Before moving to Athens, GA I had lived in cities with major Jewish American populations–I didn’t have to remember the high holidays or worry about finding Chanukah decorations or connecting culturally–stores were fully stocked to serve large Jewish populations and non-Jewish community members were well familiar with Jewish holidays and traditions. I remember Rabbi Marcia in Philadelphia asking us, “What hurts about being Jewish?” I never imagined then that I’d live 16 years in the Southeast where Judaism was so much more a minority (invisible and by some, detested) identity, where you’d have to buy the round challah in their first hour of sale on Rosh Ha Shana or you’d be out of luck.
My town of Athens, GA is prosperous and growing, attracting more and more residents from the new Jewish diaspora–so running out of round challah at the bakery is a good thing–they are making it!
Few of my secular and/or intermarried Jewish peers are observant or involved enough in synagogue life (now there is one reform synagogue and one chabad house, and one conservative minyan for worship) to remember and plan for the many Lunar calendar holidays in our tradition and most of us are all too happy to eat Cheeseburgers and take holidays on Christmas and Easter like everyone else. Last night we laughed at moments of guilt, but I am still uneasy about this, still meditating on what it means to “fully” identify with one’s origin religion and culture and what it means to revise oneself, to reconnect with “homies” in order to once again stretch out into diverse surroundings.
Here’s a draft poem for my wonderful Jewish neighbors with whom it was easy to gather and laugh, share favorite foods and sing a few familiar prayers (almost all the way through). This is likely unfinished but I wonder if it will resonate with others who want to forgive themselves for doing what humans do and changing.
Secular Jewish New Year
Gathered last minute in a weeknight kitchen,
no commitment, arriving late
to not-enough forks or chairs, forgotten
traditions, mismatched plates,
no one knowing the full, Hebrew prayers.
All we know is that the broom doesn’t worry
if it’s broom enough to sweep apple cake crumbs;
wine glasses don’t apologize, sorry
they’re only “half” a glass or that they never attended
wine school. Even silver nutcracker prongs
retired in their velvet cushioned drawer
might have forgotten, gone
to work on the holidays, as always,
in the walnut bowl.