Temple has become a place to ask questions about God; to think; to wonder; to explore feelings that seem out of place in the everyday world.
My rediscovery of Judaism has been and continues to be much like an archeological expedition, a slow process of uncovering layers of meaning within our tradition. The journey has been largely quiet, undramatic, and internal. I am not a mystic whose soul is divinely captured; I didn't go to Israel and feel the power of my forebears surrounding me; I have not studied my religion deeply. Nonetheless, each fresh piece of information I find contains promise. And the journey has taken place within the walls of a particular and very special place.
That place is my temple, which has become in all ways a true sanctuary for me. It is a place of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional well-being and creativityand because of it, my knowledge of and appreciation for the religion I was born into have been expanded in uncounted ways. But let me offer two disclaimers, lest I sound like an advertisement: when I speak of my temple, I know that it is one of many that share the same qualities. And my discovery was unintentional; I simply (and gratefully) stumbled into it.
I had a loving, easy-going childhood, and for a long time in my adulthood I did not know or feel that anything was missing. As a child and young adult I possessed a strong, primarily cultural, identification with Judaism. My parents inculcated a respect for our religion and our ancestors, and I absorbed Jewish values, especially those relating to ethics and education. But I chose not to go to religious school, and since our synagogue (at that time the only one in town) was Conservative and I didn't know any Hebrew, I couldn't actively participate in services.
As a child, I never considered that Judaism might help me answer questions that probed the purpose and meaning of our lives. One evening while my father and I took a walk together, he made a comment that has stayed with me. Showing me the stars, he reminded me that in the context of the wide and glorious universe, we are very small participants. I wondered then (as now) what we are meant to do on this earthand went on to live, as others do, busily playing, working, and occasionally examining life's meaning.
When my husband and I started a family, we joined a Reform synagogue in Connecticut for the Hebrew naming of our first child. We clearly felt a need to connect more strongly with our Jewish heritage. The Reform environment was very welcoming, as we didn't need to pretend to have knowledge we didn't possess.
In 1983 we moved to New Jersey and inadvertently found the temple that has become a second home to us. We joined simply because the congregation offered a Reform setting and was a few blocks away from our new home, and we wanted to have a naming ritual for our second child. We knew nothing about the clergy or the laypeople. In other words, we were (to use my children's expression) completely "clueless".
We joined the temple's parenting group, attended special services geared for preschoolers, and began making friends. A few year later, our children started religious school and we all went to children's services together. I became active as a volunteer, chairing a committee that created our temple preschool. The whole family worked on fun events like Purim carnivals and charitable projects that helped Russian emigrés and homeless folks. The warmth of our temple had enveloped us without our even knowing it. We had found a sense of community and connection.
This experience was fulfilling on a secular levelinvolving, but emotional and social in nature, and somewhat limited. I knew that I also needed to revisit the larger questions that had lingered in my mind and heart concerning our purpose on the planet.
My real initiation into the more spiritual aspects of Judaism occured when I lost my 34-year-old brother in a car accident in 1989. Until then, everything had seemed to go smoothly for our family. In that startling moment we discovered that randomness in the universe can topple one's sense of equilibrium. And, out of an increased need for deeper meaning, we turned again to our temple.
Temple became a place to ask questions about the nature of God; to think; to wonder; to explore thoughts and feeling that seemed out of place in the everyday world. In our fast-paced society, there is little tolerance of grieving, a slow process. We learned about the Yizkor service as a place and time for remembrance. And during Sabbath services and conversations with our clergy, we learned that our temple was a place that allowed us to be ourselves.
In my quest for a well-rounded, examined life, I have found no single answeronly the awareness that every lived moment has potential that is ours to realize. Within the past few years, our family has grown both intellectually and spiritually. I am studying Hebrew vocabulary and grammar; my husband has begun studying Torah chanting. Our son became a bar mitzvah and is now part of the high school evening study program; our daughter is preparing to become a bat mitzvah.
I feel fortunate that my temple offers an environment that welcomes searchers at all levels. When our family first attended services at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel many years ago, several older members of this large (over 800-family) congregation came over to greet us, an uncommon act of human caring that signified a place where people valued extending themselves to others. In my temple, the love of Judaism is joyous and energizing, and Jews are able to nurture their dreams, question their experiences, and learn from themselves and others. I am grateful to dwell there.
Jill Menkes Kushner is a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, NJ.
Mitchel Sommers, Who Do You Think You Are?
After thousands of years, I'm not going to be the last Jew in my family.
After five years of living in Greensboro, North Carolina, I decided one Sunday morning to take my 8-year-old daughter to religious school at Temple Emanuel. She didn't want to go, we had a fight, I laid some Jewish guilt on her, and she finally came 'round. Just as we were getting ready, Mom announced that she wanted to take Devon to the mountains to pick up her brother. And there I was... again...torn between the easy way outletting Devon go with Mom, my morning free to walk and read the paperor sticking to my guns and insisting that religious instruction take priority. As usual in our "being fair" family, Devon went to religious school for an hour and then later went with Mom.
When Devon and I arrived, I was amazed to see so many families. Sunday morning, it seemed, was the heart of Jewish communal activity. Parents who would love to stay home and relax were choosing something else for themselves and their children.
I was glad to see that Devon regretted leaving early. I went home in a daze. Something was very heavy on my heart. I tried to hide from it, but it was still there the next day. I was reading the Psalms and suddenly glanced up at my dresser, which is adorned by a beautiful photograph of my grandfather's family in Poland before the Holocaust. And then it hit meMitchel Sommers, who do you think you are? After thousands of years, are you going to be the one who ends your family's ties to Judaism? Is it going to be you who forgets how important it is to pass on those treasures you inherited to your children? Are you going to be the last Jew in your family?
Then, a few weeks later God touched me in a way I had never thought possible. I left Friday night services feeling very frustrated; I'd tried so hard to connect with God but nothing happened. I was feeling empty, disconnected. I started questioning whether I was looking for something that didn't exist. When I got home I was alone. Don't ask me why, but I got out my grandma's Shabbes candelabra, dug out the tallis and yarmulke my grandpa had given me on my bar mitzvah day, and turned out all the lights. Sensing the light from my grandma's candles and the warmth around my shoulders from my grandpa's tallis, I felt so humble, so vulnerable. I chanted the blessings and allowed the moment to happen. Suddenly I realized how important Judaism was to me, and how important it was to share that with my children. God had been so good to me. I decided to begin a closer relationship with the Almighty.
My plight may be different from others. I was married to a Christian. We had chosen to expose the kids to both religions and let them decide. Susan started taking the kids to church and Christian Sunday school. Who was I to object? After all, they are half Christian, and she wasn't stopping me from taking them to temple. It was only "fair."
Forget fair! I've got to do what I think is right and important. My family told me it is my responsibility as a Jew to go to cheder, learn how to read Hebrew, become a bar mitzvah, observe Shabbat, and never forget who I am. They showed me by living it. These obligations have endowed me with a sense of pride, commitment, heritage, tradition, and spirituality. Don't my children deserve the same?
Our original plan was to let our children "choose" their religion, but how can they if they don't understand what they are choosing? A bagel, a kosher hot dog, and some Chanukah presents won't cut it; I will lose them for sure. It is my responsibility to offer them a full Jewish plate. Then, as adults, they can choose whether they want to live their lives as Jews or not.
Right now, there is very little Judaism in my family's life. What a haimish day it would be in our household, and with so little effort, if I were to bring to our daily routine a brachah before each meal; more Judaica around the house; kissing our mezuzah (I don't think it's been touched since the day I hammered it onto the doorpost); lighting Sabbath candles together; reading a Bible passage; telling the children a bedtime story about their grandparents or great-grandparents or about their Daddy as a Jewlittle things, but precious things.
In the past I was too hasty in making Judaism a low priority. I was too tired, too busy, too preoccupied, too broke, too pressured. It's time now to get my priorities in order. So maybe my Sunday mornings won't allow me to stay in my pajamas after 9. Maybe my bowl of ice cream will have to wait as I send my kids to dreamland with a meisa about Zayde and Bubbie. Maybe dinner will be delayed a few moments as my son and I find a yarmulke to prepare for the meal's brachah.
Maybe this way my children will understand how special it is to be a Jew. Maybe I will get the same naches my grandparents did when they saw me become a bar mitzvah. Maybe my children won't make the same mistake when they get married, and issues like religion and faith will be discussed beforehand. Maybe, with God's blessing, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Mitchel, Mitchel's children, and Mitchel's grandchildren will all be Jews.
Mitchel Sommers is a member of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.
Yes, I Am A Genuine Jew
In time I learned the blessings and began to sing them alone at home on Shabbat. They brought a warmth into my life I had never known.
I am the daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father who raised me as a Christian. Until age ten I knew nothing of my Jewish roots. One night my mother, by then divorced, and I were watching "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" on television. When the movie ended, Mom broke down in tears and revealed that her mother had disowned her after she married a Catholic, my father.
Aside from my anger at the deception, I did not know how to react to this revelation. My entire spiritual context had been based on the rigid rules of Catholicism as transmitted by Catholic school teachers and a superstitious Italian grandmother who feared God but didn't aid my understanding of spirituality.
As an adolescent I felt a tremendous need for God in my life and naturally turned to Catholicism. At seventeen I chose to become confirmed but found no satisfaction in my spiritual life. Not knowing any other path, I gave up on God.
In college I became friends with a number of Jewish students. They didn't know much about Judaism, so I didn't learn a lot, except that Jewish law defined me as a Jew. I wanted very much to know what that meant, because I did not feel Jewish.
In law school, I finally made friends who identified strongly as Jews, both spiritually and culturally, and asked them endless questions about Judaism. I wanted to understand the differences between Judaism and Catholicism, beyond the obvious fact that Jews did not believe in Christ. For the first time the answers I received satisfied my spiritual longings. I was especially drawn to the realization that Judaism focuses on living righteously in the present because it is the moral and just thing to do, not because it might lead to a better afterlife or because some fearsome and unforgiving God might punish you.
The more I learned, the more my thirst for further knowledge grew. So I began to participate in various Jewish holiday celebrations, all the while feeling like an imposter who did not really belong. When I moved to San Francisco upon graduation, I stayed away from the synagogue until a friend urged me to go to Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and speak to Rabbi Yoel Kahn.
Timidly, I met with Rabbi Kahn and asked him how to continue my search. He gave me books to read about Jewish history and law, holiday celebrations, and living as a Jew. Most importantly, he encouraged me to celebrate Shabbat at home and to come to temple on Friday nights. I was terrified. As I didn't live with any Jews then, any home observance had to be initiated by me. I did not know the blessings and did not feel I had the right to lead them. I doubted that I would be welcomed at services, imagining that my Catholic upbringing would be obvious to everyone. I had convinced myself that no one would see me as a "genuine" Jew.
In time I learned the blessings and began to sing them at home each Erev Shabbat. They brought a warmth and spirituality into my life I had never known. I began to attend Friday night services as an observer, and soon learned the prayers, blessings, and songs. I read everything Rabbi Kahn suggested, and more. I studied Hebrew and enrolled in the UAHC Introduction to Judaism class.
A turning point came during a leadership Torah study session led by Rabbi Kahn. Each congregational leader in the room was asked to describe God. I feared that I would finally be exposed as an imposter because I was ignorant of the "Jewish" response to this question. Luckily, as one of the last to speak, I was able to listen to the answers of the "genuine" Jews. I was amazed and delighted to discover that each person's response reflected what I had always felt in my heartthat God is all of the beautiful things in life, like nature, laughter, love between two people, and most importantly, the interconnectedness of all things. This was my first inkling that perhaps I was in fact an authentic Jew.
Since my initial involvement with Sha'ar Zahav, I have led numerous services, including Erev Rosh Hashanah, sung with the ensemble; chaired and served on several committees; acted as a cantor at two weddings; and presided over a baby naming. My Jewish partner and I were married by Rabbi Kahn under a chupah by the Pacific Ocean, where my mother's ashes were scattered. I never felt the presence of God so strongly as I did that day, embraced by the love of family and friends.
In the years since I began my journey, I have discovered my roots, my history, a connection to a community linked in time and space, and a context for my own spiritual strivings that feels natural to me. Though I have not completed my journey, in the process I have found myself.
Susan V. Gelmis is a member of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, CA.
The Spy Who Came Into The Shul
Working behind the Iron Curtain as a secret agent led me to rediscover my identity as a Jew.
I had a long way to "come back." Like many young Americans, once I was confirmed (at Temple Beth El in South Bend, Indiana), my Jewish practice virtually ceased. I went off to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, made a few Jewish friends there, and participated at Hillel during my first semester. I found the Jewish sorority girls unpleasant and avoided them.
After my graduation in 1953 I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Germany. The only thing Jewish about me was the "J" on my dog tags.
After moving to Sweden under the GI Bill, I attended services once at the Stackholm synagogue but didn't understand a word of the service. I went to a meeting about Israel, where someone rudely elbowed me out of the ticket line. I left in disgust.
In 1957, I was sent to Russia under cover. As part of my preparation I had obtained a map of Leningrad. Evading the ever present KGB surveillance, I sought out the synagogue. I couldn't read Russian street signs or speak the language. Lost, I spotted a small boy who looked, as the expression goes, like ten Jews. I will never forget the look of alarm on his face when I asked him, "Synagoga?"
Looking around to see if we were being observed, the boy motioned me to follow him. Without saying a word, he led me to the synagogue door, gave a nod to show the way, and kept on walking as if we had never been together. Such was life in the communist police state.
Once inside the rather gloomy building, I found myself among a gathering of half a dozen elderly Jewish men, obviously pensioners. None of them knew English, but a few World War II veterans spoke some German. My few words of Yiddish and elementary German aided communication. They asked me to sign the visitors' book and presented me with a photograph of the bimah with its eternal light. A brief, whispered tour followed, along with a gestured caution: that young, bearded man over there was not to be trusted. KGB.
The congregants welcomed me as a long lost cousin, a beloved relativea Jew who had dared venture behind the Iron Curtain all the way from America. In the Soviet Union, citizens had to obtain special permission to travel beyond a hundred kilometers of their home.
Encountering these poor, frightened people reminded me that my father's family had been butchered in a pogrom simply because they were Jews. The intense kinship I felt in the company of these Leningrad Jews marked the beginning of a change of attitude that would bring me back to Judaism.
Three years later, in the Stockholm synagogue where earlier I had not understood a word of the service, I married Ulla Hintz, a German-born convert to Judaism. We returned to the United States; I took a teaching job in Alton, Illinois; and we immediately became active in the local Reform synagogue.
In the mid-sixties we moved to Houghton, Michigan. I awaited my new job with anticipation, but despaired that we wouldn't find any Jews living in the wilds of the state's Upper Peninsula. To our delight we discovered that Houghton was home to a small congregation with a beautiful synagogue, and we enthusiastically joined. We quickly learned that in Houghton it's so difficult to get a minyan together, one dare not make an excuse. In a big city a Jew can be indifferent, but here every Jew counts.
How could I be indifferent or inactive in our congregation when in Russia to frequent a synagogue often resulted in losing one's job, being declared a parasite, and imprisoned? Here in the forest among the Ojibwa Indians, we Jews may be mere threads on God's tallit, but we conduct our lives as if the fate of the Jewish people rests in our hands.
In Houghton Ulla and I have raised our three daughtersAnna-Lena, Belinda, and Cynthiaas Jews despite their growing up without a Jewish peer group, a Hebrew school, a Jewish library, regular worship services, or a rabbi. We built a family library of Jewish books and celebrate the major holidays with our small Jewish community. Our chavurah meets every two weeks, and we watch a Jewish video once a month.
Several years ago, a Soviet Jewish familyAnatoley and Yelena Melamud and their daughters Vicki and Alenamoved to town. It was a wonderful, yet strange experience for them: In Russia they did not have to do anything to be Jews; it was on their passports. In America, especially in a small rural town, being a Jew required participation!
What joy I experienced that day I called Anatoley to the bimah for an aliyah. As he recited the prayers publicly for the first time, I recalled my own re-initiation to Judaism. To have an ex-Soviet Jew celebrate his Jewishness on our bimah has closed the circle, bring back the memory of those Jews in Leningrad who had awakened the Jewish spirit within me.
Harley L. Sachs is president of Temple Jacob in Hancock, Michigan.
A Home For My Soul
Synagogue is the place where my love for life converges with a love for the infinite.
Whenever I tell a friend or acquaintance that I attend synagogue weekly, their response is usually, "I didn't know you were religious." I then feel the need to apologize for my new-found spiritual awakening. I am not as embarrassed to confess that at age 40 I do not have a full-time job or a husband. But to reveal that a single New York City woman attends synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning is like admitting to cheating on the bar exam.
Often their next line is, "You must meet some nice men at that synagogue." "I don't go for that purpose," I reply. They look at me bewildered, as if to say, "Why else would you want to go to synagogue?"
I then feel the need to explain that I was once a social butterfly, surrounding myself with attractive men and women and leading a hedonistic existence. I danced until 4 a.m. at Marrakesh in West Hampton and became the life of every chic party on New York City's Upper East Side. I traveled extensively in Mexico, Jamaica, and Europe and still know where to buy the best shoes in Florence. I spent hours on the phone listening to the details of my friends' romantic liaisons and became adept at solving their interpersonal problems.
Reflecting on those times, I realize that all those parties and boyfriends only stimulated a desire for newer clothes and better looking boyfriends. What I didn't find was inner fulfillment, the kind of contentment I now feel sitting amidst the stained glass windows in the cavernous calm of New York's Congregation Emanu-El. For 45 minutes every Friday evening and an hour and a half on Saturday morning, my body, mind, and spirit come together in perfect harmony. Uplifted, I exit into a world that seems lighter and less hostile.
I remember my temple days in Detroit, MI, where I never learned Hebrew at temple because most Saturday mornings my best friend and I would sneak out of confirmation class, go shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, and return right before our parents picked us up at noon. This seemed like the right thing to do at age 14, but I now regret this decision because I can't read the prayerbook in Hebrew.
Ironically, it was my experience at the Siddha Yoga Ashram in upstate New York five years ago that intensified my Jewish identity. Through courses and intensives, I learned to mediate and sing Sanskrit chants. Experiencing a path to my heart I never knew existed, I found myself longing to be in synagogue. I started attending services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and during the week whenever possible.
Today, worshipping as a Jew has become a priority in my life. Synagogue is the place where I regain psychic composure and find inner peace, where my love for life converges with a love for the infinite.
The Union Prayer Book has renewed significance for me. I not only repeat the words, I live them as well. When I read "And when in thy wisdom, Thou sendest trials and sorrows, grant me the strength to bear them patiently, and courage to trust in Thy help," I try to surrender control of my life and trust that God has a purpose for sending me tribulations. When the prayer book speaks of forgiving others who have wronged me, I listen and try not to hold grudges or angry feelings.
At lonely times I am comforted by the religious dedication and eloquence of Rabbis Ronald Sobel, David Posner, Richard Chapin, and Amy Ehrlich. One sermon, "The Desert Experience," has been especially meaningful to me. Rabbi Sobel spoke of a man who was lost in the desert without water for three days. The man survived by his singleness of purpose and inner determination. I have been working on staying focused in my life, despite my bouts with negativity and self-doubt. This sermon and my continued spiritual practice have taught me that through singleness of purpose, determination, and faith, I can reach my goals.
Diane Susan Feen is a member of Congregation Emanu-El in New York City.
From Marx To Moses
I had to confront my feeling of being less than fully a Jewa feeling I couldn't remember ever being without.
At a special Shavuot service this year, I was one of nine men and women to celebrate completing our synagogue's first adult confirmation program. As I have laid claim to a Jewish life only recently, in middle age, it was a first for me too.
As a "red diaper baby," I was raised to believe that religion is a tool used to distract people from an awareness of their economic exploitation and from the need to fight for social justice. When I became an adult, I didn't condemn religionI dismissed it as irrelevant, the refuge of charlatans and weaklings.
I don't remember whether I felt any need to revise that appraisal when in the early 1970s I began attending Quaker meetings, or when, a decade later, I found my way to the Unitarian Church. What I do remember is that at both places, I was comfortable only as long as the focus remained on ethics and social action. But whenever a Quaker delivered a "message" from God, or a Unitarian rose to sing a hymneven one stripped of virtually all Christian God-referencesI would feel like the Jew I was: the wrong person in the wrong place.
That feeling drove me into religious limbo, where I remained until late one night in 1988, when my despair over the insufficiency of radical politics became acute and the limitations of a class analysis became clear. Such an analysis could define social structures; it could delineate the contradictions of capitalist economics. But it could only assume a human will to moral action; it could not inspire it. Thus, if not a political ideal, what was it that held me so powerfully to ayes, commandingmoral and ethical standard?
As I sat at my home office desk, in tears, my eyes glanced upon a photograph on a nearby bookshelf of the maternal grandfather I'd never known. Was he the source of this standard, I wonderedhis values, his Judaism? Had my mother repackaged those valuesreligious valuesin the context of socialism, and passed them down to me?
These questions led to others. Heading toward 50, did I really want to stir this pot? Could I commit to a belief system I assumed demanded unreasoning faith? Would I, totally ignorant of Judaism, be willing to study and learn history, tradition, ritual, liturgy, and, most daunting, Hebrew? Most of all, did I really want to risk asserting my right to do these things as a Jew? Was I ready to confront my feeling of being less than fully a Jewa feeling I couldn't remember ever being without?
I knew that as the son of a Jewish mother I was as much a Jew as the next, despite the Catholicism my father renounced, despite my Italian surname. But in the 1940s interfaith marriage was less common than now, and the shame that attached to my mother's marriage to a non-Jew attached, in turn, to me. My parents never argued about religionsocialism was our religion, after alland I was brought up to be an ethnic Jew. I had always felt, however, that in the estimation of my mother's family, I wasn't quite Jewish enough.
I decided then that I could overcome my ignorance of Judaism. I knew I already had a measure of what some might call faith. What I didn't realize was that it would take me five years before I would feel entitled to live the Jewish life that has become my life.
As a symbolic first step, I unearthed from my bureau drawer a corroded silverplate Magen David pendant, presented to me on my eighth birthday by an older cousin, and began to wear it. I bought my first kipah and my first Bible. I read voraciously, discovering again and again the direct link between the ideas of Judaism and the ideals I had been taught to live by.
This succession of discoveries was enough to sustain me for quite a while. In time, however, I began to feel an urgent need for a teacher and a community. And, though I don't think I understood it then, I needed to pray.
I took the next step, entering Temple Israel, the local Reform synagogue, and meeting with the man who is now my rabbi. The encounter is a blur to meexcept for Rabbi David Katz's final words as I got up to leave. Indicating with an outstretched hand the temple building around us, he said, "This is your home." No Jew who takes his or her identity for granted can imagine the impact of those words. I joined the congregation only weeks later, in January of 1993.
For months at Friday night services I sat near the sanctuary exit, convinced the attention of the entire congregation was focused on my unmoving lips. But very slowly, through a combination of independent reading, Torah study, regular attendance at services, and participation at two UAHC Kallot retreats, my knowledge, competence, and confidence increased. By 1994 I had learned enough to volunteer as a summer lay leader at Torah study and Saturday morning services, and even to substitute as chazan (cantor). And last fall, in a curious sequence reversal, I, an adult confirmand, entered Temple Israel's adult b'nai mitzvah program.
These are the public, formal parts of the processthe services, ceremonies, and certificates. But the really significant parts take place in private. These are the bursts of discovery and connection, as when:
I find the textual source of a phrase from the liturgy and another piece of the puzzle falls into place. After months of singing "Mah Tovu" at services, for example, I was delighted to discover it in the Bible, in Parashat Balak, which I was reading in preparation for Torah study. "Imagine," I thought, "it's the Bible I've been singing!"
I recognize the challenge halachah poses to my way of life. When I began to read the brilliant Orthodox thinker, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, I had already begun to perform a number of ritual mitzvot, which I thought of as touchstonesas reminders of my connection to God. But Soloveitchik's The Halachic Mind helped me understand halachah as much moreas, in Soloveitchik's view, "the act of seizing the subjective flow and converting it into enduring and tangible magnitudes." This definition transcends the simplistic conception of halachah as merelya set of rules one might or might not choose to obey. It challenges me to elevate and ennoble every moment of my life.
I realize I've arrived at a personal theology that can accommodate the low points of doubt. I can't support conceptions of God as a heavenly puppeteer, as a butler who does our bidding, or as an engineer of outcomes. What I have discovered I can do, through the mechanisms of an evolving rabbinic Judaism, is acknowledge a force that compels me, that courses through me and through everything that lives. The occasional doubts my theology can accommodate are about myself, not about God.
But the most satisfying discovery has been a slowly developing recognition of myself as a Jew. I no longer have to cling to the remnants of ethnicity, to my fondness for kasha varnishkes, or to my ability to spout Yiddishisms as ways of declaring my membership in the tribe. I am now defined as a Jew in the only ways, it seems to me, that really matter: by what I know and what I do.
Dan Icolari is a member of Temple Israel in Staten Island, NY.
The Art Of Jewish Self-Discovery
The land of Israel is mine; it is feeding me for the future.
Filling out government questionnaires in Poland in the 1950s caused endless arguments in my home, particularly concerning the question of nationality. My stepfather maintained that I had no right to list myself as a Jew because I was unfamiliar with the Jewish language, culture, or religion. That was true, but only because my communist parents made any trace of religion taboo. Nonetheless, I regarded my parents as Jews. The evidence was indisputable. They spoke Yiddish at home, and our diet was different than our neighbors'we didn't add sour cream to soups and sauces or eat pork chops or "bigos," a typical Polish dish made of sauerkraut and various meats. We used more garlic, the fish tasted sweet, and the pot for milk was only for milk.
My mother aspired to be a painter, but housekeeping and raising children consumed all her time. Sometimes, when sewing clothes for us, she would pick up a piece of chalk, sketch mysterious scenes on the edge of her sewing machine, and then quickly erase them. It was only in the last years of her life that she resumed painting, capturing on canvas a melancholy Jewish spirit.
My mother's preoccupation with painting had a decisive influence on me. From an early age I used drawing and painting to express my moods. This interest led to my acceptance by the Wroclaw Academy of Fine Arts, where I met my future husband, also an artist. At the time I considered myself a Jewish atheist. Our daughter's birth, however, awoke in me a spiritual awareness. Painting became a means of discovering my hidden selves, revealing a deeper wisdom and struggles I dared not approach on a conscious level.
In 1974 during a workshop for painters in Osetnica, near Wroclaw, I created a piece of conceptual art that looked like one of the many miniature religious shrines found along European country roads. I called the piece "Chapel of a Daily Bread." The village priest blessed my construction and the local country folk sang and prayed before it. That event became widely publicized in Poland. As a result, in 1978 I was invited by Professor Janusz Bogucki to the meeting in Laski, near Warsaw, of artists whose work dealt with the question of the sacred. Outstanding philosophers and theologians gave lectures in Laski, among them Father Jacek Salij, who also writes about the connection between Judaism and Christianity. Through these encounters, the figure of Jesus became real and close to me. I began to embrace Christianity and decided to become a Christian. The ceremony took place in December 1981 in a Wroclaw church that served as one of the main centers of the Solidarity movement, in which I was an activist.
My life took a fateful turn in 1987, when my mother received a letter from my father's family inviting me to visit them in Israel. My father had been killed by the Nazis in 1942.
I applied to go abroad with mixed feelings, anticipating that my Christianity would be unacceptable to my family there. I saw what a shock it had been for my mother and stepfather, who viewed my conversion as regression into a despised, pre-scientific era.
Being in Jerusalem, especially during the time of Passover, rekindled an awareness of the bond to Judaism I had felt as a youth. I began keeping a diary. One entry read: "This land has such charm and all embracing calm. It is mine, and I feel it is feeding me for the future. I cannot live here, but I stem from here and my spirit will remain here. Here, suddenly, I have begun to understand that my fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that we escaped the Egyptian (and every) captivity, and that the Word constantly comes true. I hope that I too will find my part to fulfill."
In Israel I began sketches for the series "Through the Promised Land to the Holy Land." One of the paintings shows the light beaming vertically from the clouds to the Earth, with Jerusalem suspended in between, illuminating the world. In 1995 that painting was presented as a gift from the mayor of Wroclaw to Pope John Paul II.
Since my voyage to Israel, I have started to read, learn, and think about Jewish culture and religion. I am finally beginning to understand the Jewish obligation to faithfulness through the acceptance of Torahto be a "chosen people." I have since found a Jewish community. My experience in the Judaic camp in Rychwald, organized by the Lauder Foundation and led by Rabbi Michael Shudrich, has provided a door into the re-emerging Jewish community of Poland.
My current work challenges Poles to re-examine their attitude towards Jews and to reject anti-Semitism and prejudice. In my "Heritage I" series, including paintings such as "What about Six Million of My Relatives" and "A Call for Unity," I have tried to create a "space for a dialogue," to tell my fellow Poles that Jews are not a biblical artifact but a continuing and vital presence. "The Heritage II" series, shown in the Wroclaw Town Hall in February 1995 and at the Polish Consulate in New York in April 1995, symbolized Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
This spring, while exhibiting my work in the U.S. for three months, I attended Sabbath services at several synagogues, discussed Shavout with teenagers in a suburban Reform congregation, and prayed in the Orthodox Shlomo Carlebach Synagogue in Manhattan. The variety and scope of Jewish religious life in New York inspired me to get involved with the Jewish community in Wroclaw. I want to recover everything about the Jewish tradition that I missed because of my parents' disdain for religion and my own ignorance.
Perhaps my quest for Judaism is best captured in Jiri Langer's story about a poor Jew, Isaak Jekeles of Krakow. One night in a dream a voice told him to go to Prague. He did so, but was stopped at the border by a guard. Isaak explained that he was going to Prague to retrieve a treasure that had been promised him in a dream. "If I believed in dreams," the guard said, "I would have gone to Krakow. I dreamt that a great treasure was hidden under the stove in the apartment of the Jew Isaak Jekeles." The guard motioned for him to go. Instead, Isaak returned to Krakow and found the treasure buried beneath his stove.
I have begun to dig under my stove.
Mira Zelechower-Aleksiun is a painter living in Wroclaw, Poland.