Sunday, October 2, 2016

L' Shana Tova

"While the holiday traditions touched nearly everyone, being Jewish in our neighborhood was hardly monolithic; instead, just like the joke about the two Rabbis debating the deeper points of the Torah and possessing at least three perspectives between them, Judaism was approached from a variety of angles and outlooks. Given that the creation of the neighborhood was first imagined under the auspices of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), Judaism in our neighborhood had a certain progressive, labor-centric cast to it. What this often meant was that observance and participation in Jewish traditions and holidays were primarily a means to foster cultural identification rather than serving as an ongoing, devout religious practice. It was a way of straddling the post-war world of America, driven by science and progress and the image of one great melting pot, while never forgetting one's Jewish heritage, especially after the Shoah. As a result, for many families seeking a sense of assimilation, the larger holidays, like the High Holy Days, Passover, and especially Hanukah, morphed into ways of primarily maintaining Jewishness within the dominant culture rather than serving as devoted religious exercises. Even the weekly, Friday-at-sundown celebration of Shabbat, complete with the ritual lighting of the menorah and the sharing of fresh, braided Challah from Manna Bakery, was buffeted by the pressures to identify as American first and Jewish second. And, frankly, after the Shoah, there were some who did not want to emphasize their Jewishness in any way whatsoever for fear of stirring the ever-lurking beat of pogrom. . . .

"Nevertheless, while strict orthodoxy was hardly the tenor of how Judaism was practiced by most people in our neighborhood, nearly all my male friends had their Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen (and, thanks to the progressive outlook of Rabbi Sodden, so did some of the girls have a Bat Mitzvah when they reached twelve). This meant hours of after-school education at the Shul, learning Hebrew and learning a specific Torah portion to be recited at their Bar Mitzvah under the tutelage of the esteemed Rabbi, the officiant of the synagogue congregation. Other Hebrew school teachers over the years included" Abe Sodden, Mrs. Danzig, Mr. Bernstein, Mrs. Inzelbuch, Mr. Goodfriend, and Rabbi Grossman. Yet, while the neighborhood was unmistakably imprinted as a Jewish one, the upheavals of the Sixties would exert a powerful push-pull on many of my friends. I would watch them oscillate between appreciating and celebrating their Judaism and distancing themselves in the spirit of breaking with the old ways that so often provided the tenor of the times." ("The Rail," Chapter Five, "The Rhythms of Judaism").


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