How have I learned from my suffering? Just ask the mini-me

I thought working at j. would help me navigate the High Holy Days this year. If anything, it’s made things harder. It is testing my mettle.

I am not what you’d call a secure Jew. I feel Jewish, I just don’t do Jewish all that well. The holidays only heighten that dichotomy and my internal dialogue. Being at j. puts the issue in my face.

This ambivalent relationship has been going on for decades, and I’m weary of it. For all the suffering it’s caused, you’d think I’d have either decided to recommit and move forward, or ended things for good. But like one of those marathon marriages where splitting up is no longer an option, I’m afraid I’m in it for the long haul.

I’m great with Jewish culture and history. But I’ve yet to find a way to practice the religion that feels comfortable or relevant, and the older I get the less I want to try.

The last time I felt at ease in synagogue I was a child, attending services and religious school in San Francisco, focusing on friends, activities and the Jewish-centric social scene. My mom was in charge, and I was a very good girl.

A few vivid memories linger from holiday services at Congregation Beth Sholom: the tingle of excited recognition that everyone around me was Jewish, the sound of the shofar, the lumpy seats, Rabbi Saul White and his sneakers, the tedium, and my wondering why we kept repeating prayers when we all wanted to go home.

As an adult, I’ve tried a few folksy, donation-friendly synagogues, mostly for the benefit of my kids. (My atheist husband doesn’t figure in.) If I’m already skeptical about synagogue, paying for tickets is too bitter a pill to swallow. I’ve also attempted a stripped-down approach by focusing on foods or nature. But none of it stops the self-doubt: I’m doing it wrong.

I envy those who aren’t similarly troubled, who have none of my uncertainty. Are they better off? I suspect so.

It might be easier if one of them would just tell me straight out what to do, like my mom did. But I know I wouldn’t follow that buttinsky’s advice.

Adding weight to my burden is my limited tolerance for group activities. Most challenging are the groups that come loaded with assumptions — about beliefs, behaviors, participation and the like. These have some kind of gravitational pull that makes me want to get as far away as possible, as soon as possible.

So I stay outside the box, looking in on all the confident Jews, self-assured and holiday-primed. My Jewish credibility feels tested with every “Shanah Tovah!” and “Are you going to services?” (For the record, this year is still a question mark.) I think I need to carry the Jewish version of an ACLU card, but what would that look like?

I recently found an old file in my garage, helpfully labeled “Jewish Stuff,” containing childhood documents. These very well may provide the evidence I need.

One is a certificate of honor presented by the Beth Sholom religious school when I was just 41⁄2. It notes my attendance and punctuality (so important when you’re 4), as well as my “correct deportment.” It apparently was a keeper, as I have about eight more of them.

Another possibility is a memento from my 1975 confirmation, listing the speeches given by our class, with uplifting titles such as “How We Have Learned from Our Suffering.”

But perhaps the most telling piece of history, one that I think offers the best perspective, is a handmade Rosh Hashanah card to my family. I’m guessing I was 7 or 8, based on the crudely drawn shofar. “I am writing this Rosh Hashanah card because it is such an important holiday.” (My religious education clearly was paying off.) I solemnly conclude: “I deeply express my attitude toward this important holiday.”

Yes, that’s right, my attitude toward the holiday. Now, it’s easy to conclude I meant to write “gratitude.” But I prefer to think this mini-me was reading the future, predicting that I was going to be one of those outside-the-box Jews, and I’d better have the attitude to go with it.

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.