I was born into a highly observant Jewish family. My mother’s father, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a pious man who loved God. He was a cantor by trade—an ordained Jewish clergy with a magnificent operatic voice who alongside the rabbi led his congregation in Hebrew prayer. Whether in the synagogue or at home, my grandfather sung prayers to God all day long. He never failed to thank Him for even the simplest blessings—things that most of us take for granted. His faith was unshakeable.
Having grown up in an environment suffused with religion, it naturally coursed through my mother’s veins. Judaism was a huge part of her identity. Though Jewish, my father was not raised the same way but he happily embraced my mother’s way of life. Together they shared the traditions my mother was brought up with. It was only natural that they would bring up their children that way.
I am the youngest of three sisters, born thirteen years after Nazi, Germany surrendered and the last of the holocaust camps were liberated. The horrific memories of senselessly losing six million of their people was still fresh in the minds of the Jewish people, many who were still mourning the tragic losses of their loved ones and friends. My family was very fortunate; we were not directly impacted by the losses, though as a community the Jewish people bonded together tighter than ever in support and for protection. They were very fearful of having anyone infiltrate their community.
The message my sisters and I regularly received from our parents was, “Stick with your own kind. The rest of the world is out to get you.” They hoped to insulate us against the hate they believed would be directed at us from non-Jews. That was understandable in a way, but unlike my parents who were raised largely in a white, Jewish “ghetto,” our modern day community was integrated—multicultural and multi-racial.
My parents strived to raise good Jewish girls. As a family we went to synagogue every Sabbath and on all the holidays. We kept a kosher home, complied with all the rules and regulations dictated by modern “Conservative” Jewish law, followed all the traditions the way we were supposed to, and were sent to Hebrew school three days a week for six years. I hated every minute of sitting through those classes but I was well-schooled in the rituals and prayers.
Whenever I questioned my teachers or my parents about the whys of what I was being told to do, the answer was often, “That’s just the way you are supposed to do it—‘why’ does not matter.” That answer may have well sufficed for others but it did not satisfy my inquisitive nature. I have never been one to comply just because I was supposed to. Arm me with logic and I am likely to follow along. Deprive me of logic and you will have a rebel on your hands. I came to resent the religion that I felt was being forcefully rammed down my throat.
As a young adult living on my own, no longer forced to perform the rituals that supposedly made me a good Jew, I became cynical about my religion. I never stopped loving the beautiful traditions of Judaism, the warmth of holidays spent with family, and the comfort of being with those who shared my roots. But I felt no need to go through motions that I had come to realize were meaningless to me. For years I had sat in the temple constantly shifting in my chair and yawning, anticipating the end of the service by counting the remaining pages of the prayer book. There was no longer any reason to sit through religious services that did not edify me—services that were conducted in a language I did not understand anyway.
Others were judging me for my position, though it became more and more apparent to me that many of these people who were supposedly devoted to their religion and whose identities were largely based on it were faithless when it came to their own lives. It seemed as if God had somehow gotten lost in the translation. He was in their prayers when they needed him but He was not always in their hearts.
They truly believed that they had to go to a Jewish house of worship to feel God’s presence—that all the benefits of God could be absorbed by just being in synagogue and by saying Hebrew prayers they had memorized but did not understand. Furthermore, they believed that when God looked down and saw them in temple he would reward them by making their lives better. None of that made sense to me. I did not understand what kept others blindly following those doctrines and rituals.
The God I had been introduced to was one to be feared. He was judgmental and punitive. Those who loved him believed that they had to act a certain way for him to accept and love them back. His presence was authenticated by bible stories that seemed way too farfetched to be believable. As far as I was concerned, God did not exist, other than in the figments of gullible people’s imaginations.
I did, however, understand why Jewish people stuck together the way they did. Throughout history they were taught the essentiality of perpetuating their religion. This need was especially accentuated after having lost so many of their people to the Nazi death camps. In addition, many from my parents’ generation stayed observant because that is what they had been taught to do. Their generation did not question what they were told as we tend to do today.
For many years I did not believe in God or understand the concept of faith. Still I wondered who the God my grandfather loved and revered in heart and soul was. He seemed like a loving, not vengeful God.
I never anticipated that one day my faith in God would be essential to my survival.
Continues In – Through a Simple Twist of Faith, Part Two
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