Yesterday I went to a Sabbath service.
It wasn’t just an ordinary Sabbath service.
It was the first Sabbath of the Jewish New Year.
It was the first Sabbath service I have attended with Moisey, my Jewish partner.
It was the first Sabbath service I have participated in for twenty years.
It was the first Sabbath service I have seen where the Rabbi is pregnant.
So much came up for me during the two and a half hours I sat in my seat. There were only a handful of people in the large sanctuary, and most of them were quite elderly. The Rabbi is a young woman with a two-year-old son and another child coming within the month. I wondered how it felt for her, a young mother, to be leading a congregation where young people do not attend Sabbath services.
I thought back to my own childhood Jewish experience. I was born in Vienna, Austria in January 1938. Six weeks after my birth, Hitler marched into Vienna, and the Nazis took over the city, cheered on by the majority of the Viennese population.
My Jewish experience began with my knowing that, because I was Jewish, I was a victim, and I had to flee the land of my birth. We left in 1939, and, although I was too young to understand in words what was happening, I’m sure I perceived it at a cellular level. What else could have been the subject of almost every conversation around me, except how terrible things had become, and how we had to leave, and the possible fate of loved ones we were leaving behind.
In Montevideo, Uruguay, where we migrated, I was always aware that I was an alien, and not a particularly desirable one, at that. There was no synagogue, and the only Jewish Holiday celebrations I witnessed were at home, with only our small family present. There was no sense of belonging or community associated with our being Jewish. Only fear, alienation, and persecution. How many times I heard my mother say how lucky we were to be alive.
After the war, we were able to come to the United States and be reunited with some of my mother’s family who had also been fortunate enough to escape the Nazis. One of my first memories of my first weeks in Richmond, Virginia was attending a gathering of young people in a Jewish temple where we watched a movie in which Frank Sinatra sang a song about America, the land of the free. I was touched by the lyrics and astounded to learn that everyone in the auditorium was Jewish! I didn’t think there were that many Jews left in the world!
I was sent to Hebrew school and Sunday school and went every week to Sabbath services. Although I was still very much an outsider, even in the Jewish community, I felt somewhat more at home because I felt safe in the synagogue and the Jewish Community Center. In the year after I came to Richmond, the Jewish Center burned to the ground, and there were rumors of arson, which brought back some of the fear.
Still I took advantage of every opportunity to go to Jewish events. My mother, who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, was thrilled with my interest and participation. As a teenager, I became the president of B’nai Brith Girls’ Club and was confirmed in the synagogue at age sixteen. That ended my participation in Jewish life, except for an occasional attendance at High Holyday services.
At eighteen, I married a Jewish boy/man from Chicago. He had been raised in a Jewish neighborhood, his high school was 95% Jewish, and he never felt like a minority.
Although he had reluctantly endured Hebrew school till he was thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah ceremony “liberated” him from having to go to the synagogue again. The holidays were “celebrated” (I use the term loosely) at my in-laws’ with a big meal with chicken soup with matzo balls. All my mother-in-law’s friends were Jews, but my husband wanted no part of being involved in the Jewish community.
We were married almost twelve years before we joined a synagogue and only did so because our first-born was a boy, and he needed to get ready for his Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful party. I made all the dresses for my four daughters, all the place cards and centerpieces for the tables, and wrote poetry for the candle-lighting ceremony. It really brought back to me the joy of my religious heritage.
The following year, we moved two hundred miles south to Springfield, Illinois. We made no contacts with the Jewish community until one of my kids (there were six by that time) came home from school and announced that he was not going to let anybody know he was Jewish. The next week I drove to the synagogues and inquired about Sunday school! If my children were considering giving up their religion, they would at least know what they were rejecting!
During the High Holyday services, the Rabbi discussed the imminent beginning of Sunday school, announced that they still did not have a fifth-grade teacher, and he “threatened” to appoint one from the pulpit if no one came forward to volunteer. I was so disheartened by this thought that I spoke up and volunteered.
That started my volunteer career as a Jewish professional. I spent the next eight years immersed in Jewish activities and causes. I taught Sunday school, chaired committees, attended endless meetings, endured many long phone calls, decorated for festivals, participated in reading from the pulpit, and cooked thousands of meals in the temple kitchen. Becoming Sisterhood president earned me a position on the Temple Board of Directors (the only female position on the Board).
My marriage was a hard one for me, because I had a very controlling, dominating husband who was regularly abusive to the rest of the family. We always felt intimidated by him, and there was a great deal of stress in the household. With the advent of the Women’s Movement, I learned that there might be another world for me to consider, and I started working part time and going to college. Soon I was too busy to participate in as much temple activity, and I found I had less and less in common with the women who were still enmeshed in volunteer work. I wanted to move on and see what else the world had to offer.
When my husband began to lose complete control of me, my marriage faltered and finally dissolved entirely. When I graduated from the university and found a full time job, I decided to leave the house. With this resolution, I lost the support of my religious community. It was not OK for a Jewish woman to leave her husband.
In the fall, when my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, I became the first woman ever to give the “parents’ address” during the service. I remember it was Succoth, and I talked to my daughter about changes in life, about beginnings and endings and growing up to be your own person. The next week I moved out of the house.
I continued to pay my temple dues so my daughters could go to Sunday school, but I attended infrequently and did not feel very comfortable when I did so.
There have been so many changes in my life since that time. They span the course of human experience, and I have survived many sorrows and celebrated many joys since then. My life has been a rich mixture, and there were many lessons in it.
Yesterday, as I sat in the synagogue and stood on the bimah, the memories flooded over me, and I felt overwhelmed by the feelings they brought with them. At this time of reflection, I reflected:
What was I doing to serve God and the Jewish people? I have raised six wonderful children who have become good, responsible partners, parents, and members of their community. I have achieved a Master’s Degree in Social Work and have been actively working in Social Services, as well as volunteering in community organizations which address vital issues concerning the quality of life for all the people in my community.
I hope God is pleased with me.