Family Matters: Lone Star (of David) No More
The most difficult part of moving, one religious seeker discovered, is finding a new spiritual home, a congregation to call one’s own.
Over a year ago, my husband, Eric, went snowboarding with the rabbi of the Reconstructionist synagogue in Evergreen, Colorado, where we were members. A Conservative rabbi from Boulder came along. The rabbis were younger than Eric, in their midthirties, and the conversation centered on alpine gear and liturgy.
“They sang a 20-minute prayer going through the tunnel,” Eric said. “It was beautiful.”
So was the powder. The rabbi-snowboarders wore kippot on the slopes. All in all, a good day to be a Colorado Jew.
A Colorado Jew was the only kind of Jew I had ever been. Raised a cultural atheist in New York, I didn’t even see the inside of a synagogue until I was 40. Congregation Beth Evergreen had 200 member families from all wings of Judaism, thrown together because our town wasn’t very big. The author Joanne Greenberg helped found the shul over 30 years earlier, and with a constant influx of Jews, it had prospered without sacrificing its eccentricity.
My family became religious Jews there. My daughter Coco had her bat mitzva there. My own bat mitzva, two years later, was the most meaningful day of my life.
I thought CBE was a normal synagogue—until Eric got a promising new job in Austin, Texas, and I began the search for a new place to worship.
Within days of moving, i fell in love with austin’s food and music as well as the Southern hospitality, which has to be experienced to be believed. Just about every aspect of our lives fell into place. Judaism was the exception.
I thought the local Reconstructionist synagogue was a little too small and disorganized. I found Reform rituals uncomfortably church-like. The postdenominational shul was similar to CBE but not similar enough, which made me too sad. The snowboarding Boulder rabbi suggested that Conservative Judaism, a denomination in flux, might be a good fit. The Austin congregation was brimming with activity.
Coco jumped in first, joining United Synagogue Youth. I attended the first parent meeting dressed in my Sunday morning cycling clothes, which I had somehow never noticed were skintight and sleeveless. By contrast, Conservative parents seemed to dress…conservatively. I felt out of place and ever so slightly alienated.
It wasn’t the shul’s fault. At Friday night services, kind old Southerners greeted us with “Shalom, y’all!” The hazzan—a smart and disarming man with a voice sent from heaven via New Orleans—guided us through Psalms recited in breakneck Hebrew with barely enough time to read translations I considered archaic. Though the service was intimate and I really wanted to like it, it seemed as incomprehensibly hidebound as a mass celebrated in Latin.
And there were no musical instruments. I had played the piano back at CBE, even written my own tune to “Mi Khamokha.”
After listening patiently as i kvetched, the hazzan invited me to hang around some more and come to my own conclusions. I concluded that his Hebrew school was admirably rigorous, that wearing a little doily in your hair at services was ridiculous and that the congregation as a whole knew almost too much Hebrew for my own good.
Still, we joined in time for Rosh Hashana, choosing to attend a service led by a promising Brooklyn rabbi. She stopped the ritual several times to take apart the text and ask for input. I was happily taking notes when an usher tapped me on the shoulder.
“You’re not supposed to write during services,” she said.
“I want to remember this stuff later.”
“Writing is work,” she said. “We don’t work on holidays.”
Sure, writing is work. It’s my work. But didn’t Hillel tell us to “go and study?” I walked out of the service and barely stayed long enough on Yom Kippur to hear Kol Nidrei. On the day when all Jews are commanded to pray in community, I no longer had one. So I dropped my daughters off at Hebrew school and hoped for the best.
When my new book, a memoir of my transition to practicing Judaism, came out, I began appearing on panels with other Jewish authors, most of them with clearly stated disinterest in religion. In Seattle, I gave a d’var Torah at a shul where over half the congregation, including the rabbi, was gay. The sanctuary was full of children—all singing. I soaked up the notes of the guitar. My subject was on the parasha of Lekh Lekha, which I interpreted as, Abraham, leave your father’s house. I’ll show you where to go, but right now, trust me, just go.
At the Kiddush, people were irreverent and smart—not a crowd that read Torah literally. I would have joined in a heartbeat. Instead, I tried to learn from Abraham, who didn’t exactly join a synagogue when he left his father’s house. He practiced Judaism in the desert—a place commonly accepted as the middle of nowhere.
But at least he had his tribe.
Back in Austin, I began planning a Friday night minyan. I wanted so much out of it—music, discussion, a place for my beloved Reconstructionist prayer book, full wineglasses at the Kiddush.
Six people accepted my invitation; eleven showed up. We sat wedged into my sofas, smiling at each other like 10-year-olds at a summer camp mixer. I walked over to the piano and played “Shalom Aleikhem,” burning with embarrassment, but with happiness, too, because people were actually singing.
Shortly after the call to worship, the minyan broke into a wide-ranging Torah discussion that concluded with the Aleinu prayer. You couldn’t really call it a service, but it was friendly, if noncommittal. It would be my job to ask for a second date.
In the meantime, I kept looking around, visiting two Reform congregations, trying to assemble an à la carte Judaism. I enjoyed the Reform rabbi’s funny-yet-deep sermon as well as the postdenominational Torah study group full of such disparate Jews that one was rumored to be Mormon.
But I still couldn’t shake off my melancholy. My 9-year-old daughter, Gus, put a stop to this when she announced she would be keeping kosher from now on.
“It’s the only Jewish thing I can do,” she said. “We didn’t even have Purim this year.”
Discreetly avoiding cheeseburgers and the oysters she used to love, she has kept her word, almost as if she were aware of the small-town Southern Jews of long ago, who grew up observant in places where no other Jewish families lived, with the nearest synagogue hundreds of miles away.
She was doing her part to live in a Jewish home. But wasn’t a Jewish home supposed to stem from a Jewish mother? It was time to step up.
Our Seder this year was beautiful. Ten friends and neighbors, only three of them Jews, joined us on our back porch, bringing readings to add to our homemade Haggada. Here in central Texas, the white roses are in full bloom on Pesah. I hadn’t felt so fulfilled in more than a year.
And then i met rosa, the mother of Gus’s best friend in Hebrew school. Rosa grew up Conservative in Mexico City, spent time as a Buddhist and most recently was an involved member of a Boston synagogue. She hadn’t been in Austin long, either. We connected one night over dinner and have not stopped talking since.
Neither of us plans to renew our Conservative synagogue membership, but we no longer feel lost, either. Our families have had two Shabbat dinners together, and Rosa and I are forming a co-op Hebrew school.
This is not a vague concept, but a reality in the making, even though we may be the only teachers and our daughters the only students. Over the next three years, we’ll prepare them for their bat mitzvas by doing whatever it takes, even though I have no idea yet what that might mean.
We’re a congregation of two adults and two children—not even a minyan. I can’t imagine what we’ll do for Rosh Hashana, for instance. On the other hand, we’re not exactly in the middle of nowhere. Not anymore.
Robin Chotzinoff is the author of Holy Unexpected: My New Life as a Jew (PublicAffairs).