Will They Serve the Fatted Calf on Sabbath? Or, the Prodigal Daughter Returns

The last time I went to synagogue was hell. I had just moved to Jerusalem to do a year long fellowship in Jewish Texts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and I had never in my life felt so much ambivalence about being a Jew. Freud, himself a rather problematic member of the tribe, diagnosed ambivalence in Case Studies II as “an attitude of constantly wishing for a certain thing, and detesting it as well–a conflict that cannot be settled.” That’s me and Jewishness in a nutshell: half of my nutcase-self longs for it like water in the ancestral desert; the other half wishes I could cut my Jewish blood out of my veins and rid myself of the poison of it. Oy, vey.

When I moved to Jerusalem, I had just barely decided to remain a Jew, just barely stopped myself from converting to Islam, which felt like the religion of my heart, just barely fixed my toehold in the religion of my bilious blood when I found myself–like a walker in a dream- in a Sephardi synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

What was I doing here, in this maze of swaying prayers, in this whirl of half-known words, chanting in semitic chants I once remembered? My two childhood best friends, who had come up with me through the famous Orthodox Jewish day schools of LA’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, lived in Israel and were the children of two very prominent Orthodox Rabbis. They invited me to spend Shabbat with them at the home of Rabbi Daniel Landes, the Rosh Yeshiva of Pardes, and a beloved childhood mentor.

Shabbat begins, in any Orthodox household, with a lighting of candles and a series of prayers which mark the transition from profane to sacred time. I agreed to accompany my childhood friends only on the condition that they take me to a non-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, as the strict rules of separation between men and women and the sight of a mechitza (separating wall between men and women) makes my eyelid twitch and causes involuntary atheism to erupt, like boils, in my ambivalent heart.

Properly decked out in modest attire–conforming, more or less, to the rules of tsnius (modesty in dress) which I had found so oppressive in my rebellious youth–I made my way to a bright, squat brick building full of song. Men on one side, women on another, yes, but mingling freely in the back and on the streets, joyful, loud, fervent, pious. A true community bound together by blood and faith: the most devastatingly alien and alienating thing my Jew-ish self had ever seen.

I couldn’t read Hebrew fast enough to keep up with the prayers. I didn’t have my own prayer book. I didn’t know the tunes, not even the baby tunes that the toddlers could sing in lilting little harmonies. I bent my knees at the wrong place in the book, I stepped back, and I stepped forward, and I stepped side to side but really what I was doing was the “I forgot how to be a Jew, if I ever knew it in the first place” electric slide of shame. Electricity! On the Sabbath! How could I?!

I closed my book. I locked my knees. I turned my face from the Torah scroll. I left the synagogue, to the cold brick wall that ringed a forlorn garden and I cried, hiding my face in the scarf I brought to hide my over-generous cleavage. Are these my people? Am I a Jew like them? Who am I? A failed Jew, a songless Jew–a soul-less Jew? Traitor to my tribe, outcast to my blood, mangler of my holy music.

It was my first time in a synagogue in 14 years. It was my last time in a synagogue.

And then I moved to New York City, another Jewish homeland, if you will–a Jerusalem of steel and skyscraper, a holy monied city, a place with more Jews per capita than even Tel Aviv. And I was lonely, and afraid, and without community: a tree without roots, stunted and shriveled, trying to make it as a scholar in the mean city and losing my soul in the process.

But even a stunted tree yearns for the light. Casting a wide net (therapy, volunteering, meditation, yoga), and hoping to find happiness in the mesh of it, I joined Kehilat Hadar on the Upper West Side, a progressive Orthodox synagogue where the women read Torah but the ritual has all the rigor of my youthful temple memories.

Last Saturday, as I took up my prayer book and found a seat for the first time as a member of a kehila (congregation) in the true sense of the word, I felt strangely full of hope. It helped that the room was large, open, warm, aglow with winter-morning rays and motes. It helped that I had spent a year studying Hebrew texts in Jerusalem, and could follow the prayers and the Torah reading with some facility. It helped that I was outside of Israel/Palestine, outside of the death zone and the barbed-wire killing cries. It helped that, for the first time in my Jewish life, I  was choosing the synagogue and the denomination, drawing for myself the boundaries of my sacred spaces.

When I heard the chazzan (congregation leader) reading the Torah portion for the week, I had to laugh inside my prayer-shawl. Of all the weekly portions in all the holy scrolls, I had to come back to synagogue for this one: Exodus 20:1-22, popularly known as the Ten Commandments.

אנכי יהוה אלהיך, אשר הוצאתיד מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים

לא יהיה לך אלהים אחרים על פני

I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

It seemed an auspicious sign, and I clutched the talisman of the text with hope. I am a Jew in synagogue on the Sabbath, reading her holy liturgy in its original holy language, pledging truth to the oneness of the one God and re-visiting the origin story of my people. Ok, maybe not the best Jew. Maybe I’ve eaten ham sandwiches a bit too often, loved too many Muslims (in that carnal way), broken too many oaths (I never meant them!), worshipped too many false Gods (Queen Bey would stir the staunchest monotheist!). But here I am, a Jew in synagogue on the sabbath, outside of ambivalence for a beautiful moment, desire winning over detestation. The prodigal daughter–after a twenty year absence–has returned to her ancestral altars. As Freud wrote in a 1930 letter to a colleague, “in some place in my soul, in a very hidden corner, I was very much astonished to discover myself a Jew. What can I do about it at my age?” What can I do about it at my age, about the hidden corner of my Jewish soul that turns up toward the light? What can I do about it, at my age, about the not-so-hidden corner of my rebel soul that tunes out the primal call of blood and tribe? And what kind of Jew will I discover myself to be, I wonder, in these new-synagogue New York years?

Image of a postcard by Charlie Mackesy.

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3 thoughts on “Will They Serve the Fatted Calf on Sabbath? Or, the Prodigal Daughter Returns

  1. Ilona,
    I know this is totally random, but I just read your article (Will They Serve the Fatted Calf on Sabbath) and it moved me. I’ve been exploring my Jewishness after rejecting it for many years and, at age 70, think I’m on to something. I am taking the Me’ah online course, recommended by one of my best friends who works at Hebrew College. I live in Port Washington, NY and am in NYC often (for work, classes, a wonderful chavruta, etc…). Are you interested in having a cup of coffee?

  2. Thank you for sharing Ilona! I love the raw honesty. What a beautiful journey you are on.

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