Finding Jewish Connection in a Holiday Season of Separation

08 Sep 2020 | 10:56

I will shortly be chanting prayers during the High Holy Days, glorifying the era of the destroyed ancient Temples, and expressing the hope that we can “renew the days of old.” The aptness of this theme is amplified by my yearning to be reunited with my tallit, so that I can wrap the white, blue-trimmed, cloth prayer shawl around my shoulders, and once again experience the familiar sensation of rubbing its fringes between my fingers.

The tallit is locked away in its blue-felt bag, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope Jewish Center. My wife, Brenda, has worshiped there for nearly 30 years.

Although I have never been religious, Brenda observes the Sabbath. She has numerous friends at synagogue and took me to a communal Shabbat dinner, shortly after we started dating, nine years ago. I felt like an outsider, especially when Brenda and her friends reminisced about their synagogue experiences.

“Remember when we went on the retreat, and Seth jumped into the hot tub naked?” Brenda recalled.

While we were dating she adopted a toddler, Marta, and we would spend Shabbat together. We attended children’s services, where I danced to the guitar playing of the tot-Shabbat song leader. I schmoozed at kiddush, integrating into what Brenda calls her shul community.

After the adoption, Brenda’s friends would drop off Friday night dinners, and fill her house on Saturday afternoons. When I was hospitalized for several days with an infection, they visited me. They are now my friends.

Brenda and I got married five years ago, and I adopted Marta. For our wedding ceremony a relative bought me the tallit. Brenda demonstrated how to neatly wrap it over my shoulders. I never learned to wear it properly without her help.

Marta aged out of tot-Shabbat and I never gained an appreciation for prayer. I usually showed up for the final leg of services, my tallit ungainly wrapped around the back of my neck. I joined kiddush, hoping that my short stint praying inoculated me from being tagged a “Just For Kiddush” Jew.

Leaving shul one Shabbat, Brenda took my tallit bag and placed it on a shelf, stuffed with other felt bags. “Keep it here,” she said. “This way you will never forget it.”

I associated my tallit with my wedding, and it felt odd to be separated from such a personal object. Nonetheless, the discomfort expanded the scope of my Jewishness. Trusting my shul to safeguard my family keepsake made me see it as an extension of my home, as an extension of myself.

Religious Creativity

My attachment to synagogue deepened this March, when the building closed because of the pandemic. I mourned the loss of my Shabbat routine: the chatter at kiddush; haphazardly throwing my tallit over my shoulders before entering the sanctuary; looking at the bimah, remembering when I stood there for my wedding.

Whenever I pass the shul’s large brick building — the long row of steps leading up to three entrance doors, underneath perpendicular stained-glass windows — a wave of longing hits me. But religious creativity by generations of Jews, exiled from their homes and synagogues, prepared me and my community for the trauma of separation.

As Passover approached, Brenda and I were distraught at the prospect of a seder without guests surrounding our table. But our virtual seder, with shul friends and my parents, was unexpectedly meaningful. Our collected effort to make it a sacred occasion highlighted a commitment to tradition, which is less apparent in normal times.

Similarly, we have participated in virtual Shabbat services. One Friday night Brenda led services from our kitchen. Watching her passionately singing Lecha Dodi, from a location hardly associated with religious observance, was immensely affecting. In a small way we were emulating the resiliency to strife shown by our ancestors.

The accommodations made over the past several months will help communities like mine to summon the emotional pitch required by the “Days of Awe.” Still, feelings of loss are inevitable.

“I am so sad,” Brenda said mournfully, when our synagogue announced that High Holy Day services will be limited to Zoom. “I want to be with my community.”

I also wanted to be with our shul friends. Our displacement awakened my ancient sense of being in two places simultaneously — the place I am, and the place I left behind.

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, I was given the opportunity to retrieve my tallit from synagogue, but decided to leave it there. This way a part of me will always be in shul, giving substance to my faith in the cycle of banishment and return.