MY BAR MITZVAH, MY
coming-of-age Jewishly at thirteen, was anything but a religious experience. It did mark the culmination of six years of Hebrew school and an equal amount of secular denial. My task seemed a noble one: to learn Hebrew with or without comprehension, so that one day 1 could be called before the Torah. “the Five Books of Moses.” and take the leap from boy to man in one ritualistic growth spurt, But if the Hebrew had no meaning, the ritual meant even less. How could standing in front of four hundred people reading from the Torah mean I’d officially reached manhood? I also had to share my Bar Mitzvah weekend with a tone-deaf friend named Eddie whose shortcoming made chanting together in ancient melodies that much more difficult, The dissonant tones we created were only part of the problem. My Bar Mitzvah had grown into a gathering of family members-Holocaust survivors from London, New York, and Dallas-reunited for the first time since World War II. I felt personally responsible for bringing the Jews of the Diaspora back together. I had better be good. Since Eddie’s Hebrew was worse than his voice, the cantor minimized his role and let me lead most of the Saturday morning service. To my embarrassment, my own voice kept cracking, as if reluctant to follow me into manhood. The more it cracked, the more I hurried: the more I hurried, the angrier the cantor got. Suddenly, red-faced, he kicked me in the calf. “You’ve gone much too fast.” he scolded me. “You’ve ruined your Bar Mitzvah. The service will end early. The buffet won’t even be ready.” Fighting back tears, I envisioned hungry relatives at empty tables, convinced I’d struck a blow for anti-Semitism. I only had one line left to sing-the Shema, the ultimate proclamation of Jewish belief. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Hebrew words hung in my mouth, resonating fancifully for as long as my breath would allow. But it was too late. My shame was complete. And so was mv alienation from mv synagoeue. At thirteen, the day I became a man, I put an end to my Jewish education. I suspect that many “’thirty-something” Jews can look back on a similar experience that caused them to drift away from Judaism. But like other baby boomers, many Jews-in Dallas and around the country-are drifting back, searching for a way to return to their roots. Unlike the spiritual renaissance that appears to be capturing the hearts of many Christians. Jewish renewal is not necessarily religious, For some “New Jews,” it’s a connection to community, to Jewish causes, the Holocaust, a commitment to Israel. Others simply “feel Jewish,” still grappling with their ambivalence, yet enjoying the cultural aspects of their heritage: lox and bagels. Woody Allen jokes, the sudden realization that they want their children to have a strong Jewish identity. For others, it’s a return to Orthodoxy, a God-centered existence that demands exacting adherence to ritual.
What these New Jews share is a search for meaning, a desire to commit to something outside themselves, something to fill the psychic void that no amount of money or material possessions can satisfy. As this new generation of Jews goes about the business of defining itself, the haunting legacy of generations past still marks its way.
WHEN SARA BAITCH WAS GROW-ing up, her parents, being the only Jewish family in their small Oklahoma town, didn’t readily identify themselves as Jews. Her only sense of Jewish identity came from her grandfather, who would take her to synagogue on weekend trips. Only after she went to college in the Midwest and studied theology did she finally come to Judaism. She needed structure for her growing spirituality, and Orthodox Judaism gave her that framework, requiring her to follow Jewish law to the letter. “By doing the mitzvot (commandments],” she says, “you sanctify the mundane. When you ritualize things like food, time, and sex, it’s spiritually uplifting. It gets you closer to God.”
For the Baitches, Friday evening isn’t just the beginning of another weekend; it’s the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat): twenty-five hours when the world spins more slowly. No phone. No TV. No driving. No work. Just a day to sanctify time, to renew relationships with family and friends.
Sara and her husband Larry Baitch, a vision scientist at Southwestern Medical School, passionately committed themselves to Orthodoxy after moving to Dallas several years ago. They consider themselves Modern Orthodox, able to harmonize the demands of two worlds-one contemporary, the other ancient-because of a fervent spirituality.
Since Sara is forbidden from cooking on Shabbat, she must prepare three meals each Friday afternoon. As always, she follows the dietary laws of kashrut, which require her to use two sets of dishes, utensils, and cook-ware to ensure that milk products remain separate from meat. By keeping kosher, even the act of eating becomes spiritually elevating, a way to place God in the center of every day.
Each Friday evening, Larry arrives home early from work in order to attend the evening service at Congregation Shaare-Tefilla. Sometimes he brings along his oldest son, now four, who cries if denied the privilege of going. Like many Orthodox children in Dallas, the Baitch children are being educated at a Jewish day school, Akiba Academy, within walking distance of their home. Larry must get to Shaare-Tefilla before sundown when the Shabbat ban on driving takes effect, He will walk home from synagogue, leaving his car parked there until the next evening when the third and final Shabbat service ends.
Larry grew up in Baltimore. His father was a doctor and a First-generation American; his mother a Holocaust survivor who refused to talk about her past, claiming she had no memory of it. Only when Larry visited Israel as a teenager did he begin to forge a strong Jewish identity. Israel seemed to fill in the blanks in his own background, giving him a sense of history that his own family had denied him. When he returned home, he wanted to keep kosher, but his mother was against it. He was first an American, she reminded him. People got killed for being that Jewish.
After services, Larry walks home from synagogue among twenty or so Orthodox Jews, some wearing yarmulkes and sporting long beards, a few dressed in the black hat and dark suit of the Hasidic Jew. Larry recalls many such walks down Preston Road, when drivers would throw stones and beer cans at them, or even try to run them down. Although these incidents reinforce his mother’s message-that being Jewish is not always healthy-Larry still holds fast to his Orthodoxy and grows more observant with time. Three years ago, somewhat reluctantly, the Baitches started following the laws of family purity, which cut their sex life in half, forbidding them from having relations until seven days after Sara’s menstrual period, and only then after she has been spiritually cleansed in the mikvah bath at synagogue. “Many things about Judaism come out of the Dark Ages.” says Larry, “but we have chosen this path-and this is what’s on the path.”
Mark Werbner has chosen a different road. Werbner is the sort of man every Jewish mother would wish for her daughter: a nice Jewish boy, a lawyer, a passionate if not zealous advocate for social justice.
But after making partner at Carrington, Coleman, a major Dallas law firm, Mark knew he wanted “to be more than just another lawyer driving down Central Expressway in a BMW.” His career had thrown him off balance. His wife, Cheryl, was also a lawyer; their friends were all lawyers. Missing was a sort of Jewish connective tissue, the Jewish friends and organizations they both had known as children.
Mark was raised in a Conservative synagogue in San Antonio. His Jewish education stopped after his Bar Mitzvah. when he became a “revolving-door Jew,” drawn into synagogue only by the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. To a young man caught up in the Sixties, religion seemed the stuff of unenlightened times. To Werbner. older Jews like his grandmother, a Russian immigrant whose Orthodoxy prevented her even from tearing paper on the Sabbath, were anachronisms. Still, Mark learned from his grandfather that you could be a good Jew if you were a good person. Morally, ethically, Jews were supposed to make the world a better place; it was part of Jewish destiny.
When Mark and Cheryl decided to become active in the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, they were more concerned with Jewish friends than Jewish destiny. For two years, the federation became Mark’s religion. He didn’t go to synagogue; he went to meetings-meetings to raise money for Israel, meetings to work for Jewish causes, meetings to fight anti-Semitism.
Despite his federation activities, Mark still felt some discomfort with his Jewish renewal. Before leaving for Israel on a federation-sponsored mission, he told his law firm he was traveling to the Middle East, not Israel. But once in Israel, he experienced an emotional epiphany. “I couldn’t explain the powerful attachment I felt to the land. But when I left. I had this aching-I knew I didn’t want to leave.”
Once back in Dallas, he looked deeper into his religion as a way to answer those questions and feelings. Although ritually he took from the Orthodox, philosophically he remained Reform, a more liberal brand of Judaism. “Reform doesn’t mean not doing,” he explains. “It means selecting those traditions that have meaning.” Although he didn’t keep “strictly kosher.” he stopped eating shellfish and bought only kosher meats. “I don’t do it because God ordained it. For me, it has an ethical message-that there are limitations to human desires, that we’re disciplined creatures, more than just animals.”
Mark became an advocate for Soviet Jewry, giving speeches around the country, lobbying legislators to press the Soviet government for the release of all Jews wishing to emigrate. He saw the cause as an essential ingredient of Jewish survival. What if his grandfather hadn’t been able to leave Russia in 1909?
Then came Gorbachev and Perestroika, and more recently the release of thousands of Soviet Jews, some of whom are settling in Dallas with the help of the federation’s resettlement program, “Operation Exodus.” Mark and Cheryl have volunteered as a host family, adopting two Russian families into their own. They are teaching these New Jews to drive, helping them with their English, taking them to synagogue.
In synagogue, Mark reads from the prayer book with the rest of the congregation, from a passage about making a better world, a world without tyranny. Because of where Mark’s been, whom he’s helped, these prayers have taken on new meaning. “I’ve learned you’ve gotta make your own meaning-that no one’s gonna do it for you.”
THERE’S A COMMON JEWISH SAYing, often delivered with a shoulder shrug and a raised eyebrow, that goes: “It’s not easy being Jewish.” Not for the 19th-century Jewish immigrant who came to Dallas to escape harsh laws restricting his economic freedom; not for the 20th-century immigrant who settled in Dallas after experiencing the horrors of Nazi genocide; not for the New Jews of Dallas who struggle daily with their identity, searching for meaning from ambiguity, for answers to the timeless questions of Jewish survival.
The earliest Jews who pioneered this city were aggressive German and French peddlers who came here with nothing, landing by ship in Galveston, working their way to Dallas by foot and by rail. In time, their storefronts dotted the downtown landscape as their accomplishments drew praise from Jew and Gentile alike. E.M. Kahn, Edward Titche, Philip Sanger, Adolph Harris, the Linz brothers- these Jews, among others, gained influence far in excess of their numbers, giving heartily to the civic, cultural, and business fabric of young Dallas. They were Texans first, Jews second. Their penchant for assimilation was the key to both their success and their religion.
Unswayed by tradition and ritual, they belonged to the Reform movement of Judaism, which had historically seen its mission as modernizing the Jew, moving him out of the ghetto and his ethnic mindset, focusing instead on social justice and universal truths. Reform Judaism felt very appropriate to these new Americans, leaving them free to choose which ritual, if any, had meaning.
Three generations later, nearly half of Dallas’s 38,000 Jews still consider themselves Reform, and many, like the Werbners, still belong to Temple Emanu-El, the synagogue founded by these early Jewish settlers. “Temple,” with more than 2,400 families, is now home to one of the five largest Reform congregations in the world.
The last five years at the North Dallas synagogue have seen a remarkable return to tradition. The catalyst for this return is Temple’s senior rabbi, Sheldon Zimmerman, who sees his mission as making the modern Jew more Jewish. He has increased the hours of worship at Temple, nudging his members toward the study of Hebrew and the Torah. He promotes a strong sense of Jewish self that, years before, would have been considered downright un-American.
This past January at Temple Emanu-El, twenty-two adults culminated eighteen months of study with their B’nai Mitzvah (a group Bar Mitzvah). As each was called to the Torah, many wondered why grown men and women would voluntarily resort to the tortured study of Hebrew without the tug of nagging parents. In his sermon, Rabbi Zimmerman provided the answer. “You have overcome the alienation of generations. Never again will Judaism be your stranger. This day is your reconciliation.”
Perhaps the most ardent expression of this “reconciliation” can be found among those New Jews returning to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox population here has doubled in the last decade. Orthodox Congregation Shaare-Tefilla has tripled in size in the last three years, its dramatic growth fueled, in part, by young Dallas families like the Baitches looking for a more traditional Jewish lifestyle.
Shaare-Tefilla’s rabbi, Howard Wolk, sees this return to Orthodoxy as a longing for moral and spiritual structure. For the Orthodox, that structure comes from the system of mitzvot, the covenant that observant Jews believe was divinely given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Despite what Cecil B. De Mille would have us believe, Moses didn’t receive just ten commandments; he received 613. Each is found in the Torah, a divine document, say Orthodox Jews, to be taken literally. Strict observance of these commandments gives Orthodox Jews an ethical map to guide their every action, from the mundane to the sublime. “Having a cellular phone cannot be a primary aspiration in life,” says Rabbi Wolk. “There has to be more.”
THE SATURDAY NIGHT MY EX-WIFE and I separated, I sat alone in my parents’ den, feeling an empty ache in my gut, overwhelmed by the fear that I might never see my son again. My only companion was the television set, which finally lulled me to sleep. Hours later, I awoke to the image of some pastor and his television ministry live from California. A glow emanated from his silvery hair as he spoke about the power of prayer and Christian fellowship, about transcending anguish by accepting God.
On any other day, like any other Jew, I would have turned off the TV. But this day, the pastor’s words hit me hard.
“Turn to the person next to you,” he said serenely, “and hold his hand.”
The camera panned the congregation, focusing on men and women joyfully embracing each other. “Now tell your neighbor that you love him-tell him that God loves him, too”
If I had been told to do that in synagogue, I would have felt foolish and put-upon. But these people seemed peaceful and content. This pristine act of faith seemed to fill them with a spiritual luster, absolving them of worry.
At that moment my apathy about my own religion soured into anger. Where was the God of Israel when I needed him the most? Judaism seemed to be totally irrelevant at this critical moment in my life. Never would I consider going to my rabbi to seek comfort or consolation. Never would I return to my synagogue to find spiritual solace. My religious observance was limited to twice a year, and that mostly to please my parents. And even if I had been more religious, would Judaism, with its tragic history of communal suffering, offer the means to ease my own pain?
When I was growing up in Dallas, my father, a survivor, chose to tell my sister and me his Holocaust story, often on Friday nights after the Sabbath meal had been served. His rough, Germanic edge seemed to soften as he spoke, reliving those last precious moments as a teenager in a Berlin train station when his mother told him goodbye. He traveled to London without his mother, father, or sister; his visa was the only one in the family that had been approved. And then came the worst part, his retelling of those sad words his mother had tearfully spoken: “My son,” she said, “I fear I will never see you again.” Even as a child, those words were so painful, so prophetic, that I’d try not to listen. Although I was taught to be proud of my Jewishness, I was encouraged to assimilate, to fit in, so that what happened to them couldn’t happen to me, Instead of soothing my fears, it heightened my ambivalence about being Jewish.
“There’s got to be something more positive than suffering for Judaism to survive,” says Arlington Rabbi Keith Stern, himself a child of survivors. “If Judaism is just about gas chambers, then why bother?”
Indeed, some Jews don’t. Bom Jewish into a Protestant culture, they feel awkward about their Jewishness, ashamed at how different it makes them feel. With America the most hospitable country Jews have ever known, with discrimination not only illegal but unacceptable, many Jews intermarry. Some agree with their new spouses that religion is unimportant to their relationship, that their children will be raised Jewish or Gentile- however they may mutually decide.
Ken and Kerry Mahrer of East Dallas thought they wanted their children exposed to both religions-Judaism from Ken, Methodism from Kerry. Once they were old enough, their two daughters, now five and three, could decide for themselves. “But the children couldn’t handle the ambiguity,” says Kerry. “It also became a stress point in our marriage.”
“When Christmas came and Kerry would explain to the girls about ’the baby Jesus,’” says Ken, “the hair on the back of my neck would stand up.” The Mahrers, wanting a moral anchor to help strengthen the girls’ identity, finally chose Judaism.
Now, in their home on Friday nights, the Mahrer family celebrates the Sabbath with prayers, food, and candles burning. Not only have the girls come to love these rituals, but Kerry is attending conversion classes and hopes to officially become Jewish this fall.
While some intermarriages replenish the Jewish community, others sap its strength. The intermarriage rate in Dallas is currently 48 percent, one of the highest in the nation, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. With the waning of anti-Semitism, much of the Jewish community sees intermarriage as the enemy from within and the greatest contemporary threat to Jewish survival. “With only five and a half million American Jews,” says Arnold Marks, executive director of Dallas’s Jewish Family Service, “the potential loss to the community is viewed with great alarm.”
Still, a majority of New Jews marry within the faith, following their parents’ wishes by refusing to break the chain of Jewish continuity. But leery of defining themselves too negatively, many are searching for the more positive aspects of their faith. They glean from the Holocaust a message of hope, not suffering, because from the ashes of the ovens rose the State of Israel, a Jewish homeland to ensure Jewish survival. They take pride in Israel’s accomplishments and raise money to fund its needs. Privately, they argue about the intransigence of Israeli politics, but publicly they vow to keep the nation strong and secure.
Other New Jews find meaning in tikkun olam, the belief that Jews are in partnership with God to fix the world. Still others find their Jewishness by breaking off into havurot, small groups often to twelve families of similar age and interest. Together, each havurah (group) celebrates the joy of being Jewish-sharing holidays and ethnic traditions, studying Jewish issues and Torah, hoping to personalize their Jewishness by making it more intimate.
“Our parents created American Judaism as a passive experience,” explains Rabbi Stem. “Their job was to sit and listen while the rabbi and the cantor did the liturgy. Well, this new generation wants to participate. They want intimacy in their worship and a personal relationship with their God.”
Older Jews often find the spiritual yearnings of these New Jews puzzling. Many Jewish immigrants left God in the ghetto, treating theology as superstition, incompatible with modern times. Their Judaism was a Judaism of action, not faith, concerned with the here and now, not the hereafter. Besides, how could they believe in a God who allowed six million innocents to die? How could they explain His absence to their children? Although many New Jews have inherited their parents’ discomfort with God, they still long to be touched spiritually in ways they don’t quite understand.
LAST FEBRUARY, MY FAMILY TRAVELED to Israel together-my father’s idea. At first I was resistant, upset by the Palestinian uprising, by media images of stone-throwing children reducing the Israeli army to riot police. Nevertheless, I agreed to go, as did a hundred other Dallas Jews, new and old alike, all part of a federation-sponsored “mission” designed to raise our consciousness as well as our contributions.
Once in Israel, we were treated like relatives who had finally returned home. Words like “family,” “community,” “common destiny” were bandied about, tugging at our heartstrings, bonding us in some inexplicable way. Only after I met Donna Goldberg, a Dallasite who made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel, did I begin to understand. She spoke about her own strong nationalistic feelings. Jews weren’t just part of a religion, but part of a nation, a people exiled from their land 2,000 years ago, conquered but not defeated, who refused to assimilate, holding stubbornly to their laws, traditions, language, and their dream of returning to the land where they once lived. “That’s why you feel you’ve come home again,” she said. “Because you have.”
To think that somewhere within my genetic makeup were these recessed genes of nationalistic fervor seemed appealing, but unlikely. Yet as we were shown Israel, a small country, in places only twelve miles wide, surrounded by enemies, we worried over its survival as we would a sick cousin. We debated the Palestinian question as if we were neighbors arguing over a fence. We met with Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Yemenite Jews, each alive and well because Jews now have a sanctuary, a homeland that will fight for their interests throughout the world. Evidence of peoplehood was everywhere, and I could feel myself opening up to it, allowing it to make me feel Jewish.
Then one day we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum memorializing the six million dead. I glanced at the gruesome photographs, read the haunting diaries, and listened to my parents as they shared their Holocaust experiences with those who’d gathered around them. Suddenly, I realized I was shutting down, feeling as though I were a child again, sitting at the dinner table, distancing myself from my father’s painful words. Yes, it was important that we always remember the Holocaust so it will never happen again, but if I am to find meaning in my own Jewish search, I want it to flow from pride not suffering, from peace not pogroms, from making a better world, not sanctifying a dead one.
I felt confused again. I needed something to resolve my feelings, some quick fix to reconnect me. I wanted the kind of spiritual elevation the Orthodox feel after endless ritual, or the godly solace that comforted the TV congregation I watched that Sunday morning. So I caught a cab, returning to the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem. I picked up a prayer book, donned a yarmulke, and stood only inches from the Wall, as close to God as a Jew can physically get. And then I prayed, prayed hard in Hebrew, in English. Nothing seemed to happen. I wanted a sign, a miracle, some spiritual pyrotechnics that would renew me Jewishly. Once again the God of Israel didn’t make Himself known to me-and I was in His hometown.
I looked around, figuring maybe He was busy with someone else. And then I noticed that hundreds of Jews of every size, shape, and circumstance were there, praying in the same language on that same spot. And I wondered how these people from such a tiny country, who had been conquered and exiled and murdered, who had survived the Greeks, the Romans, the Nazis, mighty cultures bent on their assimilation or extinction-how these people could still be here after thousands of years.
I realized that my parents were these people, their suffering a tragic piece of a wonderful mosaic. As a child, that piece loomed too large in my mind. To me, being Jewish was the Holocaust. But now I could see it was only part of my identity, a part I had to wrestle with, but could no longer run from.
When I retumed from Israel, I gave myson Adam, now seven, a gift-a Jewish starhanging from a gold necklace, which hepromptly and proudly displayed outside hisshirt. On several occasions. I caught myselfreaching for the star, anxiously tucking it inside. Then, one time he stopped me and saidhe liked wearing it out. For him there was noshame in it; being proud of his Jewishnessseemed a natural extension of who he was.I was the one who felt awkward about hiswearing his religion so visibly. But I was alsothe one who needed to reinforce his naturalpride, not pass on the legacy of ambivalenceI was only beginning to resolve for myself.Never again, I decided, would I hide hisJewish star.
MY BAR MITZVAH, MY