I am supposed to speak to a class titled ‘Journey to Judaism’ soon, and dammed if I know why. I took this class myself a few years ago at a local synagogue. I should say ‘my local synagogue’ and slightly balked. But I don’t know why. Yes, I joined Sha’ar Zahav, paid my dues and everything. ‘My’ is the right word. I am part of the thing.
But what is that thing? Again, dammed if I know. After all, as the class title suggests, it’s a journey, right?
Why? Why? Well, originally, in the Palo Alto area where I spent an astonishing one third of a century, I needed to belong to something. After all, I was living in an area in which people belonged to companies and to each other, vis-à-vis a family, but I had neither, being an unmarried freelancer. So I started going to this synagogue in Palo Alto, a Reconstructionist congregation. Which, at times, I described as ultra-reform. The congregation would not describe itself that way, but whatever. There I was, a member there also.
Back in San Francisco after, as I say, about 34 years, the same situation obtained. I was married now, but I still needed to belong. But why not belong to something else? That is the thing.
When my wife Marlou died, that Palo Alto congregation turned out to be something quite remarkable. I somehow didn’t expect to find myself actually sitting shiva, as they say, but sure enough, one night a bunch of congregants came to my house, brought food, and we did what we did. The rabbi led us in a prayer. I listened to what people had to say. And I didn’t have anything terribly profound, or certainly very complex, to offer. But I do remember this woman Edie, a Stanford professor, who simply said in the most down-to-earth terms…. This will get better.
And then came the memorial candle. The rabbi lit it, said a prayer, and then she left. By the way, note that this is a ‘she’, a situation not to be taken for granted in the world of Judaism. But actually it’s more and more than normal thing in places like San Francisco. And it’s a good thing.
Where was I? Oh, staring slightly dumbfounded at the candle in the glass jar on my dining room table in the apartment I had lived in for more than 20 years. The candle burned. And, designed as it is to burn for a week, so it did. But toward the end of that week, it began to burn lower. I recall coming home, going up the lonely wheelchair ramp and fumbling for my key, and looking at the flickering light inside. The candle got lower, and with it whatever it represented. The waning of the light. The lessening, wearing out, and ending of a human life.
That was it. That evocation of the diminution of existence. The human experience of ritual. Why we go through something like this, having what we already know re-staged, restated and held before us. Ritual. It’s a good thing. So, what the hell, I will go speak to the class.