I’m in my kitchen, gazing out the terrace door and wishing it was warm enough to sit outside. On the table I have a schedule for High Holiday services with an order form for getting tickets in advance. This is the one time of year synagogues fill, Rosh Hashanah inspiring people to a fresh start for the New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the holiest day.
I’ve only been to High Holiday services once in my life, in high school. My girlfriends were going and one challenged me to fast for Yom Kippur. Tradition calls for twenty-five hours without food or drink. I wasn’t that strict but I skipped breakfast and lunch and held out for a late dinner. I took a nap in the afternoon to help the time pass which felt a bit like cheating.
My family were what I’ve since heard referred to as Rye Bread Jews. My mom spoke a smattering of Yiddish and believed in the healing powers of chicken soup, but knew nothing of religious customs. My dad was no different. He used to tell how he’d sneak off to the automat whenever his family headed to synagogue.
I remember my mother calling me once on Yom Kippur and inviting me to lunch.
“It’s a Jewish holiday,” she said. “We should be together.”
When I mentioned that on this Day of Atonement our people traditionally fast, I could practically hear her shrug over the phone.
“God’s just happy you’ll be with your mother. I’m in the mood for Chinese.”
My upbringing left me with a spiritual hunger. In my twenties, I learned to meditate from an Indian guru, the woman Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Gurumayi teaches, God dwells within you as you, which to me feels deeply true. I didn’t know then that this same understanding of God is central to Judaism too.
Since becoming a mother I find myself drawn back to Judaism. The more I read about our faith, the more I see its beauty. I love Judaism’s focus on gratitude and on seeing the holy in the everyday. I love the emphasis on reflection and self-awareness, and on keeping our attention to the present. The core values Judaism teaches are the very ones I wish to instill in Ethan. Yet when I think of going to temple, especially for the crowded all-day services at this time of year, I freeze.
Synagogue is like a foreign world to me. For a while I took Ethan to children’s services, but that fell away shortly after my divorce. Richard started having Ethan for weekend overnights and Friday became my date night. The truth is, while I loved sitting in on the preschool classes with their joyful songs and simple stories, in adult services, I felt like an impostor, embarrassed by my ignorance as I struggled over transliterations of Hebrew. Recently I’ve realized how my discomfort with this is compounded by disability. Those of us whose disabilities only affect our bodies take great pride in our good minds. I hate coming up against places where I feel the least bit lacking intellectually. Unfortunately synagogue is one such place.
Even without a formal place of worship, I’ve tried to give Ethan, and myself, something of a spiritual anchor. When he was small, I learned to say blessings for Hanukkah and the Sabbath and I threw my first Passover Seder. I read Ethan picture books about the holidays and, as he got older, had him tell the stories back to me. The winter he was nine, the first night of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. We were in Nashville, celebrating Christmas with Dan’s family. At sunset, we brought a small menorah out of our suitcase and shared the story of our holiday with them.
But the deepest part of our shared spiritual life takes place on ordinary days. Every night we say our own version of grace at dinner, giving thanks for each other, our friends, dogs, baseball, music, poetry, video games . . . anything that either of us feels has made life especially delicious.
Recently, Ethan said, “I bet grace shows up on God’s Facebook. He gets a message saying, Ona and Ethan wrote on your wall.”
Maybe saying grace sets the tone, because we often discuss matters of faith at dinner. This past weekend, Ethan grew impassioned talking to Dan and me about the theory of intelligent design.
“Science is real. It’s been proven. But someone must have come up with the whole idea!”
“Makes sense to me,” I said.
“And what about the soul?” he added, raising a chicken drumstick for emphasis. “We lose over three pounds when we die. I think it’s the soul going up into the atmosphere or something.”
“What is the soul, do you think?” Dan asked him.
Ethan looked at me. “Our personalities?”
“I believe it’s where God lives in us,” I said. “And where we’re all connected to each other.”
Rosh Hashanah arrives but Ethan and I don’t attend services. We perform Tashlich on our own, tossing chunks of bread into the Hudson to symbolize casting away our misgivings for the year. I think about the fact that Ethan will soon turn thirteen, Bar Mitzvah age, and find myself counting among my regrets that I didn’t offer him a religious education.
“Are you sorry you won’t be having a Bar Mitzvah?” Just this morning he’d received his first embossed invitation from a friend.
“Nah,” he says.
Walking home along the river, I recall something lovely I’ve come upon in my reading. According to Jewish wisdom, one of the holiest places is the kitchen table. I think about our quirky, personal prayers of thanks and our many rich conversations over dinner. Maybe the fact that our faith is something mostly private between us isn’t so bad. I’m certain that I’m offering Ethan a spiritual life with a bit more meat than Rye Bread Judaism. We arrive home and a name for it greets me. Kitchen Table Judaism.
“I’m going to make some tea,” I say. “Come sit with me.”