Growing into Faith
How the organic, homespun nurturance of the author’s Jewish faith imbued in him a sense of awe.
By Robert Israel
My mother, her two sisters, and my grandmother shared shopping tasks for our weekly Shabbes meals. As a youngster, I’d help carry bundles along the streets in the south end of Providence, Rhode Island. Our neighborhood was crowded with bars and factories, and at day’s end we’d visit Guttin’s bakery on Broad Street to select a treat of my choice, a reward for my labors.
My grandmother, a Russian émigré with limited English skills, led the brigade. For someone who lacked a formal education, she knew the laws of kashrut by heart. Her devotion bordered on the extreme, particularly when she held forth at the live poultry market on Willard Avenue, a place that reeked of blood, sawdust, and burnt feathers. Other neighborhood women might have telephoned ahead so they wouldn’t have to linger there. Not my grandmother. She was in her glory, inspecting the birds, running her hand over a hen’s belly to determine if it harbored unlaid eggs, or eggelehs, which she added to her soup after skimming off the schmaltz (chicken fat). Once she was satisfied, the shochet slaughtered the bird on the spot. An additional fee was levied for the removal of tail feathers, singed off by the butcher’s assistant.
With the hen still warm in a sack, we trundled back to my grandmother’s first floor tenement on Gordon Avenue, where the hen was rinsed and brined. She then mixed ingredients for the challah (egg bread). Sometimes I was given a tiny ball of dough to play with. After cooking, the schmaltz was brushed onto the challah before baking, to give it a yellowish sheen.
At sundown, with my family gathered at the table, my grandmother covered her eyes with her palms and recited the blessings.
I wondered whom her Shabbes prayers were for. She often said she preferred the dead to the living because they never complained they weren’t getting enough helpings of the rubbery eggelehs that floated in our steaming bowls.
When I cast a glance backward in time, I see my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s, and my aunts’ clenching mine on our pre-Shabbes rounds down the industrial streets of my youth, but I also picture my own adult hands intertwined with my boyhood fingers. It is this grasp that enables me to continually revisit a faith-inspired sense of awe.
My earliest memory of becoming awestruck was after a Shabbes dinner. I fell asleep on my grandmother’s bed. The next morning I awoke in my flannel pajamas in my own bed two flights up, with no recollection of how I got there. It was winter. The windows were shuttered, the radiators hissed. Between noisy spurts of forced hot air and clanging pipes, I heard the fluttering of wings.
Surely the very angels we welcomed to our sabbath table carried me aloft. This is what Shabbes prayers foretell. As we say in Yiddish, it is geschrieben, it is inscribed: we welcome the angels to our home on Shabbes, and they, in turn, watch over us, upon our lying down, upon our rising up, upon our going forth, upon our returning home.
Through related exposure to rituals, I learned the tenets of Judaism, and, only later—in my teen years—did I study what those principles meant in school.
My Jewish education consisted of Bible story sessions held in the synagogue basement designed to keep children distracted so that the adults could worship upstairs. This approach to religious education was implemented by necessity, not by design. The elders of my community simply did not have the wherewithal or the inclination to tend to the needs of my generation (the “boomers” born during the post–World War II years). At that time, there were limited resources in my synagogue and in the Jewish community at large, and most were earmarked for the resettlement of Russian and European refugees. As children we were thrown into the fray and expected to find our own way. Still, my childhood experiences lead me to conclude that there is much truth in Gandhi’s observation about faith, that it is “not something to grasp” but, rather, “a state to grow into.”
Yiddishkeit literally translates as “Jewish way of life,” but that definition hardly does it justice. There is no syllabus with which to teach Yiddishkeit. It is meant to convey a feeling rather than a set of tenets.
The early influences meant to indoctrinate me into Judaism can be summed up by one word: Yiddishkeit. While it literally translates as “Jewish way of life,” that definition hardly does it justice. There is no syllabus with which to teach Yiddishkeit. It is meant to convey a feeling rather than a set of tenets. Since my grandparents throughout their lives were functionally illiterate, they had little patience with inquisitive and rambunctious grandchildren. The act of imparting this amorphous sense of Jewish life was haphazard at best.
Despite this scattershot immersion into my faith, I credit Yiddishkeit with teaching me to navigate between those, on the one hand, who define themselves as “cultural” Jews and eschew all connection to God, and those, on the other hand, who insist that only by strictly adhering to Jewish law can one be, in their words, “Torah true.” I have come to see that this organic, homespun nurturance of faith has imbued in me a sense of awe. Not having all the answers has also spurred me to be inquisitive, to enhance my knowledge, to delve into origins and meanings.
I draw on this early, rustic indoctrination to Judaism during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Deeply reflective in nature, these holy days call upon Jews to take stock of their lives, to consider the status of the global community, and to pay homage to those who have died.
My grandparents and parents did not see the world as a friendly place. While we lived side by side with Christian neighbors, we were admonished to keep our distance. Worshippers at neighboring St. Michael’s parish—with its adjoining convent and rectory—did not include us at functions at the nearby Knights of Columbus hall. Nor were they invited to attend our gatherings at Congregation Sons of Abraham. To be a Jew was to live apart from, not as part of, the greater community.
There were idyllic aspects of my childhood—summer days at the park, excursions to the seashore—but death hovered in the background. Neighbors, including my grandparents, spoke of relatives murdered in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Germany. I heard tell of cousins in Rădăuţi, Romania, who had lost everyone—and everything—during the war. My grandmother wired them money. And when my Aunt Ruth bought a new car—a Volkswagen Beetle—my grandmother launched into a tirade. “After what the Germans did to Jews, you had to buy this car?” she said.
I didn’t fully comprehend her rage until one summer when I observed survivors of the Nazi concentration camps in our neighborhood with their shirtsleeves rolled up. On their forearms were blue numbered tattoos. We knew they had once been prisoners, but no one explained the cruelty and carnage of the Holocaust, a word that was not yet coined to describe the Nazi scourge. There were no community-wide observances for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). There were no public Holocaust memorials. The focus was on healing, moving on. The dead were memorialized, as they are by Jews today, during yahr-zeit, the anniversary of their deaths, when small light bulbs on a bronze plaque with the Hebrew names of the departed were illuminated in the foyer of the synagogue.
My father shared a bond with the Holocaust survivors: as a United States Army officer in the China-India-Burma theater of war, he, too, witnessed suffering on a grand scale. He kept a back issue of Life magazine in the bookcase in our living room. More than once he opened the pages to show us photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White in 1946 that pictured vultures picking at corpses after a four-day riot between Hindus and Muslims that left nearly seven thousand people dead near his barracks in Calcutta.1
My father had known poverty before he confronted it overseas. He described coming of age during the Depression, when he contracted tuberculosis because of the nothing he lived with: threadbare clothing, and never enough winter coal to warm the rooms of the tenement that he, his two sisters, and his mother—a single parent—occupied during those penurious years. Many knew him for his engaging wit, but what I recall was his moribund demeanor. He dwelled on the inevitability of his death. Twenty years before he died, he implored me to write his obituary; in the years that followed, he called upon me to make numerous revisions.
Many years have passed since the time I walked with my family to attend services at the synagogue. Yet the memories of those pilgrimages remain vivid, rekindled anew each year when I hear the mournful sounds of the shofar, or ram’s horn, held aloft by the rabbi from the bema. The shofar’s eerie blasts warn us of impending conflicts, awakening us from our reveries, so that we set to work to bundle the unraveled strands of our lives, lest we miss the opportunity to do so later. The shofar’s sounds are as commanding as those of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in a mosque; they are as insistent as the clanging of bells from the Catholic church summoning worshippers to Sunday Mass.
When I hear the shofar, I silently recite a psalm I memorized as a boy:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 137:1–4)
The origin of that psalm can be found in the lamentations expressed by Jews in exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. I had no understanding of this as a child. Back then, when we were asked to rise in unison and recite this psalm aloud, I mimed the words, bowing my head reverentially.
Now I see the connection between the perilous world of my ancestors and an increasingly dangerous world today. The psalm speaks of devotion to God while in exile, but it also expresses a longing for peace, calling upon all of us to utilize our inner strengths to wage peace as we struggle to regain what we’ve lost. The psalm has a universal appeal to all who have been persecuted and dispersed. Rastafarians recite, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” as a yearning to be freed from captivity and to return to their own homeland, and it has been recorded in a popular reggae song.2 Author James Carroll quoted this same psalm in reference to the travails of James Foley, a journalist and devout Catholic who converted to Islam while imprisoned in Syria by Islamic State terrorists, who tortured and later murdered him. Carroll noted that the psalm articulates the strength one derives by clinging to one’s faith in extremis.3
Peace does not come about by longing for it, or by lamenting the endless wars, captivities, and conflicts that continue to threaten the lives of Jews and non-Jews each day in the Middle East and elsewhere. The process of achieving peace requires placing ourselves at the mercy of a higher entity for guidance and inspiration while we are actively engaged in repairing our damaged world.
It is with this spirit, ingrained in me by earthy Yiddishkeit and later ripened by further educational exposure, that I add another phrase to the psalm’s “words of our mouths” and “meditations of our hearts.” It is this phrase: “with our deeds.” By combining words and meditations with our deeds, we become mercenaries for peace, fulfilling a vision poet Pablo Neruda described as setting forth “to sell light upon the roads.”4
Today, when I recite these prayers from memory, I experience the same sense of awe and mystery I felt when I first heard them. By delving deeper into their meanings—melding mind and heart with deeds—the prayers reinforce my connection to the greater community.
While on assignment in Paris, I stopped for lunch at a Tunisian kosher restaurant on rue Richer, located in that city’s ninth arrondissement. I was served a roasted chicken thigh, turnips, a hunk of French bread, and a bottle of red wine. Nothing fancy.
When the plate was cleared, I found myself savoring a childhood memory of when I was rewarded after shopping for Shabbes with a visit to Guttin’s bakery. The outside shop windows of the bakery were fogged, but the display case inside was clear. Dressed in a beige hat, mittens, and brown coat, my mother’s fingers and mine conjoined, I pointed to a poppy seed cookie, sprinkled with sugar. The clerk, familiar with our routine, handed it to me folded inside a sheet of waxed paper. Few memories have conjured within me such exquisite feelings of delight.
When the waiter returned and jolted me from my reverie, I ordered coffee and dessert. He quickly produced a cup of espresso and a plate of apricots, pistachios, and prunes.
Before he scurried away, I asked him: Might it be possible for a slice of cake, un petit gateâu, s’ils vous plaît? He looked at me quizzically. And then a smile came to his face. Reaching over, he clasped my cheek between his middle and fore fingers, followed by a playful slap. “This is a Sephardic restaurant, monsieur,” he exclaimed, “but you are Ashkenazic!”
I left the restaurant embarrassed by my lack of understanding of cultural and culinary differences. Yiddishkeit had taken me only so far. The way forward would be a struggle, but I knew that it was the path I had to take if I wanted to reach beyond the limits of my rough-hewn inheritance.
Nearby I sought refuge in a shop selling Judaica. I spied a ceramic tile for sale, portraying Jacob wrestling an angel. The angel’s wings are all aflutter and his face is contorted. Jacob has bested him, and, as dawn encroaches, the angel must give Jacob a blessing. The name the angel blesses Jacob with is my name: Israel.
The ceramic tile depicting Jacob and the angel now sits on my bookshelf. It reminds me, when I welcome the angels into my home every Friday night, to implore them not only to watch over my lying down, my rising up, my going forth, and my returning home, but to help me wrestle seen and unseen challenges as I grow into my faith.
- Margaret Bourke-White, The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, ed. Sean Callahan (Bonanza Books, 1972), 160–61.
- “The Rivers of Babylon,” by the Melodians, which I originally heard in the 1972 film The Harder They Come.
- James Carroll, “God Was James Foley’s Witness,” Boston Globe, February 27, 2015.
- See Pablo Neruda, A New Decade: Poems, 1958–1967, trans. Ben Belitt and Alastair Reid (Grove Press, 1969), 7–9.
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. His most recent piece for the Bulletin was “Red Flags for American Jews?” a report on the Pew Research Center’s findings on the American Jewish community.