Is tefillin next?

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Growing up, at my Conservative religious school in White Plains, New York, I didn’t win any awards in Tefillah or Torah study. As a towheaded kid, though, I did merit notice from the Hebrew instructor, an Orthodox guy far from his Brooklyn home doing penance no doubt for his religious transgressions by teaching the non-believers out in the suburbs. In hindsight I sometimes think about this insensitive soul who told me more than once that I would have made a good smuggler in the Warsaw Ghetto because I could have passed as Polish or German with the Nazi guards. No wonder the religious skepticism of Spinoza was more my thing by the time I had become a bar mitzvah than any commitment to trying to follow the 613 mitzvot.

Still, like so many other agnostic North American Jews, fast forward thirty years to my own son’s bar mitzvah. His parsha, Vayera, about the akedah or binding of Isaac wasn’t easy for either of us. Me as the parent troubled by the notion of a father asked by God to sacrifice his son and my son struggling to say something pithy for his drosh on the big day.

Then and now, my Story of Isaac isn’t the Talmudic version. Rather it is the Leonard Cohen rendition; the lugubrious wailing of the Canadian poet and songwriter who gave so many Jews and non-Jews alike their most memorable exposure to the Old Testament. What does it mean that for many of us our exposure to religious ritual comes from popular culture rather than from the religious school classroom or synagogue? On the one hand, it feels cheap, like reading the CliffsNotes version of Hamlet rather than Shakespeare’s actual opus. On the other, it is not at all strange; no less valid a way to find one’s ways to observance than being born and raised at the edge of the bimah. As I age, I find more and more instances of ritual creeping into my life in unexpected places.

A week before the November election I joined a group from Bend the Arc, A Jewish Partnership for Justice, canvassing for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the identical subdivisions outside of Las Vegas. The bus was barely out of the Sepulveda Pass when the Rabbi heading up the trip asked the religiously-mixed group of 25 of us to join him in saying kaddish for political activist Tom Hayden who had died recently.

Tom Hayden’s kaddish was just one more example of the way Jews, and non-Jews, are learning about Jewish ritual outside of the synagogue, the traditional route for Jewish learning about religious practice. And at least in this case, the prayer was led by a Rabbi rather than an actress playing one online. The reference of course is to Transparent, the wildly successful series on Amazon Prime that has become a primer of sorts for viewers about Jewish ritual, from the mikvah to havdalah.

But like tashlich on the beach in Santa Monica or at the lake in Echo Park, Jews are picking up Jewish ritual selectively like their parents and grandparents once picked items from Column A or Column B at the Cantonese restaurants that used to be the only option for Chinese food in the cities where so many of us were raised.

Kashruth, the mezuzah, kaddish are one thing but havdalah and tashlich are another. It is surprising to me that the latter rituals which I always viewed as reserved for the Orthodox, have caught on among the assimilated among us. But then perhaps I am discounting the relative accessibility, the pleasant sensuality, of those rituals. As far as practice goes, the colorful havdalah candle and the spice box are pretty groovy and easily understood ways to embrace religion which can look a lot less haimish experienced as an observer from the pews. After all, havdalah isn’t brit milah, a hard to watch if central tenet of our faith, or kapparot.

Non-Jewish friends of my sister on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia have attended so many bar and bat mitzvahs that they have adopted the concept. Recently they threw a big birthday party for their 13-year old, albeit without the religious aspects, “christening” their version, a basemitzvah. The simcha was held, of course, in their basement.

In my beit knesset, there is nothing wrong with people learning about Jewish ritual from popular culture. As with all cultural exploration, including food and art, our exposure to Jewish ritual need not stem from the synagogue or cheder. For some, discovering the lovely ritual of havdalah on Transparent will spark interest in learning more about the meaning of the ritual while for others, it will just be a quaint thing Jews do like eating kosher food and celebrating Passover.

Where it will lead is different in every case. All of my life, I have watched my father lay tefillin, fascinated by the arcane ritual of the boxes for the yad and the rosh, the wrapping of the arm before placing the phylacteries on the head. The practice intrigues me but I have never felt the calling to lay tefillin and I would be surprised if it found its way into my daily practice and that of my son, and daughters. How is the experience of seeing the Rabbi descend into the mikvah in Transparent different from what I see my father doing or young men being asked to lay tefillin by a Chabadnik on a college campus?

So many of us know so little about our religious ritual that even popular presentations of it can serve as the spark to more religious observance.

Is Transparent the gateway drug to torah, chuppah, ma’asim tovim?

I don’t know. We will just have to wait till next season to find out.

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