I am writing this post after having attended the traditional annual observance of a death, "Yart-site" (sp). I have gone most years since my Dad died, on January 5, 1973. I skipped last year since my mother was in the hospital for a broken ankle, and duties to the living always supercede duties to the dead. This post covers my initial alienation and later return to Jewish life. Though I am to this day not observantly religious, I do now partipate, proudly and actively.
My religious education started, in Scarsdale, New York, during Academic 1967-1968 (Jewish Year 5728) with a lovely Hebrew School teacher on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a very good Sunday school teacher for the religious component of my Jewish education. That year I developed a genuine interest in both the religion and learning Hebrew. This was in preparation for what became my May 2, 1970 Bar Mitzvah.
Thereafter, each year the instruction deteriorated. By my Bar Mitzvah year, Academic 1969-70 (Jewish Year 5730) spitballs were flying around regularly in the religious school class. People were mimicking the thick Israeli accent of the Hebrew School teacher. Myattitude became, essentially, that if the teachers and administration of the Temple [b]didn't care about my Jewish education, neither did I[/b]. I cleaned out desk on May 4, 1970, never to return to religious school. To be fair to the Temple, this was the 1960's, the era of "do your own thing."
Two things, neither spiritual, brought me back into the fold. [b][u]The first[/u][/b], by itself, wouldn't have made a difference. I was 15 at the time. During late October 1972, I met someone at my high school weather club for the first time who I now consider my closest friend, who had a decidedly gentile last name. Let's call him "Jim Smith" (not his real last name). I was telling one of the typical bad "there was a lawyer, a rabbi and a priest" jokes. Mr. Smith interjected immediately "you're Jewish, aren't you? Don't you have pride in that?" Shamefully I conceded he was right. I didn't think we were going to be friends since he was wearing a "Nixon and Agnew in '72" button. I was a member of Students for McGovern. [b][u]The second thing [/u][/b]was more significant. My father, a decided agnostic, was rapidly sickening and dieing that fall. I do note that despite my father's agnosticism, we both walked to Temple on Yom Kippur 1972, about a one-mile walk. I think he knew that it was his last.
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On January 4, 1973, knowing that death was imminent, my mother and I had a long session with our Rabbi to go over the eulogy. He explained much about the Jewish approach to death and post-death, an approach that has a lot to recommend it. he died peacefully early the next morning, January 5, 1973. That renewal of instruction in Judaism, on a serious basis and without the spitballs, really piqued my interest.
After his death, I realized that many of my childhood friends had little to offer. Compared to other high school students arriving from elsewhere in the District they were quite immature. Thus, the story returns to Jim Smith, and other similar friends I made through the Weather Club, the student newspaper and the high school band, which I had joined in September 1972. I pretty much reshuffled my deck as to who my friends were after receiving condolensce notes that were barely written in English from my grade-school friends. And this in an affluent Jewish school district in suburban New York. That spring, I attended, on my own and without my mother the Temple's communal Seder. The next fall, for the first time, I fasted on Yom Kippur.
Fast forward first to last winter. Jim Smith's father died, and I was in attendance at the Shiva. Yesterday morning, his mother passed away.
Again, fast forward to today, when I was honoring my father's Yart-site (sp). When I was at the Temple's Torah study group's minion (yes, the same Temple I grew up in) they asked for names of people we were honoring by the Kaddish, whether for Schloshim, or Yart-site (sp). Before reciting my father's name, I mentioned that a close friend's mother had passed on but was yet unburied. I mentioned my understanding that Kaddish not be read for that person. The Rabbi confirmed it, whereupon I uttered my father's name.
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After study group, I shared my experiences both with someone I knew from high school band that spring of 1973, and someone I just met this morning. The consensus was that this generation that is in it's middle-age now is a fair bit more religious than the prior generation. I think it's a good sign for the vitality of the religion. Almost weekly adult Torah study has replaced spitballs. Back in the day, there was no adult Torah study. Even better, many of my sons' peers actually care about Judaism.
It is, of course, easy to be alienated from religion, or any activity. All it takes is a bad coach, teacher, or peer experience. The tricky part is getting someone back. In my case, it took a combination of my cracking a bad joke, and then a tragedy. In my view, it's worth it.