Facing My Faith, Part 2

My wife and I spent our twenties more interested in community activism and political causes than in the life of the spirit. Gradually, though, it dawned on us that something was absent from our world: a genuine sense of rootedness. We lived 3000 miles from our families. Over time, we had outgrown our bohemian world, the world of the young. Finally, in 1980, after my wife completed law school, we packed up and returned to our ancestral home in the east.


Fortune smiled on us; within a few months my wife gained a foothold in a labor and employment firm and I latched on at Newton South High School. Our jobs allowed us to contribute to the general good in a long-term, ongoing manner. Family members lived nearby, and we suddenly felt mature enough to have children.


Becoming parents provided the stimulus, as it often does, to our reengagement with the Jewish community. When my daughter, Malka, was born in 1984, we felt the urge to have a baby-naming ceremony. The problem was that we still hadn’t affiliated with any synagogue. Indeed, conventional religious organizations were still anathema to us; they seemed barren and formulaic in their ritual and spiritual life. No matter- we decided to do the deed at Temple Emmanuel in Newton.


The ceremony pleased us in several ways. First, the community was welcoming to us though we weren’t members. We even chanced upon old family friends in the congregation that Saturday morning, who treated us like prodigal sons come home.  Secondly, to our delight women were now allowed on the bimah, the elevated platform in front. They could even recite the blessing over the Torah, unheard of in Conservative shuls in my formative years. That morning, at age 64 and for the first time in her life, my mother not only stood on the bimah but chanted that blessing. She was both stunned and delighted.


Afterward, my wife and I decided to join a religious community, not just for our sake but for our children’s sake (we planned to have more than one child). Judaism is not a faith to be practiced in isolation. Though one can recite prayers alone, communal rituals are central to its spiritual life. We just needed to find the right community. Now in our mid-thirties, though we had become more conventional than heretofore, a mainstream synagogue still felt too “establishment” for us. Instead, we experimented with smaller communities, called havurot, until, in 1993, we settled upon a minyan whose practice and community seemed to fit us almost perfectly.


By now we were attending Sabbath and holiday services faithfully, the norm in this traditional minyan. We were knowledgeable, a necessity here because this group had no rabbi or cantor running the show. Congregants themselves took turns leading prayers and delivering sermons. Inspired, I took it upon myself to learn more, and soon I was a frequent reader of Torah and prayer leader.


In this early, idealistic phase, which lasted over a decade, I found great meaning in the words I chanted and the religious obligations I fulfilled. My Hebrew improved as I not only prayed weekly but took language classes at Hebrew College. Every fall during the Sukkot holiday week, the whole family, including my two children, constructed a traditional sukkah hut, and we ate our meals there whenever possible.


My enthusiasm was palpable, it seems, for after several years the minyan tapped me to be its moderator, our term for leader. During my two-year term, I was first to arrive at services and last to leave. I felt a personal stake in ensuring a spiritually joyful and satisfying experience each week. The elaborate fulfillment of rituals reinforced my sense of membership in an ancient tribe, for Judaism is nothing if not tribal. Anyone who equates Judaism with, say, a sect of Protestantism fails to grasp all of its dimensions. It is no mere religion.


By now a whole way of life had sprung up around my faith. Much of the activity, no doubt, seemed more communitarian than spiritual, but that was all right. Nonetheless, as time passed and I played a diminished role in the group, I began to ponder the content of the underlying faith. The poetry of the Psalms, both in Hebrew and in translation, still delighted me. In contrast, the incessant flattery of the deity in the prayers increasingly struck me as absurd. What kind of God, I asked myself each week, would delight in such primitive obeisance? At times, my prayers and gestures felt empty.


I also observed the behavior of those sects of Judaism who believe most strongly in these gestures: the ultra-Orthodox. What I saw sometimes offended me and undermined my faith. It didn’t surprise me, of course, that they rejected our egalitarianism and open-minded reinterpretation of text for modern times. They had every right to pursue their faith as they saw fit. Too often, though, these communities ignored moral laws that transcended narrow doctrine. The subordination of women seemed cruel and anachronistic. I also felt horrified by their xenophobia, sometimes exploitative business practices, and protection of rabbinic sexual abusers. Needless to say, the extremist religious settler movement in the West Bank only heightened my alienation from the tribe.


Make no mistake about it: Judaism is more than a set of beliefs. Anything connected to Jewish life, from lighting candles to blessing our children, from arguing about Israeli politics to reading about a swastika drawn on a bathroom wall, affects our sense of belonging to the tribe. Paradoxically, the effect runs both ways for me. If I feel better about the tribe, then I take more joy in participating in the ritual life. Fulfilling religious obligation, at the same time, deepens my connection to the tribe. I remain engaged in this life. But I also feel estranged from whole sectors of the wider Jewish community, and this estrangement makes me question the underlying meaning of our rituals and prayers. As of now, I cannot predict if I will return completely to the fold or continue to feel some alienation. It must reveal something that most Saturday mornings you can still find me, prayer shawl on my shoulders, praying with my friends.

In January 1015, I retired after teaching English for 34 years at Newton South High School. I continue as girls' tennis coach there, this being my 26th year in that role. My wife, Dahlia Rudavsky, to whom I have been married for forty-four years, is an employment lawyer on the side of the oppressed. My wife graduated from Newton South, and we have lived in Waban since 1980. My favorite pastimes are writing (see my periodic column in the Newton Tab) and playing tennis. I also help raise funds for Yad Chessed, a wonderful local charity. You might also find me supporting various causes around Newton.

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Jerry Reilly

Great story Bob. I’m not a religious guy at all but i loved the story of your journey. Thanks

Sallee Lipshutz

Bob: I continue to enjoy reading about your transitions. For me, Judaism is just that: transitions. After all, the most important Jewish markings and remarkings are about transitions or milestones in the life cycle: Birth (bris or baby naming), Adulthood (B’nai Mitzvot); Marriage, and Death. (I personally am happy not to study too much about that eventuality). The ritual is there for the taking…or leaving. Who cares what the Ultra-Anything say? I leave Zealotry to the Zealots. Jews don’t have an earthly regent. Some of us believe that what we do here is what counts. Others think it’ll be better after death. Neither is heretical. I can easily belong to a tribe that allows for the loosey-goosey adherence to religious ritual, albeit with a moral underpinning. I’m not a bra-burning feminist…but early on, I rejected Orthodoxy in favor of being able to sit with my husband at religious services! Religion may be the opiate of the people…but people don’t have to smoke all the time!

Tom Sheff

Bob, great story.
I belonged to Temple Emanuel growing up. My family was active there, my father was the head usher during the high holiday services. When they built the new schull they doubled up in membership dues and that’s when we started questioning what the temple was all about and left. We had some colorful rebbi’s, Rabbi Chiel and reverend Lori were the two I remember the best (don’t ask me why they called him Reverend, I don’t know).
You’ll get involved if/when you are ready. Mazel Tov in your future plans. Take care.

Tom Sheff

Hi Bob,
On a side issue: While I got you, I was wondering, do you think the city is doing enough to combat (lack of better word) the people who are responsible for the swastika? Do you think that there can be more the city can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?? Same as racism, anything the city can do better?? I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am, over all the swastika and the racists remarks. Just curious. Thanks.