"S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid" - not only is it tough to be a Jew; it's tough to remain a Jew! I grew up in a Reform Jewish home, my father was a secular Jew and my mother was a keen convert with no personal heritage of Jewish traditions. My paternal grandparents didn't talk about being Jewish, just Russian (although my grandpa would sometimes speak Yiddish when we visited the Negev Bookstore on Bathurst). My brothers and I learned Hebrew at shul; we all celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah and participated in Confirmation. I was the only one who took it to a higher level through youth group and student teaching. At seventeen, I attended UAHC Kutz Camp where I learned to speak modern Hebrew, to play the guitar and to song lead. It was three weeks that changed my entire perspective of Jewish life. I returned to my youth group with vigour and determination and lived a healthy Jewish life through youth group, Nelfty, and as much at home as my family could tolerate.
I was not so lucky in finding a suitable Jewish girlfriend however. When I went to university I met a girl in my class, a non-Jew. We became fast friends and she professed to be supportive of Jews and Judaism. A few years after graduating, we married. We had a nice non-denominational wedding, although I did break a glass and some guests shouted "mazal tov!" And we promised each other to raise our future kids Jewish.
And then things changed. My wife began to withdraw from attending services with me, the holiday celebrations diminished. When our sons were born our doctor circumcised them in the hospital. We gave them Hebrew first and middle names, but without the bris it was not the same. By this point I was either going to funerals, weddings, and the occasional service by myself, or not at all. Seder with my parents was a hurry-up affair. I felt completely disconnected. I played my guitar only when my wife was not around, and I secretly sang Jewish prayers and songs. I had become a closet Jew. Eventually I even stopped doing that.
My wife and I went to Italy for a company trip and took an extra 3 days to visit Venice. As we were walking along a canal, I followed a sign that led us to the ghetto and the Museo Ebraico. The synagogue itself was closed, but I managed to scrounge up enough money for 2 nice glass mezuzah cases with tiny scrolls. Upon our return home, I gave one to my parents and tried to talk with my wife about putting one up in our home. "If you put that thing up in our home, I'm putting up a gigantic cross!" she threatened. So it stayed in a drawer until I discovered that one of our neighbours, a new Jewish arrival from Moldova, wanted a mezuzah for his home. It seemed like an appropriate gift, and giving it to him made me happy. But spiritually I was defeated and hollow. Four years later, we divorced.
The day that the boys' mother moved her stuff out of the apartment was a Friday. I took the day off work and actually helped lift our former mutual belongings down the hall and into the van. And I helped put them into her new apartment.
The sun was still up when I got home. The apartment was nearly completely barren except for some dishes, a couple of heirlooms from my family, mattresses for the boys to sleep on for their visits, and my guitars. I went to the hardware store and bought a new door lock, replacing the one we'd had for nearly 10 years. But it still didn't feel like a home yet. I suddenly remembered that my parents had recently returned from Italy and had given me a gift, which I'd hidden in my sock drawer. I opened it - lo and behold I had a new glass mezuzah from Venice in my hands. On the half-bare bookshelves was one of my Jewish texts, the Gates of Mitzvah. I felt a sense of pride sweep over me that I was going to finally have my own mezuzah on my own doorpost. But what next?
I opened my guitar case, noting the badly oxidized strings as I tuned it. I dug around boxes of my stuff and found some music. I found some unused tea lights, dug out my Bar Mitzvah Kiddush cup from storage and set some slices of bread under a paper napkin on my wobbly, makeshift dining room table. I welcomed in Shabbat for the first time in my apartment.
I remember crying aloud at the loss of a life that was supposed to have been shared in happiness, the loss of full time sons, the conclusion of a very long and painful process, and the sudden realization of the years where I was not able to welcome in Shabbat. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of joy in the sudden repossession of my Jewish identity and fulfillment of now seemingly easy mitzvot. Maybe it wasn't so hard to be Jewish after all!!
Although I was alone in my apartment, with very little around me, I felt a fullness and richness that I'd not experienced in almost 20 years; I was surrounded by something larger than me. And at that moment I realized that I no longer had a barren apartment; I had a Jewish home.
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