When I arrived at the Army Induction Center in 1954, I was required to fill out a form so that my dog tags could be punched out. Among the information to be included, beyond name and serial number, was religious orientation. The choices were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or None. I chose the last.
A grizzled sergeant came up to me. “Burstein, aren’t you Jewish?”
“No. My family is, but I’m not.”
“If you’re wounded, maybe dying on the battle field, don’t you want a chaplain to hold your hand, comfort you?”
“I would want someone to hold my hand I guess, but I don’t care who.”
I have always thought of my mother as an observant Orthodox Jew, but how do I know that? For starters, I was sent to Hebrew School for years, attending for several hours after my public school classes. I don’t remember how many days each week the Hebrew School classes occurred, but I am pretty sure I didn’t volunteer for them. They were no fun at all.
We learned only a few words of Hebrew, paradoxical ones. The Hebrew word that sounds like “dawg” means “fish,” “hee” means “she,” “hoo” means “he.” Sometimes the teacher would hold something up, say a book, and ask, Mah zeh?” (What is this?).
If you said, “Zeh ha safer,” (This is a book) you would be rewarded with “Tov m’ode” (Very good).
But mostly we translated the Old Testament, sounding out the cryptic Hebrew letters one at a time and translating word by word. We learned no grammar and acquired no conversational skills. A dead language.
More evidence of my mother’s orthodoxy? I know my mother cooked for the Jewish Community Center’s summer camp, and I am pretty sure the meals had to be kosher. That meant keeping dairy products and meat products separate and making sure that meat came only from animals that chewed a cud, had split hooves, were killed in a ritually proper way and had all traces of blood banished before cooking. Seafood was required to have scales. Chicken seemed to be easy.
I know my father and my maternal grandmother had orthodox services at their funerals, though I know, without knowing how I know, that my father, a 32nd degree Mason, wanted a Masonic funeral. And I know for sure that we had four sets of dishes: separate everyday sets for dairy foods and meat foods and parallel sets for the Passover. Now that I think of it, we had a fifth set, at least cups and saucers and small plates. I believed my grandmother owned them. Because they were shiny black, with silver decorations, as a child I thought of them as exotic and I was sure they were very valuable. Now, I think it more likely that they were premiums given away at the local movie theatre.
I also remember my mother lighting the Sabbath candles, the bench licht. I believe it to be the only orthodox Jewish religious ritual that is gender-specific; a woman must perform it. Mom would cover her head with a cloth, chant a barucha (blessing) and wave her hands above the candles toward her face in an arcane gesture, as though she were wafting some spiritual essence to be smelled and savored.
I remember, too, that the unmarried Rabbi of the orthodox synagogue just a few blocks from our house used to have Friday night dinner with us. He would have driven from his house to the synagogue on Friday morning. But, because driving on the Sabbath was forbidden after sundown, he would walk to our home, have dinner and spend the night with us. The next morning he would walk back to the synagogue and, after sundown Saturday, he could drive his car back to his own home.
One Friday evening, my mother was rushed and forgot to bench licht before the rabbi arrived. When he noticed, he walked hurriedly, head down, into his bedroom, closing the door until my mother, abashed, realized the problem and performed her ritual. He must have been listening at the door because as soon as she finished, he emerged. Without mention of the situation, he went to the Sabbath table, with its candles properly lit. There we joined him for the meal: braided challeh bread, chicken soup, fish, maybe veal chops and flaky, oily strudel, redolent of cinnamon, apple and raisin.
After the meal, Rabbi Rakofsky would open a book and read aloud. It was an astonishing experience. No one had read poetry to me before. He read Poe, and the sonorous rhythms and rhymes of The Raven and Bells fixed themselves in my memory.
He wore a vested suit and had a thin Clark Gable mustache. To my pre-adolescent eyes he epitomized wisdom and sophistication. I was devastated when he left town under a cloud of disgrace for reasons I could not fathom although I remember overhearing hushed comments about “hot pants”. It is unusual for orthodox rabbis to be unwed, and that may have accounted for congregational suspicions. Only recently has it occurred to me that the suspicions might have included my widowed mother, who also did some house cleaning for the rabbi.
In the years leading up to my Bar Mitzvah at thirteen, my Judaism took some twists and turns. I was furious at the people I thought persecuted my idealized rabbi. Although I felt an irrational excitement about the activities of the Jewish kibbutzim and of the Jewish underground fighting for the independence of Israel, I had an intellectual conviction that nationalism itself was a problematic concept. I regularly attended orthodox Sabbath services, giving sermons in the Junior Congregation and playing Theodore Hertzl, a prominent Zionist, in a Hebrew School pageant. The congregation of our synagogue offered me a scholarship to a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary. I declined, partly out of fear of leaving home, and partly because of my doubts about orthodox Jewish beliefs.
Despite the doubts, I was observant because I thought that my mother might be responsible in some cosmic way if I had broke the law before I became confirmed. After that, the responsibility would be mine.
I remember specific grounds for my religious doubts: key amongst them was my father’s wish for a Masonic funeral and my sense that not respecting that wish could not be right. In addition, I was troubled by the content of two of the many required daily prayers.
The first was a prayer in which men said (in Hebrew, of course), “Blessed art thou, Oh Lord, King of the universe for having made me a man,” while women said, “Blessed art thou, Oh Lord, King of the universe for having made me in accordance with your desire.” Though Betty Friedan and feminism were some decades away, I found the notion of women as second-class citizens irrational.
Another prayer praised God for choosing us (Jews) from all the nations. I thought the community in the synagogue—the old men dipping snuff and bobbing back and forth as they rattled off prayers, the women gossiping in the balcony, the smooth shaven, self-important big shots that ran things—was pretty ordinary, not much of a divine selection.
Nevertheless, as the time approached for my confirmation, I spent a lot of time hanging around the rabbi’s office at the synagogue. I thought there was a chance, albeit a small one, that he might have something of profound importance, an earthshaking truth, to impart. I didn’t want to miss that precious moment. The weeks went by, and my laborious practice of how to chant the Torah reading assigned for the week of my Bar Mitzvah came to an end without a call to the rabbi’s office.
At the synagogue for the ceremony, I remember wearing my tallis (prayer shawl) and yamuke (skull cap). The small black boxes, the teffillin, containing the sacred words (Hear, Oh Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one, hand written in Hebrew) were bound to my left arm and forehead.
I was to carry the holy Torah from the ark at the front to the bemah, the platform in the center of the synagogue where the Cantor sang and where the portion of the Holy Torah for the week was to be chanted. I felt the slippery parchment of the scroll under the ornate velvet cover in my sweaty hands. I was terrified at the possibility I might drop the Torah and be presented with a terrible punishment, maybe fasting for a year, for the desecration. I made it to the bemah and managed my solo chant of the portion of the week without a major stumble.
As the service concluded, I stood with the new rabbi at the front of the congregation. I was a pretty good speechwriter, and my memorized comments went well.
The rabbi began his response, and I had a hopeful thought: maybe now, maybe this is it. Maybe…but no.
All he had to offer was a string of banalities. No poetry and no Kabbalist mysteries.
So, when I had to check that box, it was None of the Above for me.