I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking. I think most people have.
I was sending some random tweets to a friend last week, and I captioned the exchange by saying “… I think this year has made me, and there’s no other way to put it, insufferably Jewish”. (Now, I know I’ve always been insufferable. I was merely commenting on the nature of the insufferability these days). He responded by first assuring me, “that’s not a bad thing” (which is how you can tell he is, indeed, one of my Jewish friends). Next, he said something that’s made me reflect a lot, that “a lot of this year has been identifying what you value”.
What do I value?
My family, certainly. A nice glass of scotch after a cold day, sure. My work, maybe (I value being good at what I do more than doing it, if that makes any sense).
Me, though? Do I value myself? Of course, if asked, I would’ve said yes. But I don’t think I truly valued myself as much as I should. And I think a big part of that was not having a way to value myself. A framework, if you will.
One of the ways I’ve found to value myself, and figure out how I fit into the world, has been embracing being a Jew. One of the morning brachot says “baruch atah hashem, she’asani yisrael” – I wake up thankful to be a Jew. But what does that mean in 2020, in San Francisco?
Time for a little aside.
For almost 20 years, I have brushed aside the notion of prayer. Why should I pray, when I don’t really believe that there’s an audience for those prayers? Cue something like a decade of cynicism.
I intentionally stopped attending Hebrew School immediately after becoming bar mitzvah. I was suspicious of the number of in-groups the synagogue had. I heard so many Jewish friends deride anyone who became “more observant”. I thought every form of observance was an obstacle to living a “normal” life.
Fast forward to 2016.
I started traveling, an in particular, that year I went to Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, and Budapest. All cities that used to have robust & beautiful Jewish populations. Cities where the Jews were wiped out in the Shoah. Where the only remains of Jewish life are synagogues turned into museums, devoid of their congregants.
Those trips stirred something inside me. Tears, certainly, but the haunting beauty of the old synagogues stayed with me. I returned back home to Chicago, attended High Holy Day services at the local shul, and that was it.
In the lead up to this year’s days of awe, I spent some time listening to some talks put out by the synagogue I’d attended the year prior. (I jotted down some ramblings at the time, both prior to Rosh Hashanah and right before Yom Kippur.) One week, the focus was on the Unetanneh Tokef. Particularly the conclusion. U t’shuva, u tefillah, u tzedakah ma’avirin et-roa hagzerah. But t’shuva, tefillah, and tzedakah can transform (or temper) the harshness of the decree.
I’ll skip the (very interesting!) debate about how exactly that’s supposed to work. But one explanation has stuck with me, months after the close of the gates on neilah. It is the idea that the acts of t’shuva, tefillah, and tzedakah change us, transform us.
And that’s the first explanation of prayer, tefillah, that has resonated with me. Why pray, if I don’t believe it can change the world around me? Because I know for certain that it can change me.
We repeat the same prayers over and over, every day, every week. When I was younger, I found the repetition to be rote. Now, I draw comfort from it, the same comfort you feel when wrapping youself in the hug of a tallit. The words, the melodies, the sheer familiarity helps focus kavanah, intention. The intention to really think about family members who are sick as I pray for healing. The intention to be able to pray the words of my heart, even if they’re not written down in the siddur. The intention to want to be myself, the best version of myself, the only version of myself.
Because there is no version of me who is not a Jew. There is no part of me that can’t appreciate the magic of Shabbat as it rolls around, every single week. There is no part of me that does not weep and mourne for the thousands of years of trauma our people have endured.
This year, I hosted my own Seder for the first time. I hosted my own Rosh Hashanah dinner for the first time. (Both meals I cooked for 10. There is no other way to do a holiday meal). I started attending Kabbalat Shabbat services weekly at one synagogue. I called into Havdallah weekly with a different shul. Attended high holy day services on my own, from my living room. I blew my own shofar (sorry, neighbors!) I read Jewish books, listened to Jewish music, made Jewish tweets.
In a year that’s seen so much turned upside-down, this is where I found comfort. This is what my actions say I valued. This is what I valued. This is who I was.
Why even bother writing this down?
Because I want to proudly & openly embrace this facet of myself. Because I want to undo the decade of distance I forced upon myself. Because, like prayer, the point is to transform myself, into the person I want to be. And saying it out loud is just a part of how that works.