Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year
Becoming fluent in your own religious tradition is like playing an instrument or a sport: It takes time, dedication, and practice.
First, a lot of us don’t want to spend five or 10 Saturdays a year, let alone 52, in synagogue. Or three minutes a day with a prayer book. Or two intensive weeks in the summer. However you divvy up the time, it sounds like too much. If that’s what it takes to really feel comfortable with the tradition, then to heck with it. To that I can say: OK, no problem. I’m not here to save you. Do whatever you want. I wrote this essay to comfort you, to reassure you that it’s not you, and it’s not Judaism. You are fine, and the religion is fine. But the religion is not native to you anymore, so if you do want a greater ease with it, it will take some time. Just as with guitar, or basketball. Or French or Swahili. If they aren’t native, they take a little work.
Second, some Jews will be unnerved because they don’t want to be told that their Judaism is no longer native. They feel Jewish, after all. Maybe they like lox, or Woody Allen, or Jonathan Safran Foer, or Yiddish expressions, or Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.” If they feel such comfort with aspects of Jewish culture, why should they feel so alienated from synagogue attendance? And who am I to tell them they are non-native Jews? My only response is that if you got this far in the essay, it’s probably because you want some connection with the religious tradition, not just with the cultural tradition. You want the Jewish religion to nurture you somehow—maybe at weddings or funerals, maybe when your child is born, maybe when you have questions about how to spend your brief time on earth. And for that kind of stuff, Blue Jasmine won’t do the same work (although I hear it’s one of his best in years).
Religious practice, like musical or athletic practice, is easier for some than for others. For some people, it is so difficult that they probably should not even bother. I have no ear for music, and if I wanted to learn guitar even reasonably well it would take so many hours, at the cost of so much frustration, that I should probably just skip it. For some people, religion is like that: They don’t get it, they don’t see why it is meaningful, their not-getting-it makes them angry or resentful or sad or bored, and they would always rather be doing something else. Such people should, I think, stop trying. Don’t worry that your bubbe is looking down from heaven ashamed of you; after all, you don’t believe in heaven anyway. On Yom Kippur this year, do something that brings you joy, that takes you out of yourself, that helps you reflect, but don’t come to synagogue.
For everyone else, however, those of you who feel that maybe religion holds something for you, some mystery you just haven’t unlocked yet, or connection to a tradition you value, think about those things you have mastered, maybe in arts or sports, that came in time, with some regular practice. Think how rewarding those things are now. Maybe religion is like that. And maybe the next time you go to synagogue, you should take a bucket of balls, and not worry if you double-fault.
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Isolation didn’t help Jonah find redemption inside the whale. It isn’t helping thousands of American prisoners today, either.