Morah Devorah gives a sermon

This post is looooong because our rabbi asked me to give a sermon during our Shabbat service this past Saturday. After the service, a few people approached me and wondered if they could get copies of the sermon. I told them I would post it on the blog. So, everyone give a warm, Peaches & Coconuts welcome to the gracious and supportive members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

Just so you all know, I am not a Jewish scholar by ANY stretch of the imagination. It’s a slow time at shul during the summer months. Often a Jewish un-scholar like me gives a talk where the rabbi would normally deliver a sermon. We’re back to our regularly scheduled programming on Rosh Hashanah.

The sermon is usually an explanation or commentary of that week’s Torah portion. When a Jewish un-scholar like me gives a sermon, it may or may not have anything to do with the Torah portion specifically though the subject will be in some way related to Jewish life.

I was more than a bit nervous for a multitude of reasons. When we are at synagogue, we are always at the children’s service with the boys. I can’t remember the last time I attended a grown-up service. I was more than rusty. Furthermore, the subjects about which I speak do not always appeal to everyone.

Deborah: Gabriella, do you think I can talk about my vagina during services?

Gabriella: I would advise against it.

Deborah: Ok. Scratch my vagina.

I was also nervous because I did want to tie my little talk into the Torah portion in some way, but being the un-scholar that I am, the task seemed daunting. The rabbi told me which portion we were reading for the week. I researched various commentaries. I extracted a few lines here and there and wove them into the sermon in a relevant manner. It took me ages, and I lost sleep.

Saturday morning, I arrived at synagogue. Congregants wished me luck, and I sat next to a friend who gave me the run down of the service so I’d know when it was too late to go to the loo. While we were talking, she referred to the Torah portion. She quoted some lines and gave me her thoughts on its meaning, and then I started to stare at her while the blood drained out of my face and into my feet. Oh, fu…. I grabbed the program for the service and confirmed that, in fact, the rabbi had given me the wrong Torah portion. I had crafted an entire sermon and worked in a few jokes specifically about LAST WEEK’S TORAH PORTION.

I quickly grabbed my notes and ran to a dark room far away from the service. I had 30 minutes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the rules on Shabbat, there are many. One of the rules is that we are not supposed to write. Well, this was an emergency. I found a pen and crouched in the darkest corner of the room so that I could rework the sermon. Writing on Shabbat….in the synagogue. Oy. I couldn’t sweat it. I finished just in time. (For those of you who care, the portion was Ki Tavo, but I had prepared for Ki Tetzey)

I will forgive the rabbi on Yom Kippur, but not a day before that. Ok, well maybe I’ve already forgiven her. There were enough similarities in the portions that I could keep the majority of the text. But, man, I was freaking out.

Here it is, warts and all.

I got an email from Rabbi Roston about a month ago that began “Don’t laugh…don’t say no…think about it….” She said that she thought the congregation would love to hear my perspective on Jewish identity, blogging, writing and raising Jewish kids. I thought to myself, “Must be a slow news day in South Orange.” I couldn’t resist the invitation because in my own house, I am mostly ignored. So here I am. Whether you will “love” it or not, I appreciate your pretending to pay attention…which is more than I get at home.

A bit about the Torah portion and how it relates to me and my mother.
This week’s torah portion is actually the perfect springboard to discuss how I ended up standing before you this morning. Reading the portion, I felt myself transported to my childhood, to the back of our family’s Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon. We’re pulling up into the driveway, before opening the doors to the car and in “preparation of entering the only homeland I knew” my mother would always say, “The neighbors do not need to know that the Goldsteins are now home. Please leave the car quietly like the ladies you are…OR ELSE!”

I learned early on that when we made an entrance anywhere be it school or synagogue or even our own home, we were to behave in an exemplary manner for all those who may well be watching. Therefore, I call this Torah portion, The Driveway Mantra Let’s face it. After 40 years in the desert, the Israelites were probably behaving like a bunch of rowdy kids in the back seat of a car returning from a road trip to Disney World before car seats were required to strap them all in place. Sometimes, parents need to lay down the law.

Truth be told, I had to call Rabbi Roston and ask, “Are we, as Conservative Jews supposed to believe that these commandments came directly from God? Really? All these punishments and curses?” Rabbi Roston assured me that the legal tradition did not end with the Torah and the rabbinic process continually interprets the torah and helps it evolve. These laws are subject to interpretation and that the hallmark of the Conservative movement is that we do NOT know God’s will, but we are all doing our best to figure it out. Well, that’s a relief.

My mother probably would have done well in biblical times. The laws were straightforward, and sinners were punished. Everyone knew his or her place.

It was quite a pristine glass house in which we lived, and my mother didn’t allow visitors unless they ate the same flavor of Judaism that she did. There was no room in our glass house for questions or debate or any shade of grey whatsoever. According to my mother, the Orthodox are fanatics. The Reform are heathens. Jews don’t drink. Jews don’t get divorced. Jews subscribe to a higher moral code than everyone else. And because her Judaism was so unyielding and inflexible, and because she could not stand a rocking boat, she cut us off from extended family and from our own Jewish community. I couldn’t wait to take a big stone to that glass house and get out there as soon as I could.

I left my home in the suburbs of Chicago and didn’t look back when I arrived in New York City at Barnard College. My parents were pleased that I’d be attending a school filled with Jews, and I was pleased that I was far away from them. My roommate, Johanna, showed up with a mezuzah in one hand and a hammer in the other. She asked if she could put the mezuzah on the door frame of our room. I looked at her blankly-stunned for a brief moment that somehow the Jewish mafia was following me. She took my silence for ignorance and started explaining the meaning of the mezuzah. “Yes, yes,” I said interrupting her mid lesson. “I know what it is. Go ahead. Please. Put it up.”

Johanna said her prayers every morning and pre-ripped the toilet paper before Shabbat. She spent just as much time looking for an acceptable husband as she did studying. Her days were filled with ritual and prayer, and I felt so far away from her Judaism. But when we clocked into our room for the night, we talked a lot. I did learn quite a bit from her–more than I had been able to or wanted to absorb in Hebrew school. Here was the fanatic Orthodox Jew that my mother had always feared-living in my dorm room. I had questions about her rituals and her faith. She answered them to the best of her abilities. I realized that while I would never be Orthodox, my mother was misguided. Judaism was much more fluid than she had taught me. From that day forward, I shut the door on my mother’s Judaism and decided to look cautiously for another way in. I may not accept all of the commandments in the Driveway Mantra Torah portion just as I do not accept my mother’s brand of Judaism. But I learned that Judaism was not so black and white and that there was, in fact, a place for me in it.

Another way in.
My parents did everything to provide a solid Jewish foundation for their children. I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois which was, at the time, 65% Jewish. It wasn’t until I went to a secular overnight camp that I realized that the majority of the world was not, in fact, Jewish. My mother gave me stationary that looked like matzah, and writing home on my matzah paper became a teaching moment for the girls in my cabin.

My parents named me Deborah, and my siblings are Rachel and Benjamin. We belonged to North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, also a conservative synagogue. Kept a kosher kitchen, attended High Holiday services and Hebrew school, and we all had Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. On the outside, we appeared to be a nice, Jewish family. But I’m here to tell you that going through the motions is not foundation enough to guarantee that the traditions live on from one generation to the next. It was the community that was missing, and, therefore, a connection to a positive, Jewish identity.

And because I did not feel a positive connection to my own people, I had no interest in joining a youth group or continuing my Jewish education past my Bat Mitzvah. Before I thought about having my own family, I packed up my Jewish identity in a suitcase called “Childhood Baggage” and went about the business of trying to ignore it.

Then, I met my partner Gabriella. She grew up in an Italian, Catholic home, but did not actively practice Catholicism. I had the Christmas Tree conversation with her early on in our relationship. “Listen,” I said over a dinner. “One day, I want to have children, and they will be Jewish, and I will never have a Christmas tree in my house.” She didn’t flinch. As a matter of fact, she was keen to sign on so that our family subscribed to one religion. She studied for a year, and I sat right there with her. What a gift it was to learn alongside of Gabriella during conversion classes. I felt myself physically opening to the history and the knowledge. I was a Jew reborn, but this time, no one else was telling me what to believe or judging me for questioning.

Gabriella converted into Liberal Judaism in London – what would be Reform here. Our rabbi came from an Orthodox background, so he ably floated from one sect to another as we compared philosophies and traditions as well as covered the basics. I discovered myself again in the Liberal movement.

How my children have impacted my own identity.
I can honestly say that I have been joyfully learning alongside of my kids ever since we landed in South Orange in 2006. Our older son Asher was almost 3, and I was 7 months pregnant with Levi. We needed a preschool and eventually a synagogue. I was absolutely sure that we would NOT join a Conservative synagogue. I still had all of those negative, childhood associations with the conservative movement, and I had, as you recall, been reborn a Liberal (or Reform) Jew. Certainly, the Conservative synagogues everywhere would be much like my parents’ synagogue. We would not be welcome as a couple, and I would not be able to stomach the judgmental righteousness that I assumed was an inherent part of Conservative Judaism

7 months pregnant in August, and beggars could not be choosers. Sandy Sachs, Beth El’s preschool director took pity on me and accepted Asher even though the preschool class was full. I’d get the occasional call from the membership committee, but I stood my ground. We would shop around because we very much believed we would be more comfortable in a Reform congregation. Well, you can guess what happened.

It didn’t take long for me to realize, yet again, that my mother’s Conservative Judaism was not one size fits all. Resist as I might, I was willingly sucked in. How, you ask? Not by the tuna at kiddush but by the community of warm and welcoming people. Connection at last.

In addition to preschool, we attended the mini-minyan in the suffocatingly hot basement-eager to experience how our ancestors lived in the desert. Around the same time that we started going to mini-minyan services, the older regime was looking for new blood to lead the services. Treasure Cohen was quick to identify potential leaders, and I found myself attending bi-weekly training sessions to lead children’s services.

From mini-minyan leader to occasional preschool substitute aide to Kitah Bet teacher last year under Sherri Morris in the JLC, I’ve come a long way. Yes, part of my motivation in leading services and teaching was to mold the minds of young Jewish children in a way I wish I had been taught. But more than that, it’s been an amazing path of exploration for me.

It has been a privilege to learn while I teach. I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but I have finally found comfort in the fact that I might never have any definitive answers. The joy is in the learning. And I clicked my heels together 3 times and said, “There’s no place like home.” And I found myself back in my Conservative synagogue.

The blog: Why does anyone do it?
My sister thinks I’m nuts for putting my life on the internet for all the world to see. “Why on Earth would you expose yourself like that?” she often asks.

Part of the reason I am so open and honest online is that I love entertaining people. I’d be a comedian or actress, but I don’t have the moxy to stand up in front of people on stage. I inherited from my father an eye-rolling ability to tell bad jokes, though. Some how it works in written form, and I don’t have to hear people groaning and telling me to keep my day job. Which is a good thing considering I don’t have a day job. Want to hear a joke? This one’s from my brother who inherited the same affliction.

Two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff. Ba Dum Chhhhh

But more than trying to single-handedly revive Vaudeville, I crave connection. My understanding of the Judaism of my childhood was one of absolute disconnection. Disconnection to the rest of the world-those who were not Jewish. Disconnection to family and friends who did not believe what we supposedly believed. Disconnection to my own Jewish community that never lived up to my mother’s standards. I write to connect to those people I was never able to know while quarantined in my glass house.
Blogging is the connection medium for Y2K. It’s a tool for connecting to friends and family. I post a story and add a picture or a video, and everyone in my life (who reads the blog) knows what’s going on with me.

Thanks to the magic of search engine optimization (which is how we find everything on the web), anyone in the world with an internet connection can find a blog that speaks to your own personal interests, political leanings or religious affiliations. If someone wants to connect with a community of people who knit, you can. Likewise for homeschoolers or world travelers or scuba divers. So, when I blog about Jewish stuff, people find me, and it’s a match! Suddenly, I’m connected to a community I never would have known before blogging.

When Gabriella and I relocated to London in 1999, I would send mass emails with stories about our life abroad. This was before Facebook or Twitter. By the time we came back to the U.S. in 2006, it seemed everyone and their uncle had a blog. My blog, Peaches & Coconuts was born.

My blog is a place for me to share grown up thoughts while living in a house filled with family-friendly conversations. While I don’t consider myself to be particularly controversial, I did attract quite a few angry commenters on a post about Levi’s bris. Though the blog entry was supposed to be a lighthearted celebratory story, it became an invitation for angry criticism. I was accused of mutilating our sons and not loving them enough to put their happiness and well being before religion. Their comments stung a bit at the time, but as my sister rightly pointed out, “You put yourself out there.”

I could have deleted all the comments. I could have taken down the post. Instead, I wrote a singular comment summing up my position on the matter and let the debate continue without me. After it was all said and done and the anti-bris mob left en masse to find another target to terrorize, I felt even more connected to my community than I had prior to writing it. Funny what happens when you are put in the position of defending yourself. Of course, it didn’t hurt that friends and followers of the blog supported me in the comments, as well. Note to everyone who has a friend or family member who blogs: read them, and add comments. It makes us feel good, and it might make you feel good, too.

If it weren’t for my lack of connection as a child, I don’t know that I would have been so driven to find it as an adult. That’s why I blog. I guess I have my mother to thank for that.

End notes: Things to take away that bring it all together in a neat package or what the Driveway Mantra Torah portion means to me.
1. Thankfully, we no longer live in biblical times, but if I’ve learned anything about coming to terms with the past – be it biblical past or my own past with my mother – it’s that the words don’t count as much as the message. We can interpret words differently at any give moment, but the message remains the same. Be good to each other.
2. We are all doing the best we can, and we’re all traveling down our own path to achieve the best that we can. Don’t be so quick to judge.
3. Connect. You don’t have to blog or teach, but you can reach out in your own way. There is someone out there looking specifically for you-someone who wants to find a home in this community of ours.

Shabbat Shalom.

16 thoughts on “Morah Devorah gives a sermon

  1. I loved reading this post. I often question religion in terms of bending it to meet my needs versus following the religion in a traditional manner. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind though I continue to follow certain traditions, amend certain traditions while omitting others. It was interesting to read about your religious journey.

  2. i loved reading the post. even if it was nearly verbatim from your d’var torah this past saturday… and, as i said to you, there are many of us whose paths align with yours. how fortunate Beth El is to have you in the community!

  3. Thank you so much for your kind words, and good luck with your own journey, David. This talk was a very interesting exercise. I experienced some wonderful moments of connection after services, and I am grateful for everyone who took the time to share their stories with me.

  4. My knees were shaking the entire time, and I have a stye on my eyelid from lack of sleep and stress. I loved every minute of it, but the price is high for a bundle of nerves like I am. I think I’ll stick to blogging!

  5. So beautifully written, just… wow. I loved this, and, it resonated with me in ways that I’m not sure you can imagine or that you intended. Also?

    We can interpret words differently at any give moment, but the message remains the same. Be good to each other.

    That brought on the water works.

  6. Your sermon was beautifully written — I’m so glad you posted it since I didn’t hear you say it in person. It was great to hear you talk about your journey as a child and adult and how it continues still. It made me think of my own ambivalent feelings about religion and the role it will have in my life and in the lives of my kids. The part about community is really meaningful to me.

  7. I’ve learned a lot writing this sermon/post. The best way to connect with people is be open and honest. Am I stating the obvious? It took me a while to learn, but I think I’ve got it. Thank you.

  8. I think you’re exactly right. Owning your complex and nuanced truth with candor and humor makes for the most effective and moving writing. And that’s exactly what is happening here.

  9. Deborah, I am so sorry we weren’t connected when you were younger, because things would have been different for all of us. But had they been different, then who knows where we would be now, so we’ll just have to enjoy our nows. (I just read this because Lenee sent me a link to a later entry.) May you be inscribed for a wonderful year! Paula

  10. I do love my “nows”, and I am grateful for all of those “thens” that brought me here. And this year is off to a great start. Thank you for being a part of it. Shana tova, Paula!

  11. Senorita Goldstein!!!!!!! What’s shakin’ Shakey!!! . Ghosts from the past. Sitting in Culver Indiana with Chela, Patita, Nina, Marisca, Pacheco…. and we are remembering you and just read your blog from last year about Fiesta! We loved it. Were you in Down Under with Nina and Marisca in 1982? We are looking at old pictures and laughing way too much. Do you still ride? Green grow the rushes ho! xxxx Peca and the crew

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