My first Shabbat service in more than 20 years was in Jerusalem. An atheist Jew, sitting on a hard, limestone terrace with my wife, a secular agnostic, under a hazy, thick night sky with 19 other couples who, outside of similar demographics, we barely knew.
Our Rabbi invited us to join him in prayer if we knew the words, or felt so inclined. I silently declined. Even when I went to shul, I was never one to speak or sing much — I could never keep tune, and the one time I did at another synagogue, it was a completely different tune than I’d known, and I was so embarrassed I didn’t join in again [side note: I am very happy I am no longer 12 years old].
Sh’ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.
Hearing the sh’ma — to the tune I knew, no less — brought about an incredible sense of home I didn’t know I missed. Or wanted. Or even needed, for that matter.
For the longest time, I treated being Jewish as something about me — like freckles, or love of eggplant parm — rather than a part of me. My Zeida gave me a book about a year ago entitled, “How to Get More Out of Being Jewish – Even if You’re…,” which had a whole list of qualifiers that indicated, essentially, ‘Yes, you still are Jewish, even if you don’t think you are.’ I realized in reading, so much of my Judaism came from family holidays: it wasn’t something I got to share with friends at all growing up [save for the bar mitzvah party], but it was the time I was guaranteed to see people I loved, and who loved me… and eat some incredible things I couldn’t have anywhere else. Moving to Minnesota meant that my entire, natural connection to Judaism stayed back in New York and New England. And for a while, I didn’t miss it.
Most of my childhood connection to Judaism was a form of pain and/or burden [“Hey, you have ADHD, and you sat still for 6 hours of school. Nice work! As a reward, you’ll learn a language in a way that gives you no practical use… outside of the place that’ll take away your Friday nights for the rest of time. Also, have some stale bread.”]. The idea of going to a shul I don’t know, surrounded by people either older than my parents or younger than 12… while also giving up those all-important Friday nights? Let’s just say, it wasn’t a hard sell to stay in and grab a pizza.
But if there’s a time and place to give a Shabbat service another chance… my first night in Jerusalem seemed a worthy site.
After our [very brief] service, we all chatted a bit in an open discussion. One person mentioned how, even if he didn’t understand the words, he could appreciate the group reverence [“Ignorance can be bliss,” I think is how it was termed, with a much-nicer meaning than that phrase is usually said]. When his words helped me articulate an inner question I’d had — “How can I say the sh’ma and participate in the service, if I don’t believe in God?” — immediately, a [now] friend in our group chimed in that he’d had the exact same experience. And the more we all chatted, the more we found kindreds among our group.
That feeling — of connecting to your past, present, and future; to feel and question your heritage while forging new community — was so comforting, even more so because that comfort can be so fleeting. I was finding a home I’d forgotten I had, with friends I never knew were mine, in a place I didn’t know I belonged.
I’m going to hold on to that night as long as I live.
Ian Fishman is a local, Jewish comedy writer & essayist. Ian has been writing professionally since adulthood, contributing essays, jokes, and reviews all over the Internet. Currently, he is the copy editor and a contributing writer to the Hard Times, an internationally-recognized satire publication rooted in punk rock; as well as a joke writer and contributor for 30Watt — a local gag-gift company that makes Ugly Hanukkah sweaters, amongst other party products.