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Jewish and Truly Perplexed

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When I was about 24 years old, I found myself sitting in Temple (or synagogue or shul) on a Saturday morning. It was probably the last place I wanted to be. I hadn’t been in one in years and this particular synagogue was “Traditional,” a sort of Midwest Modern Orthodox (yeah, that helps!). Let’s just say that pretty much everything was in Hebrew, mumbled quickly and incoherently to my then-20-something American ears.

We were there to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of my sister, who was marrying a guy raised traditionally, the son of Holocaust survivors. She was having an Auf-Ruf (a sort of feting of the about-to-be married couple) and her fiancé’s family belonged to this synagogue. We sat through what seemed like an interminable service conducted in a language I barely understood (barely, being a charitable term for my knowledge—or lack thereof.)

My father had passed away about nine months earlier. I sat between my mom and my uncle (who knew a lot more about this Orthodox thing), and I periodically glanced sideways at my uncle, assuming he knew more about what we should be doing—and when. Should we stand? Sit? Bow? BOW???! I turned the page of my prayer book when he turned his pages.

Suddenly I heard a word I understood: “Kaddish.” Kaddish! I knew that word well enough. Like I said, my dad had just passed away less than nine months earlier and I knew that was the prayer you’re supposed to say when you’re in the first year (fine point: it’s not really a year) after a parent dies. So I heard “Kaddish,” and knowing you were supposed to stand for the Kaddish, I did. My uncle looked at me and tugging my arm, gesturing for me to sit, he said “No. Sit. It’s not the Kaddish you need.”

Oh. Now I was confused. Several Kaddishes later, and nearing the end of the service, once again, the rabbi said “Kaddish,” by now quite knowledgeable that I was not to stand or otherwise acknowledge this prayer.

I had the whole thing puzzled out by then, being as the prayer book was of no use to me. I’d figured out that my uncle knew that my mother had paid some guy in another synagogue to say Kaddish for the year. I figured that her act then absolved me of this obligation. So, saying seated, I knew I was doing what I supposed to do, and that I wasn’t going to appear once again to be the idiot in the room!

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my uncle motioning to me. “Get up,” he whispered urgently. “Up. Now!” he said through his teeth. It was nearly the end of the service. And I finally got it. This was where you were supposed to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Ahh. Needless to say, I was completely confused; perplexed, even. 

Spending most of the service in a state of unending anxiety trying not to look completely ignorant in front of my sister’s family to be (and she was more clueless than I was, trust me), I failed to connect what we were doing with anything remotely spiritual. And so it went. Synagogue services were a two-hour bore (unless the sermon happened to be unusually compelling), and I spent most of my time trying futility to keep up with the rapid Hebrew (and standing up at the right time). This was hardly the foundation for anything remotely spiritual.

This became a chronic problem when, after getting married, my husband wanted to join a Conservative synagogue. I was all for doing whatever he wanted to do; it certainly didn’t matter to me which synagogue we didn’t attend (except for the requisite High Holy Days and other special occasions). Except, there was a problem. He wanted to go. Like, often. As in every week (and on every holiday). OY!

By then (it was a year after my sister’s wedding) I’d figured out the Hebrew alphabet, more out of self-defense than anything else, and thought I knew my way around the curves and angles of the aleph-bet (that’s what we in the Jewish ed biz call the Hebrew alphabet).

So I dabbled a toe and went with him. I could barely contain my glee to have recognized a word I’d heard—in Hebrew, actually finding it in the prayer book (tada!)—and then my dismay as they quickly moved ahead of me, leaving me in the dust of the aleph-bet and trying catch up. All pretty much to no avail.

Sound familiar?

Eventually, I caught on and then some, especially after deciding that at the age of 35, it was time to have a Bat Mitzvah (nope, never had one when I was 13). So I studied and struggled and learned enough to get through the day, but something more important happened during that process: a spark lit long ago by I-don’t-know-who ignited and suddenly I couldn’t get enough.

Giving up a promising career as a public affairs consultant, I eventually decided to become a professional Jewish educator. I’ve been doing that now for more than 15 years. So, the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve taught adults and kids everything from basic Judaism 101 to liturgical chanting. I’ve taught classes from “Judaism According to the Simpsons” to the “History of Jewish Feminism.”

So, that’s where I came from, and if you’ve read this far, hopefully you’ll accompany me on this journey to being less perplexed. We’ll cover rituals, holidays and observances familiar and obscure, and much more. I can’t promise to make you a maven (an expert), but I can promise that you’ll be more knowledgeable about this ancient and sometimes overwhelming religion of ours. And maybe you’ll even be able to keep up with your kids (or grandkids)!

So stop back often and say hello. If you have a question, don’t be shy. That’s what the comments section is for! 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Hi Heloise–Orthodox women cover their hair out of modesty. Some wear wigs, others head scarves or hats. Covering hair for synagogue can vary depending on denomination. In our egalitarian Conservative synagogue, we cover our hair when praying for the same reason men do–to acknowledge that there is something above us (God). It’s a constant reminder that humans are not top of the heap, nor owners of the universe (or even Earth). Others cover their heads out of respect for God, and still other women (orthodox) out of modesty.

    Some traditions require covering heads in synagogue only of married women. It is incredibly varied (except in the orthodox denominations).

  • Heloise

    I have a question: do all orthodox Jewish women have to wear the wigs I’ve seen in movies? I know arab women wear the hajib or a scarf or burka, i.e., if they are orthodox. So what are the rules about hair covering for Synagogue. We Catholics used to have to wear covering only during mass. Then I think that got thrown out.

  • Heloise

    I have had so many dreams about my past life as an orthodox Jew, what we ate, and how we lived. You should publish something about daily Jewish life. I’ve watched everything on Netflix about Jewish religious life that’s why they raised the prices on everybody. Heloise was eating up the foreign films LOL.

    Good article

  • Jim

    It’s fascinating how unpromising things can be at the beginning of a spiritual awakening. Looking forward to reading more.

  • This is somewhat reminiscent of my first attendance at a Temple ceremony in the area of White Plains, NY. The occasion was the highlight of a course in Judaism taught by Rabbi Maurice Davis- a considerable scholar in the area of Diaspora Judaism.