There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery. Each day, Jewels of Elul brings you a different thought.
This past winter, I paid a visit to my elderly aunt -– my late father’s younger sister –- with whom I am very close. I have learned some of my greatest life lessons from her. Shirley lives in a stately home on a tree-lined street in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the phone never stops ringing. She is a mother of four, grandmother of sixteen, great-grandmother of forty-five and counting. Recently widowed, she had just put her home on the market when, during a visit to a daughter in Chicago, a pipe burst, flooding several floors full of antiques and artwork. A significant part of that elegant home had been —turned, in her words, into “a barn.” So she had just begun the process, arduous for anyone much less an octogenarian, of filing insurance claims and rebuilding her home.
“Come in, darling!” She swept me into what had once been her living room. “It’s a mess, isn’t it? But look how lucky we were. None of Uncle Moe’s books were damaged.”
I looked at her. Lucky? This wouldn’t have been my definition of lucky.
When I started writing my new memoir, Devotion, it was out of this sense of longing – longing for community, for a connection to my past, for a spiritual life both for myself and my family that felt relevant and authentic and true. If we hadn’t moved from the city to Connecticut, in all likelihood I wouldn’t have felt compelled to explore these matters in the depth that I have – in part, because it all would have been laid out in front of me.
I would have sent Jacob to one of a dozen great Hebrew schools. We would have joined the same shul as our friends. On Rosh Hashanah, we would have walked with the rest of the Jewish population of the Upper West Side to the Hudson River, for tashlich. Jacob would have gone swimming at the JCC.
Moving to the country forced me to articulate my own needs and desires for a spiritual life, precisely because it wasn’t being handed to me on a silver platter.
We have now lived in Connecticut for eight years, and I feel we have built a Jewish life for ourselves here. It took three tries—the third was the charm—but we did find a synagogue about forty minutes away, a Conservative egalitarian congregation that reminds me of the shul of my childhood. Jacob goes to Hebrew School there.
It isn’t perfect—but what is? There are only four kids in his 5th-grade class. The distance is a lot to drive. At times, it conflicts with other activities, like team sports and school functions—forcing us to assess and re-assess our priorities. But most importantly, it is a part of our lives—our fast-paced, secular, ex-pat urban, rural family life in which it matters, deeply matters, that we are connected to our heritage, our history, to our people.
On Monday, Dani Shapiro wrote about moving from Jewish NY to churchy Connecticut.
In many ways, our move from the city to the country mirrored an earlier shift in my life – one in which I went from the yeshiva to prep school when I was in the seventh grade. My Orthodox father and non-religious mother had fought bitterly over my religious education.
If my father had had his way, I would have gone to yeshiva through high school. But my mother won out, and so I was shifted quite radically from a world which was entirely Jewish to a world which was decidedly not. (From yarmulkes to field hockey sticks in one fell swoop.)
That time was formative, and to this day, nothing makes me more aware of being Jewish than realizing that I’m the only Jew in the room. This is how it felt at prep school—and, once again, this is how it felt in Connecticut. If raising my son to have a sense of his Jewish heritage was important to me (and it was) then I needed to provide him with a community. But how to find a community in the hills of Litchfield County? How, when he was the only Jewish child in his class? What had we done?
It was time to find the Jews.
I started, not with a synagogue, but with a coalition made up mostly of New Yorkers with weekend homes in the area. This loosely-formed group rented the country club’s hall for the high holidays, and gathered for occasional Shabbats in their homes. They had a spiritual leader—a wonderful young woman who flew up once a month from Florida. But the median age of the coalition was probably around 65. I should have known when we were invited to a screening at Bea and Sol Schwartz’s house of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”. Not that there was anything wrong with that — but it wasn’t for our young family.
We then moved on to a Reform synagogue about a half hour from our home. I enrolled Jacob in Hebrew School there, and we attended services — but, after a childhood steeped in Orthodox tradition, it was hard to find a comfort level in a service conducted entirely in English, with occasional outbursts of Lai, lai lai. Time marched on.
I wondered if we would ever find a home as Jews in Connecticut. I considered the idea of rounding up the handful of Jewish children and hiring a tutor to come up from the city — but that seemed both expensive and somehow lonely for them. We needed community. I had always taken the Jewish community around me for granted—but now, now that it was proving hard to find, I wanted it more than ever.
Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Devotion is now available. She’ll be reading at Franklin Park in Brooklyn next Monday night. Come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
Eight years ago, I moved with my husband and young son from a brownstone in Brooklyn to a house on ten acres in rural Connecticut. I had a lot on my mind at the time. I worried that we were making a huge mistake leaving the city for country life.What did I know from nature? I was a city creature, accustomed to sirens, pretzel vendors, doormen, Chinese take-out.
Three-year-old Jacob refused to set his bare feet on grass that whole first summer, and when he did, he screeched in bewilderment, as if the very texture of the grass itself was an affront to his already ingrained city sensibilities.
I worried that we’d be lonely, or that our days would be too quiet, or that there would be no place to buy broccoli rabe within a fifty mile radius. But the one thing about our move that most took me by surprise was that in this new rural life, my Jewishness asserted itself powerfully, with a sense of urgency.
I had never had to think about being Jewish before! It was simply what I was—as much a part of my identity as being female, or a daughter, a mother, a wife. In New York, it seemed the very air I breathed was Jewish air.
When I was growing up, my grandparents lived on the Upper West Side. My grandfather was among the founders of Lincoln Square Synagogue. I was raised in an Orthodox home, went to a yeshiva until seventh grade. Now, here I was living in a small New England town with three churches and no temple. What’s more, my son had developed a fascination with these churches. They combined his three obsessions: bells, towers, and clocks. He’d gaze up at the pristine white church on our village green, and we’d have the following conversation:
“We’re a little bit Christian and a little bit Jewish, right?”
“No, honey. We’re entirely Jewish.”
“A little bit Christian,” he would nod emphatically, as if the matter was settled for once and for all.