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“There’s even a Jewgle!”
Sky Samuelson laughed loudly as he announced this. We were all laughing and having fun long after dessert was finished. Sky is a good friend of Larkin’s best friend. He’s also a good kid, and a spiritually impressive one. At twelve, after years of a Unitarian upbringing, he announced that he didn’t feel God around him and that he wanted to return to his paternal Jewish roots. An otherwise typical teenager gets himself into Hebrew School and studies and prepares and merits a Bar Mitzvah by his fourteenth birthday. Wow! We bought a cake with which to celebrate his achievement and couldn’t wait to have him, his family and our mutual friends over for dinner.
“I wanted to go in the direction of my family,” Sky explained. This actually explains a lot about Judaism, as it is an ethnicity as much as it is a religion. The two are intimately intertwined. The more we talked about what it means to be Jewish, it became apparent that Sky and his dad and Jews in general aren’t so caught up in parsing particular “meanings” or distinctions between the various movements within Judaism so much as they are invested so deeply in the tribal fact of being Jewish.
When we visited with Rabbi Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim, Kyrie asked him what percentage of Jews were Reform or Conservative or Orthodox. He replied, “I don’t know. I do know that we are all linked together – we share common prayers, common thoughts, and common ideas – and that the point is not the denomination so much as being out there, being engaged together and helping people out.” Kyrie exclaimed, “That’s a really good answer!”
Rabbi Blumofe is a Conservative Jew, and Sky’s family is Reform. Yet, over and over again, what we heard from both of them spoke much more of common ground than of any kind of conflict. And, again and again, we heard laughing. Sky’s family is a riot of warmth and good-natured jesting. Sky described the Talmud as a long historical record of a bunch of rabbis sitting around arguing. I mentioned the new term “Burger King spirituality” to Rabbi Blumofe, explaining that it referenced the modern – and, for many spiritual traditionalists, controversial – phenomenon of so many people picking and choosing different parts of different religions and creating a personal spiritual amalgamation, thus “having it their way.” I quickly asserted that I am really loving this. “Then you’re a McDonald’s spiritualist!”
Last night, I googled “Jewgle.” A charming Google-esque splash page opened up complete with a search bar along with two buttons, “Jewgle Search” and “I’m Feeling Holy,” so I typed in mitzvah in hopes of finding an interesting new link. Instead, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Here are the links that appeared:
Did you mean: Oy, I need a nosh
Find a nice, Jewish person
You mother worries about you – she just wants you to be happy, and she really does know what’s best for you. You can search for mitzvah later…
http://www.jdate.com – 36k
Call you mother instead of searching the internet for mitzvah…
These newfangled VOIP services make it so cheap, and she really hasn’t heard from you in a while. Would it kill you to pick up the phone and give your mother a call?…
http://www.viatalk.com – 18k
He’Brew, The Chosen Beer
Way more fun than mitzvah – delicious beer and delicious schtick. L’Chaim!…
http://www.schamltz.com – 1818k
You’re too thin. Eat something.
Soups, smoked fish, bagels – all strictly kosher…
http://www.bloomsdeli.com – 54k until 120k
After I recovered from so much giggling, I clicked the Torah tab alongside the Web tab. All that popped up was:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The rest is commentary.
But still, if you want to read the whole thing, go forth and study!
That underlined link led to an Amazon page for the Torah. In and amongst all the laughing and celebration in Judaism is the constant exhortation to do good, mitzvah, and to be good to others. After a lot of research, this is the only really Jewish dogma I can find. I find this quite refreshing.
For a religion that my girls and I have relatively so much contact with, Judaism still had us a bit stumped as we began our study of it. I asked, “Just for starters, what do you already know about Judaism?”
“Uh…,” was their first chorus. Then, with the inflection more of questions than answers, they said, “Hannukah? Passover? Yom Kippur? Bar and Bat Mitzvahs?”
These responses soon revealed themselves to be more insightful than we would have thought, because we quickly learned that Judaism as a faith and a practice is much less concerned with doctrine or dogma than with practical and active spiritual engagement in life.
At a website called Judaism 101 (jewfaq.org), I clicked “Beliefs” under the “Ideas” tab and found this confounding opening:
“What Do Jews Believe?”
This is a far more difficult question than you might expect. Judaism has no dogma, no formal set of beliefs that one must hold to be a Jew. In Judaism, actions are far more important than beliefs, although there is certainly a place for belief within Judaism.
Jews seem much more interested in and committed to bringing God into daily life than transcending daily life in favor of “more” spiritual pursuits. In Judaism, every moment of life is spiritual. The fact that so many Jews are so dedicated to celebrating and honoring the many Jewish holidays each year is a very practical expression of this theology. So, when my girls were listing major Jewish celebrations, they actually had a good intuitive grasp of what it means to be Jewish.
Those many holidays also speak to the importance of Jewish history in Jewish beliefs. We visited with Jason Neulander, creator of the live-action graphic novel theatrical phenomenon that is The Intergalactic Nemesis and founder of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater. If ever there was a guy who understands the impact of stories, he is it, and he wanted us to understand how elemental the story of the Jewish people is to their religion. “The condition of being persecuted, of being without a home for millennia, defines the Jewish identity. Throughout the Jewish calendar, all of the holidays speak to this self-identification.”
Jason’s own surname certainly speaks to this common theme in Jewish history. Jason’s father has traced their roots as far back as the 15th century CE in the Iberian peninsula. After Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews in 1492, Jason’s forbears moved to Austria and changed the family’s name to “Neulander,” meaning “A New Land.”
My girls were transfixed as Jason told more and more great stories. When we asked him what he believes as a Jew, however, he almost seemed stumped. The question seemed a bit delimiting to him, I think. As far as Jewish doctrine, he simply said, “It’s about empathy. That’s my spirituality. I believe that I am here to bring up my kids to be good people and to be a good person myself, to lead by example. Rather than believing so much in a Higher Being “out there,” I believe in a Higher Purpose. I believe this Higher Purpose is about how we make our world.”
As we got in the car after our coffee with Jason, my girls were more quiet than usual. They were beginning to feel the weight, the real heft of history in the story of Judaism in particular and in the history of religion in general. I’m feeling it, too. I just learned that “Mazel Tov” actually means “good luck” instead of the more commonly assumed “congratulations.” Not in the sense of wishing it, but in celebration of its occurrence. Jason was our first mazel tov. I’m wishing for more now.