Friday, October 17, 2008

A Taste For Brisket

So? How many are you having for dinner?”
“About twenty.”

That's part of a telephone conversation between mother (me in Chicago) and daughter (Jill in Los Angeles) regarding plans for Rosh Hashanah '08. The only thing odd about the dialogue was the reversal of traditional roles. For it was my kid doing the balabusta-ing and me making plans to go to Myron and Phil's restaurant for dinner.

As I listened to my daughter’s menu, I wondered how this came to be. How did I – a woman who placed cooking Jewish for a crowd at the bottom of her list of favorite things, who was not a member of any synagogue, and who took a goy for a second husband – spawn a child about to shove a multi-pound brisket in the oven?

Jill’s embrace of her religion is easy to explain. She has a son, and since public schools in Los Angeles are chancy, she enrolled him in Temple Israel of Hollywood. A natural networker and compulsive organizer (that, she got from me), Jill was recruited to head committees and produce events. News of her output spread, and Reboot, an organization for creative young Jews, invited her in. She soon found the Jewish thing – its positive influence on her son, the camaraderie, and the stamp of identity comfortable and positive.

Her sister, Faith, on the other hand, who lives in Boston, is Jewish in the way I am -- culturally (we like Jewish food and humor) -- but is absent from organized worship. In fact, Faith is so relaxed with her religious identity that she worried not a whiff when creating her infamous rock opera “Jesus Has Two Mommies.”

Enough about the kids. I grew up in the 1940s in an immigrant Chicago neighborhood (see my memoir, “The Division Street Princess”). My Zadie and Bubbie lived down the block and aunts and uncles were also a stone’s throw. (Of course, stones were never lobbed back then as you could knock somebody’s eye out!) And like many who were part of the mass migration from Russia in the 20s, my parents cared more about making a living than worshiping a God who neglected them back in the Old Country.

We had a shul, the Galician on California Blvd., but my family attended only during High Holidays. In the woman’s section, I'd give my Bubbie’s papery cheek a kiss before rushing outside to run wild with my cousins. I did try cheder because my brother was attending bar mitzvah classes and didn’t want to be left out. I lasted one week.

My high school years' High Holidays were spent with my Roosevelt classmates standing outside a temple on the northwest side of Chicago. I recall perspiring in a lamb's wool sweater, woolen skirt, matching jacket, and pantyhose. My family held no membership there, which was fine, as I didn’t plan on entering. Kibitzing on the steps with friends was genug.

Despite my lack of religious cement, at twenty-two, I did marry a Jew. He grew up in a conservative household, and was bar mitzvahed, but had no desire to return to the synagogue. And since our daughters never expressed any wish to become affiliated or study Torah, we didn’t join.

It wasn’t until our chicks left the nest that I felt bereft and believed a connection to Judaism would help me repair. My husband cooperated and we landed at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. It was there I met its charismatic rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, who recognized my hunger and encouraged me to join the board. My husband and I attended Saturday morning services and I began to study for a bat mitzvah. At fifty-one, I stood before 300 friends and relatives to read from the Torah.

This is where the colorful memories switch to black-and-white. The first hint something was amiss was when I saw the tape of that memorable experience. My husband, who has a beautiful tenor voice, participated in the service. When he was at the bimah, he appeared confident and happy, but when I took center stage, his eyes focused on the ground. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts.

All the time I believed we were bonding on Saturday mornings, he was trying to figure an escape route. As much as I'd like to make him the bad guy, I was as much to blame for the failure of our thirty-year-marriage. I preferred to push our problems under the rug, while he was gutsy enough to destroy the covering.

We separated, divorced, and today remain friends. Although our relationship repaired, my connection to JRC was still frayed. When I returned to the synagogue as a single woman, I felt weepy. The congregation continued to welcome me, but I didn't like being a third wheel and my predicament was an unspoken shonda.

My current husband, a lapsed Lutheran, has no interest in his religion or mine. He's accompanied me to bar mitzvahs, and he'd have no problem if I wanted to join a synagogue on my own. But for me, the thrill is gone. This I can't blame on Husband #1 for if I had enough desire, I could surely trump those sad memories.

Perhaps the hunger will return at some point in my life. After all, at age 70 I'm on the down side of the mountain and a connection to spirituality might be a worthy companion. But for now, I can get a vicarious thrill from Jill's Jewishness. And, if I'm lucky, she'll freeze a bissel of brisket for my next visit.


Anonymous said...

Loved it. You put it on paper so well.

Anonymous said...

excellent, loved it, keep em coming.

Anonymous said...

Loved it Sis, sent it to 15 friends.


Anonymous said...

Love it.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a bittersweet story.
You have such a generous attitude about your previous marriage. I wish I could be more like you.
Your spouse must be so proud of you!
Your writing is fabulous!


She's Not The Type said...

Thanks, Tim. Who are you and how did you land on my blog? I really appreciate your comments.