Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just a Housewife, Part 2: The Rabbi that Wasn't

From the time I was twelve years old, studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I imagined that I would grow up to become a Rabbi. I consider myself lucky to have been born into a Reform Jewish family where this was even an option. But with the goal in mind, I lived a double life, one foot in my permissive, forward-thinking day school, where my friends were, nearly every single one of them, atheistic or at least staunchly agnostic, whose parents, by definite choice, didn't really "do" religion with them; one foot in our local synagogue, deeply involved in worship, youth group, community service, Hebrew and Judaic studies. It was a weird dichotomy, and I didn't always feel comfortable with my Jewishness in settings outside the synagogue. But I persisted.

In college, I decided to rectify my lack of understanding of other religions, and majored in Religion with a specialty of Formative Christianity. I read the Christian Bible, studied ancient Greek, and had a grand time trekking through the heretofore unknown terrain. I found it quite alluring. Not to mention, I met a man, Sarge, who is Roman Catholic, fell totally in love, and threw my lot in with his. Through all this, though, my desire to join the Rabbinate persisted.

In my final year of college, I went through the arduous application process to rabbinical school, which included a battery of psycho-social testing (IQ, Rorschach, etc. etc.--I think that all these revealed was that I was smart and nervous, no staggering surprise) as well as a round-table interview, ten, ten, rabbis questioning me at great length about my beliefs, my personal history, my intentions...intense for a college senior who was, for all purposes, still adolescent!

I "passed," and was accepted, and made my way to the Year-in-Israel that began the five year program, leaving Sarge behind in a tumultuous move to Jerusalem. I loved living there (and only heard gunfire once; compared to NYC in the early '90s, Jerusalem was peaceful), I studied Hebrew and Aramaic and practiced my homiletics, kept kosher, kept Shabbat, and wrangled with my concept of God and spirituality, accomplishing all that they intended in that year.

In the end, though, I didn't make it through. Not that I wasn't excelling academically. I just couldn't, somehow, put myself and Sarge through so much trouble, as I feared I would if I took on the rabbinate and all that that would entail--we would be under a great deal of scrutiny, as an interfaith couple, and I just couldn't keep apologizing for something that I didn't believe was wrong. And perhaps, too, I wasn't quite ready to assume the mantle of Rabbi--after all, I was so young and still not formed entirely. I came home, to Brooklyn, drinking Bloody Marys and smoking and fretting in the back of the quiet plane. I believed that I was choosing love over a career and a calling.

But I wonder sometimes about it--had I been older, more secure, with better ego integrity, could I have weathered criticism and difficulty in pursuit of my dream, years in the making.

All of this solipsizing has come about because in cleaning up a box of old papers this morning, I came across an essay I wrote, oh my gosh over 15 years ago. I think it may have been one of my Rabbinical School admissions papers, but I'm not sure.

Here it is; I'm not sure about the question I was answering, but can easily guess. Just one of those general admissions essay questions, open-ended. Although the essay itself is not especially well written, I'm amazed at how much I relate to it even now. Things, feelings, haven't really changed for me in relation to my Jewish self-definition. For whatever the reason, I feel compelled to copy it out here:


Sitting in my Yiddish class the third week of semester, I listened to my professor sing a niggun for us, the light, sorrowful melody echoed somewhere far in the darkness of my unconscious, where inchoate shapes of my past took on shadows for an instant and became words, forms, and memories: the soft barrel shape of my grandma Eva, perenially encased in her stiff girdles and orthopedic shoes; mornings at the little kitchen table in upstate New York, struggling over my script alef-bet (then so encrypted that it would take years for me to absorb fully their mysterious rolls and loops); the secret sounds of Yiddish that flew up to the high ceilings of the Brooklyn kitchen where my sister and I ate slices of cream cheese and listened puzzled to my grandparents' private conversations.

I was haunted in later life by the fact that I had grown up in a house where Yiddish was spoken constantly and yet remained utterly without the ability to speak it myself, beyond a vocabulary of about twenty words.

This past year, my sister and I studied the language in two classrooms halfway across the country from each other, but of the same mind. It was a startling experience for me: the language of emotion and sound became one of system, syntax, and words. The Yiddish of my childhood ran together in a wordless tune, the Yiddish of my adulthood formed itself into sentence and meaning; the niggunim my grandma hummed to me as I lay awake at night, a rotund childish body in a great white sinking mattress, held an inarticulate solace which is only now given coherence.

The Judaism my grandma taught me is like these niggunim--the essential value was always there in all my senses, and it was powerful, sad, soothing, yet also veiled in mystery and confusion. Maybe that's a symptom of childhood, that there are no words yet for what moves you most (I don't know whether that's a liability or whether it gives you the ability to form more honest responses). But more than that, I think my grandma gave me this essence--the sight, sound, touch and taste of Judaism--and in her own way, guided me towards my own path and pace.

Hopefully, the learning of words and the articulation of meaning will never end; but I want it to develop naturally, and honestly, as my grandmother intended it should.

Knowing my grandma for so many years, and outliving her, broke my heart. It also taught that memory is the single most powerful aspect of my life and my Judaism. I believe in the abiding power of memory as the thread that holds me to my Jewish past. My Judaism is a complexity of images, songs, stories, the voices and fork-clinkings and throat-clearings and arguments of those who once sat at my Pesach table, of those who sat rustling beside me at temple, now dead, of the tiny questions of those still living but changed and grown.

How many times, crosslegged on the scratchy Persian rug in my grandma's bedroom, did I listen to tales of my great-great-grandfather, a rabbi in Russia, a solemn, unsentimental, yet liberated man, who came to America and insisted my grandmother be bat mitzvahed under his auspices at a time when that was almost unheard of? Or my paternal great-grandfather, the Brooklyn tailor, pious and a little odd? All of this intrigued me, compelled me, drew me deeper into my identification as a Jew--after all, I was part of these worlds too, born a little late maybe, but connected nonetheless.

So... Just a Housewife, not a Rabbi, but Jewish anyway, and still remembering and trying ceaselessly to find ways to keep my Judaism alive. I always tell myself that my story isn't yet fully told.

*wordless Hebrew melodies, often, but not always, prayerlike or mournful


savannah said...

you are an amazing and thoughtful woman, sugar! i am honored to know you. xoxo

Lisa said...

You are truly a woman with many wonderful facets and I hope that you continue to honor us by sharing them!

Leah said...

Thank you both so much for commenting! I was going to take this post down because, well, maybe too overwrought, too personal, but now I'll leave it up...what the heck!

hugs kisses

Karen ^..^ said...

Your paper was amazing. That a girl so young would have such beautifully written insights... I'm honored to have read this.

Your story is not finished... Perhaps it can be told in a best selling book? You sure can write, girl!

I enjoyed this post so much. So cool you went to Jerusalem. Cooler still that you chose love to leave such a place. You are my hero. Truly.


ah sorry... was too enamored with your use of solipsism there... love it, live by it... to continue with your post... will go back...

Jimmy Bastard said...

You constantly surprise me by revealing layer after layer of a deep and meaningful Leah.

It is indeed a stunning, and rewarding combination of beauty, intelligence, and depth that you possess.

A very compelling post. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Ah Leah- your words are so eloquent and evocative- I do agree with Karen- in fact, I will go further- you would be depriving humanity if you do not form your thoughts and insights into a book.

Maybe you do not know how well you write?

Anonymous said...

A long way from the schtedtl to Brooklyn. It falls in one, family, religion, history. What is history else then lived life?

Megan said...


Brandy Rose said...

Very compelling.

Cece said...

Before I can comment any further, I'm going to have to go home and get my dictionary (so that I can comprehend what you are telling me so eloquently). But I hope you're story keeps going for a long time.

Suzanne said...

Holy shit!

Skeeter said...

Hi Leah,

This is one of the beautiful and elequent posts I have ever read. Thank you for writing this. Such a rich experience and faith. Wonderful.

Best wishes,