My first Jewish service

Every year right before the High Holidays my friend Dawn, in her official interfaith outreach capacity, sends out an e-mail message imploring couples to avoid making those services the non-Jewish partner’s first exposure to Jewish worship. The services are long. They’re focused on sin and death. Also, everyone is there, so they don’t give you a sense of the week-in-week-out congregation. They are not your average Friday night or Saturday morning at the synagogue.

For most people, this is excellent advice. But I am not most people.

Marin County Civic Center Veterans Memorial Auditorium. (c) Frank Farm
My first Jewish service was an evening Rosh Hashanah service at a huge civic center in Northern California. It was long—a Friday night so we read all of the Sabbath-only red parts in the prayer book, not just the parts specific to the new year being ushered in.

For me, a big, long, and anonymous service was a fine place to start.

First of all, when I’m uncomfortable, I like to be invisible. Feeling out of place in my surroundings makes me uncomfortable. So the anonymity of a packed civic center suited me just fine. I love congregations where people come up after services and say, “I haven’t seen you here before. I’m so and so.” But first I like to sit at the edge, to watch and feel a place before I jump in—a trait my mother assures me I’ve had all my life.

Second of all, the long service gave me enough time to stop worrying about not knowing the prayers, or even the sounds of the language the prayers were said in, and to start watching. And what I saw fascinated me. Instead of standing stock still like the Protestants I grew up with, people swayed as they sang and bowed as they prayed. The readings in English had snippets of familiarity. I’d never thought about where exactly “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight” appears in the Bible. It’s a Psalm. Solidly not New Testament material. Hearing it evoked in that setting conjured an image of a long-forgotten assistant minister who would begin the service with it every Sunday when I was in junior high.

So by the end, I was feeling pretty good. Sure, I occasionally counted how many pages until the end of the service, but overall I was feeling like I’d spent an enjoyable evening peeking into a different culture.

Then, near the end, a 13-year-old girl, a recent Bat Mitzvah, turned to me, stuck out her hand, and said, “L’shana Tovah.” I shook her hand. I think I mumbled, “Thank you,” or something. But I felt like I’d been outed. Caught being an ignorant imposter at an important occasion. A tourist cravenly peeking in on a solemn moment—the same feeling I’ve had the few times I’ve visited urban African-American churches—like it’s obvious to everyone around me that I’m there to get a look and no matter how respectfully that’s meant or how politely I behave, it’s inappropriate. I’d add that this is a) not how I’d view someone coming to observe a service where I didn’t feel like an onlooker, and b) entirely self-generated.

Fourteen years later, I can toss off L’shana Tovah, and even add u’metukah to wish someone a good and sweet year instead of just a good year, but I still get tripped up by a new holiday greeting on occasion. More often, I stumble over whether to use one with someone who knows I’m not Jewish, or it’s reversed and the other person stumbles over what to say to me.

I trip over these greetings because they feel like a proxy for both what I do claim and what I do not claim. I don’t want to seem to be pretending to be Jewish even though I do worship very Jewishly. And even though I’ve been worshiping Jewishly for more than a decade, I still occasionally feel like I’m pretending or showing off when I wish someone a good Pesach instead of happy Passover, or tie myself into a useless knot figuring out whether “Shabbat Shalom” (peaceful Sabbath) or “have a good weekend” should cross my lips in a particular situation. Hovering endlessly at the edges can be its own vice.

I’m writing this down partly because I’m still finding my own way to the practices that are right for me, and partly because being an intermarried practicing(ish) Protestant balancing between worlds she loves feels lonely at times.

There are lots of intermarried families out there. I have met many people at synagogues who didn’t grow up Jewish. But it’s less common for me to meet an intermarried mainline Protestant who is raising a Jewish family and wants to talk about their own faith journey. They/we are out there. And to be fair, my family tends to move away just as friendships start to deepen. But I also think that if I feel a bit alone in the particularities of my situation, then others may as well.

I’ve traveled a long way in the years since I walked into a civic center, newly in love with a man who didn’t share my religion. This is the story of where that journey has taken me. It is not a how-to book. There are plenty of books about how to have a Jewish household, and an excess of people with shoulds for intermarried couples. I don’t have a magic description of how to be a non-Jew in a Jewish household. My way of being a wife and mother is the right way for me and my family; it is not the only right way.

What I do have is a story to tell about how I went from being so ignorant that I once wished my future husband a happy Yom Kippur (something I still can’t acknowledge without cringing) to being happily and comfortably engaged in synagogue life and a competent parent of a Jewish child while remaining authentically myself. It is not primarily a story about my daughter’s relationship to Judaism. That story will be hers to tell. It’s also not about navigating a marriage between two people of different backgrounds. Lots of people have told that story. This one is about me, about what I have found and lost along the way, and about what I struggle with as my own faith is influenced, challenged, and deepened by two sets of practices.

7 thoughts on “My first Jewish service

  1. What a great read! Must tell you my Protestant spouse blew out the Hanukkah candles, thinking the Menorah was akin to a birthday cake.


  2. Hi Pam-

    I grew up saying Gut Yontif for every occasion and still don’t know what to say and when!

    Miss you, and so glad to read your wonderful stories.



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