When my father was almost 50 years old, he became an Orthodox Jew. My mother, two years his junior, did too, but she always had a positive association with religious Jews and Judaism. Her “Bubbe” and “Zeide” were frum, spoke only Yiddish, learned Torah, and had long seders. Her love of the alter heim, its food and music established a deep love of Jewish heritage in her three daughters.
But my father’s family, though all Jewish, put up stockings at Christmas, dressed my aunt in bonnets during Easter, and my father’s father once bragged that his grandmother would sneak him pork chops instead of lamb chops because he was her favorite. There was yichus on my father’s side – a very long lineage of assimilation.
When my parents met, my father was eating bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, and one of my earliest memories is of him coming home from the NYC hospital where he did his residency, disparaging his Hasidic patients. My father wanted his kids to grow up Jewishly and marry Jewish, but not be too Jewish. At 16 years old, when I started to become a ba’alas teshuva he was not very pleased.
“You’re becoming a fanatic,” he told me one Friday afternoon as I unscrewed the refrigerator lightbulb in preparation for Shabbos.
“No offense, Daddy,” I retorted, “but you have no right to an opinion because you don’t know anything about Judaism. Learn what I learn, meet who I meet, celebrate Shabbos where I do, and THEN you can debate me. If you’re so worried about me and the lives of your unborn grandchildren, then save us from this cult.”
He hemmed and he hawed because he really didn’t want to begin studying Torah, but after enough nudging on my part, eventually he realized that I had a point and so he took up Torah study in order to spite me. After about a year into his studies, my parents and younger sister visited my older sister and me in Israel during the holiday of Sukkot. My sister was studying at Hebrew University for the semester while I was in seminary for the year studying our sacred texts.
During the first night of the holiday, we were set up to eat in the Old City of Jerusalem and as the sun descended, we approached the Western Wall to pray. Being that my parents have only daughters, the three girls and my mother went to the women’s side, where I showed the women in my family how to daven. But poor Dad had no sons and so he stayed back, just looking at the myriad of men swaying and bobbing and schuckling before their Maker.
My father, an agnostic at best, raised his hands up to the Heavens and cried, “Why? Why are they doing this? Please let me understand why anyone would want to live this way.” When our prayers ended, we proceeded to find the host of our Sukkot dinner. All of our hosts were strangers over the holiday, set up by an organization, and when we arrived at the apartment, we discovered we were in the presence of an archeologist and rabbinic scholar. My father, now a student of Torah himself, raised a question with the host that had been troubling him for months. The rabbi immediately answered it in a very satisfying manner. A piece of my father’s negativity chipped away.
The next day for lunch, we were set up by a very wealthy family. They were diamond dealers, lived in a luxurious home and put out a beautiful spread. My father, who has always enjoyed the finer things in life, saw another one of his stereotypes – that all Orthodox Jews live in squalor – melt away. For the final meal that holiday, we were set up by a family with a special needs child. We got to witness the tender love and care this family afforded the precious soul that had been entrusted to them. This final experience seemed to be the last piece of evidence my father needed. Up until that point, he refused to do the ceremonial washing before bread or recite the Grace After Meals or even sit in a Sukkah, but when yom tov was over, something inside him had changed.
My challenging my father to form his opinions based on knowledge was a crucial step in his journey to observance, but when he told us how he challenged God that night at the Kotel to show him why people would want to live such a life, I thought back to a verse of tehillim (Psalms), I recited every day, “Karov Hashem L’chol Koreav L’chol Asher Yikrauhu VeEmes” (Hashem is close to all who call out to Him sincerely).
My father didn’t end up saving his unborn grandchildren from the “cult” of Orthodoxy. But he doesn’t seem to mind the fourteen beautiful souls his three daughters and sons-in-law are now raising in the traditions of his very, very distant forefathers.