I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Squirrel Hill, the predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I had strong Jewish feelings, yet the religion I experienced in my Reform synagogue felt like, well, nothing. I have no bad or painful memories from it; Saturday School was where my friends and I went every Saturday morning to decide where we were going shopping on Saturday afternoon. I just remember being in the main Sanctuary looking at these huge, ornate stained glass windows, with light beaming through the chiseled features of our holy forefathers, and thinking: These guys are old!
I mean, everything around me indicated that the whole purpose of life was to “have it good”– good grades to get into a good college to get a good job so you can wear good clothes, etc. etc.–what could these shepherds with their long beards and flowing robes possibly teach me about all that?
And yet, there was a part of me, a very real and very vocal part of me, that understood there was much more to life. There had to be–I just didn’t know what.
For as long as as I can remember, I was asking myself existential questions about the meaning of life and why I was here. I was particularly haunted by the sight of children in wheelchairs. I only saw them once a year when we got the day off of school to go to our local amusement park, but it was enough to do me in. What in the world could those kids have done to deserve such a fate? In my childishness, I assumed they were being punished, a thought that terrified, even became obsessive for me. Surely I was worthy of punishment for my many misdeeds (torturing my Saturday School teachers for one). How could I reconcile the fact that they couldn’t walk and my biggest worry was whether or not my mother would let me get a new pair of Brooks Brothers loafers?
As I grew older, I focused less on my quest for existential meaning and accepted the fact that the right friends, the right achievements–the right stuff–might just be all there would be to my lucky little life. I performed respectably well in all these areas but I secretly yearned for something true and lasting that would give my life direction and purpose.
In the meantime, there was college at the University of Michigan (no answers there), a brief stint back home as an advertising copywriter (please tell me I was created to do more than write about aluminum screws) an MBA (no answers but at least more money) and then, at age 25, marriage. When it came to pairing me with my husband, Zev, G-d was looking out for me big time.
Next came the dog, then a couple of kids; Jewish philanthropy was a natural next step. I didn’t consider myself to be particularly charitable by nature, but “helping less fortunate Jews” felt like the best way to show my gratitude for being able to enjoy my dog and two kids in a country that wasn’t persecuting me.
As I climbed the ladder of “young leadership” in the world of Jewish philanthropy, I began to realize how lacking my Jewish education was. The watershed moment came at a United Jewish Federation Young Women’s Cabinet Retreat. I was watching a video about Soviet Jews willing to risk a one-way ticket to Siberia for the privilege of having a Bar Mitzvah or being married under a chuppah. The tears began flowing uncontrollably as I confronted my Jewish self, guilty as charged: I did nothing because I knew nothing. I made up my mind then and there to at least learn what could be so compelling about Jewish observance. My husband and I were soon enrolled in an elite, intensive class sponsored by billionaire philanthropist Leslie Wexner who saw the gaping hole of knowledge among young Jewish decision makers regarding our people’s history, religion and culture. He spared no expense, recruiting the best and the brightest to enlighten the chosen few who committed to sit around a conference table for four hours every other week for two years. Talmudic genius Adin Steinsaltz traveled from Israel just to explain to us the kosher way to fold a document. (“Excuse me,” asked one of the more outspoken and still unaffected participants, “why do we care?”)
But I desperately wanted to care, even just to be able to give my children better answers in case they had inherited the gene predisposing them to question the meaning of life. Or even just what it means to be a Jew.
One of the Wexner participants, Charlie Saul, told the rest of us about a Shabbos retreat with a Chabad rabbi by the name of Sholom Lipskar. Most of the others just looked away or responded uninterestedly, but all I needed to hear was that there was free babysitting in a country setting and I was in. With our two small children in tow, in May of 1987, we went to the retreat that changed our lives.
It almost didn’t happen though. Only moments after settling into our cabin to unpack, my husband spotted Rabbi Lipskar walking down the path outside. We hurried to introduce ourselves; I was particularly eager since I was chair of the UJF’s Business and Professional Division and Rabbi Lipskar would be speaking to the group following the Shabbaton. I extended my hand confidently but he politely refused to shake it. I was totally humiliated– I had no idea about the laws regarding men, women, and touching–and I went back to our cabin and became hysterical.
“That’s it–we’re leaving,” I announced to my husband. I was serious. I had tried to give the Orthodox a chance–they didn’t even say hello like the rest of the world! But Zev convinced me to stay and once I overcame my embarrassment and started listening, I realized that these people were talking about what I like to talk about: God, why are we here, what is the meaning of life. By the end of the week-end, I felt as if I had won the spiritual lottery.
What was so compelling about what I learned, what inspired me to change my whole life, was the notion that the world is waiting for the imminent arrival of Moshiach, the Messiah, who will conclude this long and painful love story between G-d and the Jewish people and thereby solve the existential mystery called “life as we know it.” There was just one eensy-weensy detail, they added: learning Torah and doing mitzvos are the super fuel that hastens his arrival.
I took a deep breath and a leap of faith.
My husband was also inspired by the retreat, and agreed that Jewish observance was worth pursuing. He had always strongly identified as a Jew–in fact, when that same Reform synagogue wasn’t doing Bar Mitzvahs when he was thirteen, he shlepped his parents to a Conservative synagogue so he could have one. He loved the land of Israel and he loved the Jewish people. He was willing to go for a little Jewish observance, too.
The first step was the kosher kitchen (you are what you eat, right?) so the following week I met with Mrs. Miriam Nadoff, OBM, who would walk through my kitchen and tell me what to do. The very notion that a stranger cared to help me keep kosher confirmed that we were making the right move. It didn’t matter that we would have to give away wedding dishes that had been used three times but couldn’t be kashered– I had finally found the club I wanted to join. “What would it take for you to eat in my house?” I asked Mrs. Nadoff as we discussed how careful I was planning to be. “I’ll eat in your house when you keep Shabbos.” she answered gently.
And that was just the beginning of the changes we would have to make. Our kids adjusted well to no more Saturday cartoons; it was hard to believe that going to shul was becoming a reward instead of a punishment. I adopted the style of dress pretty readily, though I was determined to salvage a couple of pricey pantsuits by making them into skirt suits. (Not worth it– they never looked great and I couldn’t walk.) The no more restaurants was almost a deal-breaker; I was a hopeless cook. But I was a good learner, and I had some kind of determination that could only have come from G-d.
So, along with learning aleph-beis like a first-grader so that one day I could pray like a big girl, I learned how to make challah (I discovered if you make good dips, the Shabbos guests fill up on bread and barely notice the rest of the meal). By the time the first Pesach rolled around, I had Baby #3 (now known as Izzy) and we were in pretty deep. More than once, too many times to count really, I asked myself what I had gotten myself into–besides the cooking and the babies (thank G-d, we went on to have five daughters and four sons), there was the hard work of actually trying to be a mensch. Of trying to understand what G-d wants from me.
It has been an amazing journey, one that I could never have foreseen. Thank G-d, the majority of our children are married now–most are emissaries of the Rebbe–and my oldest granddaughter tries to teach me Yiddish. Go figure. Then again, I came into the world weighing 6 pounds, 13 ounces; there’s an engraved picture frame in my parents’ house that confirms this. Of course, the number 613 meant absolutely nothing to me until I heard in 1987 that 613 was, in fact, the actual number of mitzvos in the Torah. I guess you could say that everything was meant to be.