Monday, September 28, 2009

Going to Synagogue in Chile, the Yom Kippur version, with several remembrances

I know I won't win any awards for Jewess of the year (offensive term meant playfully people, don't hate) by posting this on Yom Kippur, one of the two most important days on the Jewish calendar, the day that epitomizes Jewish atonement and judgement. However, since the self-denominated Hebrew Mamita Vanessa Hidary has already taken individualism meets Judaism to a new height, there was no chance I'd be awarded anything anyway, and so I write.

I have lived in Santiago for five years. And for five years, come September/October I think to myself, this is the time. This is the time that I will go to shul (the word I grew up calling synagogue, because among the fifty plus words I know in Yiddish this one figures strongly) for the High Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It's not that these are long-standing family traditions, just that they're always kind of hanging there, taunting me with a will-you or won't-you. And most often, I don't. And since I've lived in Santiago, I haven't.

It's funny. I wouldn't hesitate to go (if invited) to a church, a mosque, a Hindu or Bahá'i temple. But something about going to synagogue, a place where I'm supposed to belong and feel I don't, just breaks my heart. I spent a very uncomfortable and wanna-flee evening many years ago, invited to the Sukkot (harvest festival) celebration of a friend who lived with several other Orthodox Jewish women. I was grilled on my last names, maternal and paternal, the precise street I grew up on in Brooklyn and my Hebrew name (in my case, Yiddish, brought to the shul by Uncle Lou, whose name I later learned was Leibisch, according to the ship manifest that marked his arrival from Poland to Ellis Island with his brother in tow, alone but for each other, neither of them even old enough to see a PG-13 movie).

At this house in Brookline, MA, where we'd been invited to spend the holiday, everyone was Shomer Shabbos, kept kosher, etc. I know intellectually what the rules are, but have never really observed them, and was afraid I would screw things up and ruin the meal, the evening, the pot, the stove. It was I, Catholic partner (now ex) beside me that felt like an outsider, last names and escaping the old country stories notwithstanding. I was allowed to stir the soup that simmered on the stove, and remembered admonitions against slotted spoons on Shabbat, reminded myself not to touch the range controls, as these, too represented work on this holiday, which coincided with the beginning of the Sabbath.

I know I am Jewish. In fact, I didn't know other people weren't until I was probably around six. I went to a Jewish preschool and kindergarten, colored in paper dreidels and made popsicle-stick Stars of David as a child while you were making jewelry boxes. But somewhere along the way, I failed to feel the connectedness, the welcome of a home synagogue, of people wishing me Chag Sameach (happy holiday) when appropriate (not today, it's not a happy holiday), or of the warmth of two white parrafin candles glowing at the end of the dinner table, a long sobremesa (aftermeal conversation, this one Spanish) until the wicks drown in their own wax.

Recently I was at a party at which I was asked if I was Jewish by "last name only" (por el puro apellido). I was offended. First of all, my last name is Smith, which gives not a hint of my ethnicity nor religion, and second of all, when did asking about someone's religious adherence become party conversation? And this is because I was Jewish. No one else was peppered with questions to see just how X-religion they were. Just me. Is there a right answer? Will you like me better if I tell you I like some of the traditions, but I don't eschew pork? (not true, as I don't eat meat, but not for kashrut reasons.) It was uncomfortable. But at least it got me thinking.

All of this is my way of telling you that yesterday I broke with my own tradition. J and I braved the freezing rain and went to a synagogue that's not far from where I live. It's the self-described non high-society synagogue, and we were eyed with a little curiousity, and had a few people come up and introduce themselves to us. The Kol Nidre service was beautifully said/sung, and while it makes my mind go all a-whirl (what if I had a Jewish life, Jewish friends, a Jewish partner?), it mainly just opened my eyes to the fact that in this country, in this world, in this life, and in this religion, there is so much to learn, and I have only scratched the surface.

Gmar jatima tova!

ps, Both J and I surprised ourselves by singing and chanting along at several points throughout the service. Linguistic or religious memory, it's hard to say.

pps, I happened to wear velvety pants last night and remembered part way through the service an outfit my mother bought me one Rosh Hashana when I was little that had a black velvet skirt. New clothes for a new year, she'd say. I wonder what else is hiding in my memory bank re: Judiasm.

7 comments:

Annje said...

Interesting... Is it just your last name... Smith haha, that is hilarious! I am surprised they didn't ask if you were Mormon (i.e. founder Joseph Smith)

My ancestors were Jewish, and I think there are still some vestiges of "Jewishness" (if you can call it that) left in the family. My grandpa converted to Mormonism (gasp!) so I was raised Mormon (though I'm not anymore),and for much of my childhood I thought everyone was Mormon.
I think people ask about what they don't know much about--I get my fair share of uncomfortable questioning about being athiest--it seems to make people a little nervous and I get all sorts of questions like "What do you think happens after you die? and "Do you believe in souls? As if they are asking HOW athiest I really am or if I am a practicing athiest or something...So I generally don't talk about it and try to avoid the "What religion are you?" conversations.
I also get lots of questions if I admit to being raised mormon and I find myself having to simultaneously critique and defend it--which is also uncomfortable.

But I love the idea of religious/linguistic memory--I sing songs I learned back in Sunday school to my kids (the non-religious songs anyway--not "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" or anything)

Eileen said...

well, to further complicate things, my grandfather's name actually was Joseph Smith! Being anything other than the dominant religion garners a million and one questions. I do have a tendency to be defensive, so I try to turn that off a little, but it seldom really works.

I've heard about that sunbeam song, but never actually heard it sung. I hope not raising your kids Mormon doesn't cause some kind of schism in your family.

Bystander said...

Religious memory really hangs on. I can recite most of the Catholic mass in latin, although I hasten to add that I don't do this. It would be an unusual party stunt but would tend to put a damper on the evening, I think. "Let's hear a round of Panis Angelicus!"

You are only taking time out from being Jewish. Catholics are the only ones who can be lapsed. :)

Margaret said...

In a country where most people are some form of past or present or ex-Catholic, there is a curiosity (usually healthy enough) about other religions. I was raised protestant, which here is often taken to mean evangelical/fundamentalist and then I have to go through the whole routine about protestant being the norm where I grew up, that I have never preached on a public street (or anywhere else for that matter), that I have never tried to convert anyone, that I am not a missionary, etc.
But back to the original point. Eileen, I'm glad you had this opportunity to tie in (refind?) some of your deepest roots here in your new country...

Eileen said...

bystander, I'm guessing you could really clear a room with the Latin! Probably best not to trot that out at the next party.

margaret, I am truly stunned by people's ability to say stupid things re: Judaism, but had never considered what being Protestant would mean to most Chileans. I guess I just opened my eyes a little wider! (or you did)

Sharon said...

Cool!
Was it Bikur Joilim in Matta? Or is there a synagogue I don't know about? Is that is so, I would really appreciate the information (I think I told you why the last time we saw each other, if not, I'll send you a message).

Eileen said...

yes, that's where it was, but since I was going to say Yiskur in the afternoon the next day, I didn't put up the name. I actually don't remember why you wanted to know about that synagogue, but it was a pretty great experience. People were quite welcoming. Feel free to message me about it, you have my hotmail, I believe, or it's just bearshapedsphere you know, at that place. (so devious!).

We still have pizza n stuff pending!