I’m Jewish. In that statement there is a multitude of implications. I’m observant, but I don’t view myself as religious. I am a spiritual person, but I have other spiritual interests outside of Judaism – and some of those interests would invite disapproval from the more orthodox (with a small ‘o’) Jews out there. I’m married to a man who is a Pagan – technically a Hedge Witch, some of his observance is intensely private, and some of his celebrations involve the whole of our extended family.
To me, Judaism is much more than a religion. It’s a culture, even to some extent an ethnicity – Ashkenazi Jews are something like 40% more likely to develop an inflammatory bowel disease than people who aren’t – the Chosen People indeed. Non-observant, non-believing Jews still often identify as Jewish. I both observe some of the religious customs and services, and believe in a Jewish G-d, although my belief in higher beings is not limited to the Jewish G-d (it’s traditional not to write the name of G-d in full, in any language or alphabet). I have all kinds of opinions about Zionism – which I intend to keep to myself:-) We do not keep Kosher, but we do buy Matzahs (unleavened bread) for Passover.
I married ‘out’ (to a non-Jew), as did my mother. My father converted to Judaism, but my husband did not. Thus our extended family has a lot more non-Jewish members than Jewish members. This has become evident recently as we organise our eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. At the age of 13, in the Jewish tradition, children become adults, and are then allowed and encouraged to read from the Torah scroll on behalf of the whole community. This is something that any member of the Jewish community can do if they wish. In Orthodox communities, the privilege is limited to men, but we belong to a Reform Synagogue, so women may also read from the Torah scroll, and have an equivalent celebration called a Bat Mitzvah.
In many ways, a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) is like a wedding without the bride (or groom). Family, including the non-Jewish contingent, come from far and wide to attend the Sabbath morning service at which the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) will read. There are presents, and a celebratory buffet afterwards. There are suits and frocks to be bought, and also the child’s first Tallit (prayer shawl).
Our eldest son is currently diligently learning his allotted portion of the Torah. This is decided in advance, and it’s a good job too – it’s in Hebrew, and not just in Hebrew, but reading directly from the Torah scrolls involves reading Hebrew without the vowels (unpointed Hebrew). The usual process is to learn the piece off by heart and use the scroll as a prompt to the memory. If nerves overcome the reader, there is always a warden with the pointed version ready to prompt. Although there are many people present, and the service has a very well defined format, there’s an air of support and informality to every service, including a Bar Mitzvah service.
Although 13 is the traditional age, and the age of adulthood according to Jewish tradition, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration can take place at any age. Today, I went to Synagogue for the Shabbat service, and it happened to be the Bar Mitzvah of a member of our community who was somewhat elderly – accompanied by four generations of his family, from his wife to his great-granddaughter. It was a lovely and happy occasion.
To me, all of this is normality. But in trying to describe it to various non-Jewish people I meet, it must be alien, and rather odd. There are so many varieties of Judaism – the most usual, visible forms are those seen on TV, and even then they vary from the ultra-orthodox communities as seen in Manchester and Golders Green, to us, the Reform Jews, who observe with personally chosen levels of orthodoxy, some of whom drive to Shul on Saturdays when they do go, happily eat bacon sandwiches and don’t really believe that G-d inscribes their names in the book of life once a year. Even the US and UK versions of each variety of Judaism are slightly different.
There is a saying, which also varies – something along the lines of, put two Jews in a room and you get three opinions. No Jew is a cookie cutter Jew. We each have our individual relationships with G-d, or not as the case may be, with our traditions, observances, learning, community. And yet there are numerous ties that bind us together. A sense of humour, an attitude to life, a feeling of family, an enjoyment of community, a shared history. Many books have been written on this subject and I don’t pretend or aspire to be an anthropologist! This is my view of my religion and culture…
In the end, my view is, I don’t feel proud to be Jewish, because it’s not something I chose. Rather, I feel lucky to be Jewish. I don’t think it makes me better than anyone else, but it certainly does make me different in some ways. I think I’m as integrated and British as any other Brit, but I’m always aware of the immigrant history in my background, albeit four generations ago, when my Great-grandparents came to England from Russia, Poland, and Germany. Fiddler on the Roof may be a slight dramatisation of their lives, but I’m told it’s not far off the reality, and some parts of it are familiar even to my Reform family today. You may have noticed the number of times the word Tradition has come up in this post. Not for nothing is the first song in that musical called Tradition.
I do think it’s essential to examine traditions to see if they are constructive, or if they’ve outlived their usefulness. We no longer keep Kosher, but we try to buy ethically produced food as far as we can, where the animals in question are treated with respect, where the vegetables and fruit are not pumped full of chemical pesticides, to buy Fair Trade chocolate and Rainforest Alliance coffee. We have to drive to Synagogue, because we live too far away to walk. But some of the traditions of Judaism, the Hebrew, the songs, the sharing of food, the celebrations, hospitality, charity, feed my spirit in a way that nothing else can. Whether that’s because I’m drawing closer to a traditional deity, whether it’s part of something deep in my subconscious or rooted in my childhood, I neither know nor actually care. It’s an essential part of me.