Pizza after a crew party for one of those awful plays). It had a poetry compilation manuscript, and some poems I hadn’t gotten a chance to type up, most of which I hadn’t saved anywhere else. (I also lost a unit’s (several weeks) worth of Math homework – which was frustrating. Paula watched me finish working on it, and leave for the play, telling me I could “Turn it in in the morning.”)

In the intervening year and a half, I’ve watched the other group members (via FB) get involved with their Jewish communities, after their Inspiring trip, and I’ve mostly grieved for my lost miniature computer, and ruminated on those experiences.

In March of this year, I finally got a full-time position which would allow me weekends off, and then of course we went right into High SCA camping season.

Then I started talking to Graham, a friend I made in the SCA who is a devout Catholic. He’s a Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus sort of Catholic. He’s been making me feel guilty for putting this off, and has otherwise reminded me that it was something I meant to do. We’ve also been discussing kids, which is the other point. I fully intend on raising my kids Jewish, and I don’t want to be the lazy Jew that my mother was.

Laura had no idea how to entertain or engage a small child, so she drove me places and dropped me off on other people she either hoped had a better notion, or would at least babysit me out of her hair for a few hours. I plan on trying to be a more involved parent – although I’m likely to be the “dad.” They’ll learn boffer and archery from me, and I’ll spot them when they climb trees. Robin’s more likely to do the, “Who wants to help me bake cupcakes?”

Anyway, while thinking about all this in amongst writing to Graham, I had mentally pegged Oct. 29th as being the first good opportunity to attend a Saturday morning Shabbat, and had nearly forgotten about it again until that morning. So, I went.

I’m the sort that will spend a ridiculous amount of time making up my mind about something, and then one day I’ll just wake up and do it. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but if you don’t take that step, you never start the journey.

My intentions were to listen and participate, but not yet to talk to anyone. Just watch.

The first thing I learned is that five years in security has made me more prompt than most other Jews. I went past at 09:30, and saw no signs of life. I went and found breakfast, and returned at 09:45, with still very little sign of movement. There was one other person there. Eventually we started opening prayers at about 10:00, with about five or so people present (led by someone in the congregation). That gradually increased to about 20 people. Two-to-one, male to female.

The first thing that shocked me, was the realization that most of the women were wearing <i>kippot</i> and <i>talliot</i>. I had not realized the female minyan and rabbinic studies had gotten to that level. It made me feel somewhat confused and old-fashioned. Not a gender-type I had ever expected to see overthrown. I did know, of course, that the rabbi was female (we had a different female rabbi when I was still in Hewbrew school.) The idea of a woman in <i>kippah</i> and <i>tallit</i> was both startling, and extremely attractive. I see it as a good mix of genderized traditions, as I myself consider myself somewhat androgynous (both, rather than an absence of any)

We did prayers, which were sung in Hebrew of course, with some occasional English translation (which is in the book, anyway). I found that even when I lost the page I could still follow along with the cadence, which follows a bit of a pattern anyway. Maybe it’s also that what the mind forgets, the heart still remembers. My accent is terrible, and when I was following the English pronunciation transliterations, I kept trying to stress the vowels wrong.

There were exactly two young women anywhere near my own age, although the website indicates an active, vibrant youth movement in their 20s and 30s. However, according to the youth group’s FB page, they’re all off doing Occupy Shabbat right now at the VAG.

One of the young women came in quite late, and left quite early. She was also one of the ones with a <i>tallit</i>. I accepted that – she wanted to be here, but could only devote a small portion of her time today. I didn’t get a chance to speak to either of them.

After prayers, the rabbi came upstairs with the families (the website had also indicated it was a monthly family activities day) to lead the Torah portion. Another fortuitousness stroke – we’re in Genesis, just up to Noah. A good place to start.

The Rabbi Laura had wanted to do a play with the children, but her [scant] labour force had gone on strike, so she asked the congregation for volunteers. I dived in and picked up Noah’s hat. It was fun. When we were swaying back and forth on the boat for “forty days, and forty nights” I kept rushing suddenly to the gunwales to be sick.

We seemed to skip past the bit with the birds – raven and dove, and went right from dried-out land, to throwing open the doors, rushing forth and holding out an improvised scarf rainbow, and then we sung and danced.

After I regained my seat at the back, I got a few people shooting me welcoming and curious glances.

We did a healing prayer bit, and I thought of Amanda, the matriarch of Lions Gate, who is now dying of cervical cancer.

After that, it was pretty wrapped up. They were having a potluck downstairs, but I had brought nothing to contribute, and wasn’t comfortable revealing myself yet or socializing. They may wonder who their Noah was – but all strangers may be Elijah in disguise, anyway.

I got caught by one woman on the way out, but I told her I was very busy and didn’t have time today. I promised her I would go downstairs eventually. I didn’t reveal myself to her, either.

Now I get to process and hide again for a bit. I’ve been reading through more of the website, and doing some other general research. I like Or Shalom, and have kept it in my thoughts all these years. It’s time to get back involved, and to start the process now. In general – I’m trying to decide what routines I want to implement, and to become familiar with to already have established prior to introducing a “compact chaotic bundle” (ie kids).

After that, I ran away back home, did dishes, quickly folded up an origami gecko after Dave finally managed to find a suitable pattern. (I figured out how to fix the head – which wasn’t well defined in the instructions) and Dave and I headed out to do recycling, and visit Amanda and Melissa in hospital.

It was a good visit. Amanda seems more frail; and Melissa more deaf, but both were in good spirits, and Amanda seems quite strong. While we were there, Lorelei and her daughter Cassie came in. I gleaned from Melissa and Amanda’s conversation that Teunis, one of my RPG friends, had dropped by in the morning as well.

We stayed about 20min, and left when everyone else cleared out.

I’ve talked a bit to Robin and to Dave about Judaism. Dave is supportive – even up to asking me in his best cheesy fake Jewish accent if I was going to start believing in G-d now. It’s a valid question, but I told him it wasn’t one I was prepared to answer yet.

When I mentioned maybe part of it is balancing out my folks, and my father’s suddenly aggressive strain of atheism, Dave joked, “Wow – so you’re doing this to rebel against your parents? That’s fantastic! You’ve managed to uphold one Commandment [No other Gods..], while destroying another one [Honour thy Father…]” I said, “Yeah – it’s kinda…Jewish of me.”

Robin is more comfortable believing I’m doing this mostly as research for my own persona in relation to trying for Yeoman at SYGC next year. He also mentioned Pascal’s Gambit.

I told him I was concerned that moving more towards Judaism, would cause me to move further from him (something which I had tried to justify earlier to myself as a non-issue since there’s already aspects of our lives we don’t share – the SCA, his programming, my writing – we don’t really believe a couple should have absolutely everything in common, and to fulfill and support every aspect of the other.).

Robin told me he was not threatened by me pursuing Judaism more seriously, and understood that it is also something I was looking to do for our kids.

I reiterated a promise I had made to him a long time ago – that I will never ask him to convert, or participate more than he is comfortable with. I don’t like the image of my father being “dragged along” to shul, and being forced to wear the skullcap. Those should be his choices, and his alone.

Tracey mostly thinks I’ve either gone completely meshuggah, or it’s a phase. But, that’s Tracey.

Robin and I went out for our date night, and I went straight to bed when we got home (I’d only had three hours of sleep originally), but got up around 23:00 which means that I’ve flipped back to nights now.

I had a dream while we slept that someone had desecrated the shul’s shofar by using it as a drinking horn. They had plugged the small open end, and filled it with wine. It was sitting on the podium in the alcove, the way the office used to be like up there, when we studied torah when I was young. I knew I had to unplug it, and somehow drain it, but I woke up while I was trying to figure out how.

The connotations I can see for this symbol are varied – there’s the many facets or purposes of an object or person (instrument, vessel, cornucopia), and that Judaism, as any Faith, is supposed to be multipurpose, and to fit many aspects of your life. That like the SCA, it represents another system of support, and a community. There’s also the feeling of fullness, of the soul as the vessel, and then there’s what it means to have a drowned horn. That sound is muffled, and its voice is silenced. That the music that is at the root of the Jewish spiritual <i>davenen</i> is suppressed.

I have always believed very strongly in omens – the trick is always in knowing what they mean. I think this one means my soul is trying to come back on-line. That I need to stop misusing my Jewish identity, and put my Faith back to its proper purpose. Time to drain the horn, to hear the music clearly and freely, and in so doing complete the guest-rite and welcoming (wrong culture – but there’s cross-over) and that as with Rosh Hashanah just past, and the world after the Flood, now is time for Renewal.

– Miriam Doba

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