Jewish Journeys: Imperceptible Motion, Monumental Movement

the road more travelled, Forêt de Bouconne
Creative Commons License photo credit: simonsterg

We are all on a journey, whether we know it or not. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to notice that we are moving, until we look back:

It’s a Saturday morning in March, 2011.

I’m standing outside my new home – where lights had been carefully set the night before and will remain unchanged all day –  while my wife locks the door before we enjoy the short (1 block) walk to synagogue. Being able to walk to shul is one of the main reasons for moving here.

“Is this really us?” I ask her. “How did we get here? This wasn’t anywhere I imagined us being in our life.”

It’s 1978.

I’m 11 years old,  sitting in the pew-like seats in the “chapel” of Brith Emeth, a reform synagogue in suburban Cleveland. I’m listening to a grownup – an adult but even at 11 I can tell he’s kind of youngish and probably “hip” (except, to an obnoxious, know-it-all 11 year old) – talk about his Jewish choices. I’m completely falling apart – turning red, laughing, rolling my eyes. Not that he’s particularly trying to be funny. But he just said,

“So one night,” he was saying “my wife and I were lying in bed and…”

(Alarm bells are now going off in my brain. I’m barely able to keep from either laughing, hyperventilating or barfing – maybe all three. I’m sure he’s about to tell us about his sex life.)

“…lying in bed and I said to her ‘maybe we should start keeping kosher’ “

The incongruity silences the 120 decibel laugh-track playing in my head. I feel cheated. Any sentence that begins with “lying in bed with my wife” should not end with something as stupid and utterly useless as keeping kosher. The Rabbi notices the snot bubble I’ve blown from my convulsive snort-laughing, and I’m excused from the rest of the talk.

It’s just over a year ago.

My wife and I were (I apologize to any 11 year olds who are reading this) lying in bed. We’re talking about keeping kosher. The irony is not lost on me. My boys have been going to a Jewish day school for the better part of a year and they are asking if the food in our house is kosher (“Well, buddy, it is because it has a heksher. But it’s sort of not because none of our plates or pots or pans are kosher.”). Which of brought on the question of when (not if) all our stuff will be “really kosher”.

At the time of this pillow-talk conversation, the family had been experimenting for a few weeks – not eating meat and milk together, waiting an hour after eating a meat meal before eating dairy, etc. We decide, that night as we lie there, to start the process of kashering the kitchen. We have a lot of questions, I have a few misgivings, and my wife has a lot of conviction.

It’s a dark winter night in 2007.

We’re driving home after a Shabbat visit (including sleepover) at an observant family with whom we were friends before they became orthdox. Very orthodox, from my perspective. Maybe not shtreimel and gartel orthodox (not that I knew those words at the time) but definitely black-hat. I’m telling my family about Saturday night services, where I felt like I was a visitor on an alien planet: Everyone seemed calm, kind and easygoing. But things were so foreign that I couldn’t be sure that laser pistols wouldn’t suddenly be drawn and the natives announce this was the part where they ate my brains. My wife assured me that wouldn’t have happened. Lasers aren’t Shabbosdic and human brains aren’t kosher. Her words do surprisingly little to comfort me.

I state that the whole things was way too over-the-top for me, and that I don’t need to go back to that shul ever again.

It’s August, 2011

I’m talking with my 16 year old daughter, who (duh!) knows everything but is decent enough not to rub my face in it too often. I am in the middle of saying

“He asked me where we were at, Jewishly. I told him that since we’re ba’alei teshuvah, we…”

When she cuts me off. “Dad!” she interrupts. “We are so totally not ba’alei t’shuvah!

“Uh, darling…” I respond. “We go to a synagogue where we “daven” instead of pray, read the full Torah portion every week, and do a full Musaf service; we keep kosher; we’re moving to a house that is 1/3 smaller than this one because it’s in a neighborhood where we can walk to shul. What, exactly, would you call us?”

She (grudgingly) concedes the point.

It’s 11:30pm on the second night of Passover, 1990.

My wife and I are walking home from a (far) more observant family, who graciously invited us over to share the experience. We walk – not because we usually walk on holidays, but out of respect for this family and because our house is exactly 3 blocks away.

At this hour of the night, after the longest seder of our lives, we feel like strung out, shell shocked, matzah-stuffed zombies. We re-assure each other that, while this was an interesting experience to have once, it’s not the way we imagine our Passovers will ever be when we are running them.

It’s 3:00am on the second night of Passover 2011.

My wife and I, along with our four children, are walking home from the second seder. The night before ended just as late. We have to keep reminding the kids not to sing so loud because some people are actually asleep at this hour.

We are all energized, feeling more engaged to each other and our Judaism than we can recall feeling in a great while.

I respectfully submit the idea that you are on a journey, even if you don’t perceive your own movement. Depending on how you want to figure it, even sitting in a chair, you are still traveling at a speed of 800, 67,000, 447,000 or even 1,342,000 miles per hour (don’ believe me? Read this.)

Intergalactic calculations aside, you are still on a journey. As we respond to the world around us, we automatically adjust our understanding and therefore our behavior.

From a Jewish perspective, even if you think you are doing nothing you are probably wrong. Because just like the illusion of not moving while you sit in a chair, there is an illusion of not moving along a spiritual path even if you haven’t passed anything (yet) that would indicate your movement.

My advice is to stop looking around you for a mile marker. There is (as I’ve mentioned before) no line that you cross and suddely POOF, you are conservative, or reform, or reconstructionist. Close your eyes and look inward. That’s where you will see the movement.

And remember: “never” is a very long time.

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