Quite coincidentally, I found myself putting this post together on the eve of Passover, a major holiday in Judaism. Having been born Jewish, albeit a non-practicing one throughout my adult life, my only real connection with mainstream religious practice has been via Judaism. The last and probably most powerful "religious experience" in my life came as a teenager just shy of my 17th birthday, following the death of my father. The closest that I came to being religious, prior to his death, had been when I was bar mitzvah'd at the age of 13, an event that, among my friends, was more a coming of age, social event than a religious event. Following my bar mitzvah, there were only a few times I had even been in a synagogue, until the death of my father.
Although my father was always a 'practicing' Jew and active in support of Zionist causes, he was for most of his life, what was referred to as a 'three day a year' or 'High Holiday' Jew - meaning that his primary religious practice occurred during the Jewish 'High Holidays': Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Pesach (Passover). Upon the death of his father (only several years prior to his own death), he became somewhat more religious, embracing the Jewish tradition of saying the Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for his father, each morning at the synagogue. Upon his death, my mother requested that my brother and I honor this tradition for the year following his death. Reluctantly I agreed. My father died at the end of May and shortly thereafter, I began my summer vacation prior to my senior year in high school. For the summer, I had a job working in a factory and wore work clothes when I visited the local synagogue for the morning prayer. I was dressed appropriately for my job, as a factory worker. None of the other men (no women) who came to pray were my peers - most of them in their 50s and older. And they were all dressed like businessmen. I don't think that any one of them actually said a word to me or bothered to find out what I, a 17 year old boy who had just lost his father, was doing there. Several weeks into my effort to honor my father, one of the men informed me that some of the regulars who attended the morning prayer felt that I was dressed inappropriately for the occasion. After a brief conversation with my mother, it was decided that I would no longer attend the morning prayer at the synagogue.
Although it is unlikely that I would have ever become a 'practicing' Jew, this event came to inform my feelings concerning organized religion, for the rest of my life. Almost 20 years later, while working as a newspaper photographer in Chicago, I was given an assignment to spend some time with a rabbi, for a kind of 'day in the life' photo essay, beginning with his preparation for the morning prayer. In the photo below, the rabbi wraps his head and arm in the traditional 'teffilin' that include small leather boxes containing the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Old Testament), as the other morning worshippers file into the room. Curiously, the synagogue was located in the same neighborhood as the synagogue I have visited as a teen in order to pray for my father.
Almost 40 years later, I was waiting for our flight back home from Italy, in Rome's Da Vinci airport at around 7 in the morning, when a group of orthodox Jews filed into the departure area and began to prepare for the morning prayer, as they waited for their flight.
To this day, I certainly feel my Jewishness, but for the cultural influence it has had on me, rather than the religious aspect. Jewishness is not something you put on and take off as you please, like a piece of clothing. It is a thread of history that you are born into. You only need to read about the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany in the history books in order to understand this.
See you next time.