The Shiksa Jew – Heather McDonald

Rabbi Hannah gave a clear challenge: attend a Shabbat service before the next “Exploring Judaism” class scheduled for January at Or Shalom synagogue.

We were a motley crew who made up the group exploring Judaism in her evening class. There were a few bewildered-looking secular Israelis, quite a number of “real Jews” trying to reconnect with their faith, as well as one or two agnostics seeking to better understand their spouses’ Jewish faith and culture.

And there was even someone almost exactly like me: both John and I had been raised in our fathers’ Roman Catholic faith with the consent of our Jewish mothers.

At least John had always known that his mother was Jewish.

John has always known that by Orthodox definition, given his Jewish mother, he is a real Jew.

Growing up and for most of my adult years, I was denied that privilege.

As new Canadians, my mother’s grandparents set out to learn a different language, new ways of farming and doing business, and the rules of a welcome political system known as democracy. And for reasons of safety and security for their families, over the years they also explored different ways of practicing a monotheistic faith.

The shock and pain of discovering, at age 58, that all your life your mother’s people have been lying to you is immense. I know they lied because they wanted the family to be safe. Nevertheless, I feel a sense of disconnect.

he really big deal for me is that I have been kept away from the rich culture and sense of belonging that keeps Jewish people close and connected. I lack the sense of community which gives everyone a shared sense of identity.

It’s devastating to feel that one has never gained one’s people..

Although it is irrational, I feel discarded.

Secular Jews may feel estranged from their faith. Yet, they know they are Jews and they know where they belong. They know their people.

So, the faith, I have. The people, I do not.

I am lost.

Because of this loss, I thought I would always feel like the “Shiksa Jew”.

Due to this sense that I live my life in NeverLand, I have dreaded that I will always feel unworthy to pray in a synagogue as a full member of a congregation.

I was sad, but resigned to always feeling outside “the tribe.”

So, last month, when Rabbi Hannah told her motley crew that we should try to attend a Shabbat service, I knew I needed to formulate some plans.

The plans came to this: I would find a synagogue where no one would know me. Then I would sneak in, sit in the back and quietly hide while listening to the service and attempting to decipher the Hebrew characters as I read them in the prayer books and heard them spoken aloud by the “real Jews” in the congregation.

My big fear was that someone would notice me. Going to a synagogue in Vancouver was out of the question. I have too many Jewish acquaintances who would be flabbergasted if they saw me in a synagogue, knowing of my many dedicated years as a Catechism teacher in large Roman Catholic parishes in the Vancouver area.

Also, I did not want to go into explanatory mode, telling people why I had shown up at shul for a prayer service on a Saturday morning. Why would I want to tell anyone my story? It is depressing enough for me to know it. And I have noticed that while it seems to intrigue my good friends who ask why I am studying Hebrew, they seem very sad, too, once they have heard the tale.

Where, then, could I both go to shul and hide at the same time?

The answer turned out to be Winnipeg, where I was going for the December winter holiday to visit my elderly aunt Dora. I asked my close friend Shelley, a real Jew who had lived in that city many years ago, to recommend a synagogue for me. She told me about Etz Chayim. This is a conservative congregation in the West Kildonan area and had been her synagogue when she lived there years ago.

On a frigid Saturday in late December I went to Etz Chayim.

As you may guess, my well-made plans went awry.

It was minus 20 degrees plus wind chill as I trudged over the snow into the synagogue lobby for the 9 a.m. service. At first no one was there but a man in his late 40’s or early 50’s who looked like a kid to me.

The man turned out to be the synagogue Greeter that day. He recognized me as a newcomer so I explained that I was visiting from Vancouver. He kindly welcomed me. We discovered a possible mutual acquaintance in that my friend Shelley’s first husband was likely his father’s business partner in the same Winnipeg accountants’ firm many years earlier.

Then, in accordance with my plans, I went into the sanctuary and took a seat in a pew near the back. So far, all was going well.

Because of Rabbi Hannah’s good instruction, I knew to say “Shabbat Shalom” to the few members of the congregation who were already seated in the sanctuary. She had also taught us how to put on and wear a Tallit. So when the Greeter gave me a Tallit to wear, I was all set.

Talk about faking it.

My plans started to go sideways when more people arrived and began to greet me, the stranger in their midst. Jews are sure a friendly bunch. A woman about my age, named Dina, became my new friend. She insisted that I sit with her in her regular spot which was quite near the front of the sanctuary, actually. So I moved up from the back. My plans were starting to crumble pretty fast.

As the service began, Dina was a great help to me in showing me where we were at in the Siddur. Thanks to my Hebrew tutor Debbie, after four lessons I know one third of the Hebrew alphabet and can actually read and understand some basic sentences. Thanks to Rabbi Susan’s “Women and the Talmud” class, another Vancouver Or Shalom experience, I have become accustomed to deciphering Hebrew script and Biblical phrases in a form of pattern recognition. And thanks to Rabbi Hannah, I have also memorized a basic prayer or two. And a few chants.

So I thought my Fake was going rather well.

And then, the Greeter offered me a small, thin metallic rectangle that had the word “Aliyah” on it. Not wanting to refuse any well-meant invitation, I accepted it. Of course, I had no idea what the invitation was really about.

I seemed to recall that “Aliyah” had something to do with a trip to Israel, which did not seem to make an awful lot of sense to me. Not then, not now.

However, I reasoned, perhaps the Etz Chayim congregation was planning a group holiday in Israel next year and didn’t want to leave me out of the fun.

It was unlikely that I would be able to join them. But it is the thought that counts, and so I hung on to the metal rectangle.

Dina then found me a Kippah which she told me I would need to wear when going up to the Torah.

The moment Dina spoke those words I experienced the onset of a panic attack.

What was she talking about? I could not possibly go up to the altar and deal with the Torah.

For starters, I am not a real Jew and have no place up there with the real ones.

Moving mentally on to make another strong point, I would not know what to do confronting the Torah.

The Fake was over.

I told Dina, in a few hissed whispers, the short backstory about my real identity as a Shiksa Jew, and why I was not worthy to meet the Torah. She gave me a somewhat confused look and did not say anything. I think I startled her.

I thought I was off the hook. Not so.

The Greeter then told me I was number three up to the Torah. So then I had to hiss out my problem to him. So much for being a Shiksa Jew in hiding. Now two people in the congregation knew the truth about me.

When two people know something, then it is no longer a Secret.

Despite my hissed, hurried explanation of the obstacles facing me, the Greeter disagreed with my conclusion and told me that I was worthy to go to the Torah. He kept insisting that I was worthy as I tried, futilely, to assure him that I was not.

This was not the first time in my life that I have worked hard to make a fool out of myself in public.

This was not the first time in my life that I have ended up doing exactly the opposite of what I have set out to do.

I reminded myself, as I was driven full throttle up the aisle headed directly toward the Torah and an expectant group made up of the Cantor and a sit-in for the Rabbi, that some of the best times of my life have turned out to be precisely what I have so carefully tried to avoid.

And that is exactly what transpired: a best time of my life.

The Torah group welcomed me warmly.

When asked my Hebrew name, my response came easily: Eliana. That is the name I have always wanted. It means: “My God has answered me.”

When asked my father’s Hebrew name, that was also easy. I responded, “Avraham” (although in my nervous breakdown state I incorrectly pronounced it as AvrahEEM rather than AvrahAHM). After all, Avraham is the father of all Jews, correct?

Then the Torah group taught me to use a fringe of the Tallit to touch the words of the Torah (I was going to use my forefinger but, mercifully, was stopped just in time).

I found myself reading the Hebrew words of the Torah aloud.

I found myself able to understand the words, too, not just because the English version was printed there as well, but because I remembered my lessons with Hebrew tutor Debbie and Rabbis Hannah and Susan.

It was special to be able to read, with meaning and intent, prayers in another language that suddenly felt like my own.

Someone asked me if this was my first time at the Torah and I said yes. Then they told me I had just made my Bat Mitzvah.

That announcement was a stunner.

As soon as I arrived back at my Aunt Dora’s house, I phoned Shelley on Salt Spring Island to tell her the news.

Shelley laughed and congratulated me with a “Mazel Tov”. She then said it had taken her a year to make her Bat Mitzvah at age 57. I asked her why she hadn’t done the deed at age 12 like most real Jews? She told me that she had grown up in a very small Manitoba rural town where and when there were no Bar Mitzvahs, let alone Bat Mitzvahs.

And I know Shelley was wondering how I had managed to make my Bat Mitzvah as an adult Shiksa Jew after only seven weeks of study.

I couldn’t give her an answer. I am still wondering the same thing.

How did this marvel come about? What awakened this stumbling Shiksa Jew to take up and affirm her authentic self, a real Jewish woman?

Maybe the explanation is that I am both a late bloomer and a fast learner.

All I know for sure is this, and it is a lot:

It can be true that ignorance is bliss. I am blissed, and blessed.

Sometimes a box of darkness turns out to be a gift of light. (Thanks to the poet Mary Oliver for this statement of a beautiful truth).

It is good to keep faith with unseen Mystery.

Best laid plans are better when they go awry.

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