Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going… Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be… It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother’s orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing… Continue reading
We don’t belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.
I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.
There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.
A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.
The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.
These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.
By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.
Every Saturday morning, I ask my son Ezra the same question. As our family prepares to head out for the walk to synagogue, I stop Ezra with five words before he gets to the door:
“Do you have your books?”
This sends him to his bedroom to fill his red backpack with a handful of volumes: the Pixarpedia, a detailed taxonomy of Pixar’s animated movies; a 600-plus page animal encyclopedia; and sometimes a canine almanac called The Dog Breed Bible.
It’s an unusual selection, but Ezra, who is 15, is a singular kid. High-functioning autism makes it difficult for him to sit in one place, whether that place is his math classroom, a restaurant booth, or the pews of our neighborhood shul. Since he was young, the one thing that could get Ezra to sit still was a book.
He’d take The Cat in the Hat on the school bus to ease the transition from school to home. He’d sit at the local pizza parlor, poring over Richard Scarry picture books. And in synagogue he always had his red backpack.
His teachers say that reading is among his significant deficits. At his special-needs school, Ezra takes a remedial reading class designed to improve comprehension and fluency. But that would surprise the people who know him from synagogue, the ones who would hardly recognize my son without his head buried in a book.
The truth is that he does struggle with long passages of writing—dry science textbooks, say, or young adult novels. But for what specialists call his “topics of interest”—principally animals and animated movies—Ezra has endless focus, and an uncanny ability to absorb and remember facts.
That’s what he’s often doing in shul while the rest of the minyan is paying attention to the Torah reading or that week’s sermon (or, occasionally, dozing).
Like many people with autism, Ezra tends to isolate himself, but in synagogue, the books connect him. People sitting nearby take notice, and he’ll show them what he’s reading. Or he’ll make his way to the lobby, where my wife and I sometimes find him sitting on the floor, sharing a book with a young child.
Transitions can be difficult for kids like Ezra, but having a book is a way to bring his world with him and make almost any place comfortable and secure. Having his books with him has helped make synagogue a second home for Ezra, and a happier place for the rest of the family.
Occasionally, we’re running late on a Saturday morning and rush out the door. Then, halfway to the synagogue, I realize we’ve forgotten the red backpack. That used to mean certain disaster. One of the delights of watching Ezra enter the teen years has been his increasing self awareness, his growing ability to handle the unexpected.
“You want me to go back and get your books?” I ask.
“No, that’s okay,” he says with a smile. “I’ll just think about them.”