Making Jewish Ritual My Own: A Story About Yoda, Chopped Liver, and Hand Towels

We are thrilled to partner with Moving Traditions on our Rosh Hodesh guide: How Do We Own Our Traditions?  Here, Rabbi Daniel Brenner reflects on the question. More Jewish guides can be found here.

 

Growing up with cousins who were really Jewish – they dressed like extras on Yentl, lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the days before a single hipster had set foot in the neighborhood, spent every weekday in Yeshiva and pre-ripped their toilet paper in preparation for the sabbath– I was always a bit hesitant to go any deeper into Jewish ritual life.

From the outside here is how you might have seen us: They only ate Glatt kosher meat slaughtered by people that they trusted, I opted for the hamburger at Wendy’s instead of the cheeseburger. They spent hours circle dancing and singing praises to Hashem, I was busy slam-dancing and singing the curses uttered by the Violent Femmes. They only socialized with Jewish people, I hung out with my friends from the tennis team at a country club that didn’t allow Jewish members. In a word: Them: Super-Jewy. Me: Jew-ish.

Who am I to take on more ritual? This is what I would say to myself – my high school self - in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time I was not a believer in the God of Israel in any way – and truth be told, I held a theological and spiritual framework based primarily on selective quotes from Yoda. But towards the end of high school, after I went off to one of those summer institutes for high school kids at a college a few
hours away, I started to think differently about Jewish ritual.

 

The institute was insanely fun – my friends and I got to live in the dorms, order pizza at 2 A.M., play Frisbee on the quad– but it wasn’t the institute that changed me – it was a family that my parents arranged for me to visit for a Shabbat dinner.  My hosts, Lillian and Michael Andron, were what most people in the South would call hippies. Together with their young son, they prepared for Shabbat by changing into the loose-fitting casual clothing you might find in a Zen monastery. Before we made a blessing on the challah, Michael explained something to me about the act of pouring water over each hand three times. He had read a study of extremely low-frequency magnetic waves and although to this day I’m really not sure what he was really talking about, something about the idea of purifying one’s hands, the spiritual significance of repeating an act three times, and aligning oneself to the harmony of the universe suddenly clicked inside me. This was the first time that I encountered someone who articulated a reason to do Jewish ritual other than following a set of divine commandments or carrying on a tradition. Pouring the water over my hands, one hand at a time, with intense concentration to the weight of the vessel in my hand, made me more conscious of my actions, I awoke to the most simple and basic  action of cleaning my fingers and palm in order to eat sacred bread. Before they ate, they took deep breaths, eyes closed, meditated on the challah, and chewed with focus. And then they smeared the stuff with chopped liver. It was clear to me that the Jewish rituals were transforming them – taking them to a higher level of consciousness about the meal and the Sabbath.

I left the Andron’s home with a new thought in my head: Maybe doing more Jewish ritual would bring me in closer connection to the earth, the seasonal cycles, and my fellow humans. But how? This wasn’t really something that I felt was happening in the suburban synagogue of my youth.  Years later, at the University of Wisconsin, I lived with a group of Jewish women and men who were exploring what it meant to create Shabbat together and create rituals for Friday night dinner. Included in the rituals was an opportunity for those who wanted to wash their hands to do so. We practiced silence during the washing, and somehow the ritual evolved a new aspect – once you had washed your hands, your role was to dry the hands of the next person. It was a simple connection –two silent people, one holding out their hands with a
towel, the other extending their just washed hands. While you dried, you looked at the person and smiled. We all grooved on it.

Years later, other Jewish rituals involving water took on this sort of power – cleansing my body in the waters of the mikvah (ritual bath), purifying a body for burial with buckets of rainwater, washing the feet of a baby girl during a baby naming ceremony, placing a cup of spring water for Miriam the prophetess on our Passover table - for all these connections to water and it’s purifying force I have to thank the Andron’s for helping me to see beyond the typical explanation of Jewish ritual.

The rabbis of the Talmud taught: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”  O.K. – maybe that was a Yoda quote, but still, in order to embrace Jewish ritual I had to unlearn the reasons I was initially told about doing Jewish ritual and see it all anew. My role in life now? To pass on a little bit of that sense of ritual and wonder to every Shabbat guest that finds their way to our table.




Daniel Brenner, a reconstructionist rabbi, is chief of education and program for Moving Traditions. He’s currently working on a national research project of Moving Traditions’ signature program Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! If you have participated in Rosh Hodesh, he hopes that you’ll take a moment to visit www.roshhodesh.org and share your story.