How did it happen?
There I was, living in a"small town", Ontario, the only Jew among 2200 pupils in my high school, captain of the cheerleaders, highest grades in my graduating class, on the fast track to a law career. And look at me now –- a few years later (okay, more than a few) -- a stay-at-home mother of nine, doing a little teaching and writing on the side, cooking well-balanced dinners for my family every night and fancier creations on Shabbos, helping with homework (I knew all that schooling would come in handy) and soothing wounded egos. Where did I go wrong?!
To really succeed, you need to have your heart in it. And my heart was spoken for.
I did manage that law degree, but not the career. I went back to school to get a masters in psychology. Again, I acquired the degree, but didn't pursue the career. Why didn't I?
To really succeed at something, you need to have your heart in it. And my heart was spoken for. My heart has three governing passions that keep me very busy:
- my husband and my marriage
- my children, and
- the Jewish people.
Let's save the first two for subsequent articles. Suffice it to say that I have made parenting my career. I know of nothing more rewarding or significant, and if the price is that my husband and I talk to each other in lines from children's books ... well, it's a small sacrifice, and sort of fun.
Let's focus on the third -- the Jewish people. How is that a passion? How is that a cause? And how did it develop in me in a totally non-Jewish environment like "Smalltown," Ontario?
TINY SPARK OF JEWISHNESS
Although, while growing up, I had very little contact with my Jewish brothers and sisters on a daily basis, I always knew I was different, partly due to the power of the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism I experienced.
In eighth grade, some friends and I entered a public speaking contest. I don't know what motivated me since I lived in mortal fear of public speaking. But what was more astonishing was the topic for my talk. In front of a completely gentile audience, my immediate family excluded, under the auspices of a non-Jewish community organization, I spoke ardently about the need to free the Syrian Jews! Where did that come from? (In case you're wondering, I didn't win.)
The spark of Jewish identification flickered, and then went dormant for the duration of my high school years.
When I went away to college, I would call my parents to recite the last names of my newfound friends: Goldberg, Levine, Weinstein ... I was so excited to finally connect, but why?
I credit my peers of that time with awakening my social conscience (because, it sure wasn't accounting class or law school). We saw the problems of our society and wanted to make changes. So we experimented. Maybe feminism was the answer. Somehow it didn't seem enough, and when my colleagues at the Rape Crisis Center where I volunteered chastised me for working within the system, I knew I needed to find another vehicle.
FINDING THE ANSWER IN SOCIALISM
Maybe it was socialism. Socialism is very appealing to college students who have very few material needs or responsibilities, and the ones they do have are usually satisfied by their"bourgeois" parents. Anyway I was genuinely looking to create that Utopian Society, and I thought that maybe socialism was the solution.
So I went to kibbutz. In its heyday, the kibbutz was a fantastic arrangement. They drained the swamps and worked the land and shared each other's joy and pain.
But success came with a price. As the kibbutzim grew prosperous, the idealism faded. Community spirit of the shared dining hall diminished as people retreated to their own apartments every night to watch bad American television. Now they fought over who got access to the kibbutz car, who got the next trip to America, whose turn it was for the community tape deck ...
The system worked only in time of great need. But in more comfortable circumstances, human nature with all its selfishness reasserted itself.
I needed a system that confronted human nature.
While in Israel, I stumbled into the Torah world. And I was amazed by what I found. Not the ritualistic stereotype at all. Here were people trying to work on themselves, trying to become better, trying to be kinder to their neighbors. Here were people who tried not to gossip, not lose their tempers, to be joyful, to share their good with others. Here were people who took seriously their marriage vows and the commandment not to commit adultery. It sounds corny, it sounds"Sixties" (although it was actually the early eighties) but here were people who wanted to change the world.
They wanted to change the world and they had a plan. The spark within me began to flicker anew.
COMING CLOSE SLOWLY
Being the cautious, conservative type, I didn't want to do anything impulsively so I returned home, finished university, and began studying about Judaism.
The example of my teachers and their families (especially those home-cooked meals for a struggling student) and the wisdom of the Torah furthered my interest.
For example, I learned about the rejuvenating power of Shabbos (not just the naps, although those are nice too) -– for the individual, the family, and the community. I understood that you need the restrictions of the day to create the atmosphere for Shabbos, the way a director needs every prop in place for every scene to establish the appropriate mood.
Restrictions create a Shabbat atmosphere, the way a director uses props to establish a mood.
Every aspect of Shabbos was communicated with thought and sensitivity, including detailed prescriptions of how to be a gracious host (a little glass of wine helps) and how to be a responsible guest (a little glass of wine helps here also).
Through deepened learning, through experience in the community, I saw clearly that this was a productive and meaningful way to live and that I wanted a part of it. The flame burned brighter.
LEARNING TO KEEP PASSION ALIVE
I went back to Israel to broaden my knowledge of our heritage, and there I met my husband. Together we try to awaken that spark in others so that the flames of all the Jewish people will burn brightly for eternity.
In the daily grind of carpools and grocery shopping, and bed-making, and writing (!), I don't always feel the power and excitement of these goals. But I do have what I like to think of as practical idealism, even if I'm not a naïve young college student anymore.
My husband is always fond of quoting Vaclev Havel:"I'm not optimistic but I'm hopeful." I see that if you can keep your passions alive (all of them) and if you keep plugging away, then change will happen, slowly, slowly, flame by flame until the burning torch of our Jewish tradition lights up the whole world.