A year ago, cracked open by grief, I walked into Temple Beth Shalom to attend Rosh Hashanah services for the first time. I am Jewish only by lineage; sorrow had led me to seek solace anywhere I might find it.
I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t that I would sit in a small congregation of strangers and cry myself dehydrated. Everything about the service moved me: the music, the prayer book and the sermon led by a visiting rabbi.
My emotions were heightened not only from loss, but also because on my way into the building, I’d had an upsetting exchange with a Spokane cop. He had made an offhand remark denigrating Muslims. I ruminated on reflexive hatred during the service celebrating the Jewish new year.
The rabbi spoke about how Jews, who have for millennia been enslaved and reviled, were responsible for doing good, for healing the wounds of the world. I listened to stories about people who did the right thing even in the face of intolerance.
Ten days later, I went back for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where we repent for our trespasses over the past year and try to make things right with people we’ve hurt.
Six weeks after that, a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people. Seven others, including the shooter, were injured.
I had joined a group of a dozen Spokane women to study an obscure 19th century Lithuanian Jewish practice called Mussar. It’s a personal improvement plan using a system laid out by America’s first self-help author and the funniest signer of the Declaration of Independence. In Ben Franklin’s autobiography, he explains how he set about working each week on a different virtue – among them generosity, patience and equanimity – to improve his character.
My journey into griefland had shown me all the ways my own character could use some help. I had failed a man who loved me and who died before I’d had a chance to make things right with him. I wanted to change.
And I’d become enchanted by what I was learning about the religion into which I’d been born. The women in my group felt familiar to me; that is, they felt like family. There are habits of mind and tics of personality that Jews share, as well as a set of generally progressive values and a fondness for unappetizing foods.
I’ve come to think of Judaism as the religion of “Yeah, but.” There’s a lot of quibbling with the texts, with seeking to understand by challenge, with loud and passionate arguments.
There’s so much to learn, so many stories each with a zillion interpretations. They say if you have two Jews, you’ll end up with three opinions. At times it feels overwhelming. But for a nerdy person with a literary bent, learning about this stuff as an adult has proved irresistibly resonant.
Last month, I was invited to a Rosh Hashanah eve dinner with a group of Spokane families, and when I went to the synagogue for services, I sat in community with folks I’ve gotten to know. This time, the music was even more beautiful because it was a little familiar, and I cried only during the mourner’s prayer.
I’m just starting to grasp the fundamentals, and that morning the rabbi told a story that helped. A non-Jew had gone to the ancient rabbis and said he would convert to Judaism if they could explain it to him while he stood on one foot.
One, Rabbi Hillel, was up to the challenge. He said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Everything else, he said, just explained this. The core of Judaism is the Golden Rule.
We saw this play out a year ago in Pittsburgh. The Jewish head of the hospital, who lived close enough to the Tree of Life to have heard the shots, who knew several of the people killed, told the wounded gunman who had been brought to his ER, “We’re here to take care of sick people. We’re not here to judge you.”
Later, in an interview, Dr. Cohen said, “I talked to the shooter that night. He’s just a guy. He’s all alone. He lost his job in manual labor. Worked in a bakery. And he was lost. He had no one to talk to.”
He explained that the gunman had bought into conspiracy theories that had no basis in truth.
The man in charge did his job. He also followed the precepts of Judaism.
This year, when I walked into the synagogue, there were, again, Spokane police officers standing guard.
It’s always been dangerous to be a Jew, but now I live with real fear. I thought, Let the cops do their jobs. Be grateful they’re here.
And, Don’t engage.
As I passed, one of the officers called out to me.
“Shana tova,” he bellowed with a big smile – the Hebrew greeting for the new year.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.
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