Sometime during that horrid span of post-Bat Mitzvah early adolescence when I was still forced to go to Sunday school, the Rabbi cemented my need to ease up on my practice of the Jewish faith. Hebrew School occurred from 4 to 6 every Tuesday and Thursday evening. I found it odious, but also useful, because it involved memorizing prayers and learning the language. This formed the routine that every thirteen year-old student would eventually have to spit out through their braces facing the entire congregation. Sunday school was a total joke that happened every Lord’s day from 9 to 11AM. Every year, I found myself making construction paper menorahs for my parents, which found their way to my kitchen counter, and in an appropriate number of weeks, the kitchen trash can. Therefore, my patience for Semitic religious education was already wearing thin when Rabbi Streisand* began to explain the difference between the two types of Jews in the world. I listened skeptically, knowing that my mother’s Irish Catholic background already put me in a special religious category we called “half-and-half.” The Rabbi described“fluffy matzo balls” as those who absorb the cultural elements of Judaism and “float on the top of the broth” by going to synagogue only on High Holy days. “There are also dense matzo balls,” he continued, lauding those who remain an active part of the Jewish community. However, I had stopped listening at that point, because I could not see the good in burdening something as simple and soul-warming as matzo ball soup with leaden spheres of carbohydrates that would settle in one’s stomach like medicine balls.
So, I am a proud fluffy-matzo-ball Jew, happy to claim the half of the genetics of the Gyllenhaals or Francos or memorize a Mel Brooks movie while still avoiding proper religious ceremonies until the pressures of guilt or tradition force me to go three times a year. However, ‘tis the season for Jewish holidays in rapid succession (the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah occurs ten days before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur), which means I find myself putting on what my friends branded, for modesty reasons, my “Young Republicans social chair” dress, and trudging up to Finn House.
Going to High Holy day services in Gambier does mean sacrificing some of the awe felt in chanting the words read by countless others over the past 5,772 years. The vocally unflattering melodies (a generous word) of the chanted prayers, which oscillate between ten to twenty notes a second, sound so foreign and ancient to me that I feel like they behold a magical power that could help me unlock a secret treasure chamber with Indiana Jones. Instead of the respectful authority of a stained-glass synagogue, the Cheever seminar room where services are held has the relaxed yet clinical air of an acupuncturist’s waiting room. Those running the service try to emphasize the modernity and unconventionality of college students taking part in a religious ceremony, and it comes off as tacky and obviously persistent, like Christian pop-punk bands.
However, I didn’t go to Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur services to please God. I went because my father made it a tradition. (TRADITION!) And as traditions go, Kenyon’s celebration of Jewish holidays includes some comfortingly universal findings in Jewish services. The air conditioning always turns on full blast in the middle of the service either in spite of (or because of) the large population of the elderly, causing the majority of people in the room with normal senses of temperature to cuddle closer to someone they love (preferably someone with a sweater or suit jacket). A child usually loudly asks something inappropriate about the length of the service, while those around the little man or lady silently agree and count the pages left in the prayer book until the end. This fall, as I found myself holding back violent, explosive laughter at the cantor’s bleating of random Hebrew I didn’t know, I finally felt connected with “my people.” L’Shana Tova.
*name changed for privacy and argument’s sake