Incredible elation, happiness, a stunning sense of this is who I am and I am so happy to be this.
That’s how I felt last night when my husband commented about how he loved listening to me chant the prayer over the wine at our Sabbath table. It’s how I felt when I arrived at my synagogue with two of my kids yesterday evening and listened to the water gurgle in the biblical garden that snakes around the front of the building.
It’s how I felt when I walked inside to the small chapel for Friday night services, and it’s how I felt when my voice carried the Hebrew words along with the other congregants as we recited the Friday afternoon prayers and then the Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath and then the Sabbath evening prayers.
You are either born Jewish or you choose to become a Jew, and either way, there is no guarantee that you will like it. You may do the rituals and observe the holidays begrudgingly or you may embrace your ancestral identity with glee.
It may be a burden, an obligation, a treacherous hardship come the fall season, which is upon us, when we have four weeks of holidays that come with their own rules and restrictions that seem so onerous compared to our easy-fix society.
Or it may be a joy.
At 45 years old, I finally feel that this identity, this birthright, this innate heritage is expressly a joy, nothing more and nothing less. And that’s because I observe my religion on my terms, not according to the decrees and wagging fingers of other people.
I contemplate my beliefs in my own way and on my own time. I ponder my observance under the spiritual guidance of me alone. I ask questions when I need answers and I choose my mentors wisely. I don’t engage in guilt; I simply welcome the beauty of this long and rich tradition.
My Shabbat lunch table is set already, from the moments I awoke this morning. In a few hours, my entire family will gather around it for a mere few minutes, recite some prayers, eat the food I’ve lovingly prepared, and then sprint off in their various directions to have an afternoon.
But for a short while, we will be together, linked by the generations that came before us and paved the way for us to continue our traditions.
Some of my children really don’t like being roped into observance, and I understand that, for I was there years ago, too.
Part of being an adult and realizing your own personal path in life includes recognizing that you and you alone are responsible for your spiritual life. You connect with God directly, not through some conduit who cushions the message.
It is you and the Creator, one to one, in silent conversation.
And once you realize this incredible truth, you also realize that you alone make or break your spiritual experience.
And you realize that spirituality and religion are two very different things.
Last night, as my husband glowed in his words toward me, I glowed right back, with I really love being Jewish. I really love our synagogue. I really love going to services and chanting the prayers with everyone.
Because I have the freedom to show up in leggings and a casual shirt or get all dressed up and I am welcomed with a smile no matter what.
Because I have friends who are happy to see me just because I am happy to see them, and no one is judging how or whether I observe, or how often I attend.
Because in the community I finally call my own, there is a sense of welcome and warmth for who you are right at this moment, and the only criteria is to be there because you feel it is your home.
To me, that is the essence of Judaism. And it’s why I am so proud to be a Jew.
Shana Tova – Happy, sweet new year – to all who celebrate. And to the multitudes who do not, I send you the sweetness of this Jewish new year that begins tomorrow at sundown, wishing everyone a legacy of peace and continuity.