I am a Jew. Now what?

I have not blogged for a very long time. I have been busy promoting my books: And So It Was Written  and Clouds Across the Sun. Along the way I have been experimenting with what I would write next. It has not been easy. I have begun several books but nothing made me want to spend all day writing: until now. I believe there are Jews out there just like me. We were raised Jewish, and we are proud. But we know so little about our religion. Where do we start? My goal is to keep it simple, to learn, listen, teach and grow. I am not a scholar. I am a seeker who loves the traditions of Judaism. As I finish a chapter I will post it. There will be much editing along the way so don’t be too critical. I will honor your opinions.

I am a Jew. Now What? (working title)

Chapter 1

The DNA of Judaism

I was a twice-a-year Jew: I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur and on Rosh Hashanah. Out of a strong feeling of obligation, we always belonged to a synagogue and my sons had a Bar Mitzvah and my daughter a Bat Mitzvah. That was the extent of my Judaic participation.

Then events happened in my life that led me back to Judaism. I say back, because as Jews none of us are ever really that far away. The fog may have set in, and we may have looked elsewhere for answers but in the end we begin to remember that we all stood together at Sinai and that Judaism is in our DNA.

I am on a quest to simplify the understanding of this complicated religion. In doing so, I am reaching my hand out to you, asking you to join me. If you are wondering what I believe, here goes—I embrace the Reform and the Conservative movements and the teachings of Chabad. In other words, I take what I like from each. Some would say that makes me a hypocrite and a heretic. I would say I am just a searching Jew.

Just like we have to put one foot in front of the other to walk forward, I want to tell you how this journey began for me. At 92, my father was still driving at night and was a fabulous golfer. When my brother called at two in the afternoon on my sister-in-law’s birthday to say that daddy had not called her, I knew we were in trouble. I had tried to call him several times earlier in the day and he had not answered. I thought he was probably out for a walk or doing errands from the running list he always kept. Please indulge me and if what comes next makes you sad. I am sorry. But I see now that day was the beginning of it all—not the end.

I was working with my writing group when the call came from my brother. The person who lived closest to my father’s townhouse was my beloved x-daughter-in-law, Randi, the mother of my two granddaughters. I called Randi and said, “Please just drive over to Papa’s house to see if his car is in the driveway.” I could hear her fighting back the terror as she said, “Oh no! What will I do if it is there?” Ten minutes later my cell phone rang. Randi was weeping. “The car is here.” She adored my father and I was and still am so sorry that I put her through the ordeal that ensued. Yet, there is not another person in the world who could have shown the dignity and grace that she showed.

She stayed on the phone with me until the police arrived and broke in the door. From the moment they entered his two-story townhouse they knew my father was dead. She stayed outside relating everything that was happening. I was forty-five minutes away! I knew I could not drive and so I called my husband, making up an excuse for him to come and pick me up, not telling him what had happened—my father was my husband’s best friend.

I am not sure how we managed to drive to the house; the traffic was a nightmare, just like the nightmare we were in. My brother and sister-in-law and my daughter were already at the house by the time my husband and I arrived. My daughter was seven months pregnant. When I walked up the stairs, she was alone in the room with my father. Daddy was on the floor in his boxer shorts. He had passed away the way I hope I will—laying on the floor doing exercises. My husband stayed a few minutes and then he too went downstairs.

I sat beside my father on the floor, staring, talking to him, touching him. With death, his sun-lined face was smooth. He had a Band-aid on his toe. The Band-aid looked so incongruous, so ridiculous: he was dead! My daughter, Carrie and I just sat with him. His body had begun to decompose but neither of us was aware of anything but our great loss. In that few hours as we waited for the funeral home to arrive, I could feel his soul hovering over us. I wasn’t afraid—just so sad. The only person left in the world who would ever love me unconditionally was gone. He was my hero and my heart was broken. Some would say I was so lucky to have him had for so long, and that is so true. But he was always there and now he was gone. I would not trade those three hours that I sat with him for anything. My daughter stayed with me. I think it brought us closer than we had ever been. It made me see death in a different way. I understood that he would always be with me just as my mother has always been with me. My father wore a mezuzah around his neck, and I remember taking it off his cold heavy body and putting it around my neck. I later gave it to my eldest son; he has never taken it off.

Dad was a religious man, going to the Conservative synagogue every Saturday. He was blessed to have my brother and me, seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren. After services every Saturday he would call each of us to wish us a Shabbat Shalom, never pushing his ritual on any of us. When I would call him later in the day on the Sabbath and ask what he was doing, he would always say the same thing: “My Shabbas thing. I am reading and relaxing.”

As I write this, I can still envision my family sitting in a circle in the rabbi’s study the day after my father passed away. As is the custom in Judaism, we took turns talking about my father as the rabbi listened. When it was my turn, I told the Rabbi that my father used to tease me and say, “I want you to say Kaddish for me when I die.” (Kaddish for the dead entails eleven months of going to synagogue every day to say the prayer.) I would retort by saying, “You are not going to die” and then add, “Please don’t lay that on me!” We would laugh. I really expected the rabbi to say, “that’s very nice. I think it would be lovely if you went every Saturday.” What I did not know was that the Conservative movement had changed and that woman were now counted in that minyan of ten Jews needed in order to recite the blessing aloud. The rabbi looked at me and smiled. He loved my father. He said, “I think that it would be wonderful for you to fulfill your father’s wishes.”

I know you are beginning to get the picture. I left that circle knowing that my life was about to change. I also knew that my father knew it needed changing. I write historical Jewish fiction. My last book, And So It Was Written pretends a Third Temple was built during the three years when the Jews defeated Rome and ruled Israel in the year 131 of the Common Era. My father, thank G-d, had lived to read the first draft of that book. I believe in miracles, not coincidence. So many things have happened over the years, so many messages that I recognized and then rationalized away. So, I believe that my father knew I needed to be a better Jew if my book was going to be successful. He was right.

The only Conservative synagogue near my condominium on South Beach that had morning services was the Cuban Hebrew Congregation. Services were at 7:30 am. I remember that first day as if it were yesterday. The doorway into the building during the week is around the back and I could not find my way in or a place to park my car. By the time I figured it out, I was already late and crying. Shoving the tears from my face with an angry swipe I found my way in. I had my father’s tallit, prayer shawl, and his yarmulke with me in the frayed blue velvet bag he had used for over fifty years. I brought the yarmulke to my mouth to kiss it before putting in on my head. I could not believe it! The little round gold embroidered head covering still smelled like my father. I could sense him through his scent. I wrapped that tallit, the prayer shawl, around my shoulders, feeling as though my father was hugging me as I sat down.

Something magical was taking place. But it didn’t last for long. By the time I figured out what book to use and what page they were on, I was frantic—a stranger in a strange land. The Hebrew looked so foreign, it might as well have been written in Chinese. To make things worse, I did not know that on Monday and Thursday they read the Torah, which added a half hour to what I considered an already too-long service.

So now here I was, my sentence to attend seven days a week for eleven months. When the Torah was carried down the aisle and I knew enough to use my prayer shawl to kiss the scroll. A man about my father’s age, a man I later learned was called Rav Malka, began reading the designated weekly portion from the Torah. After he finished reading the old rabbi turned to me.

“You are here to say Kaddish?”

I nodded.

“Come,” he said, beckoning me forward. “What was your father’s name?”

“Irving Glicken,” I replied.

“What was his Hebrew name?”

I was horrified as I shook my head and my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t know.

“Shh. It’s okay,” he whispered. “You can find out. What is your Hebrew name?”

That one I knew and I told him. Then he said a prayer over me, just words in Hebrew that I didn’t understand. But those words swirled around me as if he were taking me into his arms.

It was now time to say the Kaddish prayer. When my mother passed eight years earlier, I said the prayer everyday by myself in my home, just Mom, me, and G-d. Rav Malka led me in prayer, saying each word slowly, allowing me to grieve. When I went back to my seat, I knew I was in the right place.

Before I go on I want to share the words said by my six-year-old granddaughter when she was told of my father’s passing. Randi told her that Papa had died because his heart was tired and it broke. My little Emma said: but my heart was not ready for his heart to be broken.

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