Friday, August 28, 2009

The religion that got away, Part 2

Just as I discovered the Buddha's teachings in Germany, I began to pursue my study of Judaism in an equally unlikely place--Hawaii. My husband at the time was stationed at Pearl Harbor, so I had many occasions to visit the base. I'd noticed that near the main clinic was something called the Aloha Jewish Chapel. On most military installations, the Jewish community has to be content with taking its turn at the regular base chapel for its services like everybody else. But AJC was a dedicated synagogue.

I attended a Friday night service on what happened to be the first night of Chanukah. My initial welcome consisted of this very sweet old lady who insisted I fill up a plate with various goodies from the potluck they were having for the occasion. Despite not knowing a word of Hebrew, the service leader and the congregation made great efforts to make me feel welcome and help me keep up with what was going on in the service.

Within a few weeks I was attending Hebrew lessons before the services and conversion classes during the week. Since there was no rabbi at AJC, my conversion classes were with a nearby Reform congregation. I mentioned in Part 1 how Judaism struck me as practical (in the sense that behavior is emphasized more than theology), and the things I learned in conversion class seemed to confirm this. While Kabbalah has been big in some circles, note that many of these circles tend not to have many Jewish people in them, not entirely unlike Buddhist groups with no Asians. ;) Hashing out the details of regular Jewish living is enough to keep most people occupied! You may have heard that some traditions refer to Jews as "People of the Book." After just a few weeks of study, I began to think "People of the Library" was more accurate! That was something I loved about Judaism--that you could dedicate your life to studying it and still not know all there is to know.

I also liked the emphasis on debate and discussion. For example, if you look at an untranslated page from the Talmud, you'll notice right away that you can't read it like a typical book. The core concept under discussion is in the center of the page, and the various commentaries (which don't always agree with each other!) surround it, often going into the margins of the page.

The support I felt from the military community motivated me in ritual observance, too. I lit Shabbat candles every week, attended a Passover Seder, and even fasted for Yom Kippur. I really felt like I was meant to be Jewish. Unfortunately, the Reform rabbi had to step down due to health problems before I could make my conversion final.

And truth be told, there were other issues. I encountered a lot of resistance at home, and in retrospect, I can't blame my husband for his reaction. I'd shown no signs of this interest before we got married. But that acceptance was so important to me that I stuck with it. Eventually, he learned to sort of tolerate it and even managed to acquire a taste for matzo ball soup. But once we came back to Texas, we never could settle on a congregation. And by the time we divorced, I'd pretty much had it with organized religion.

However, I'll always be grateful to that community in Hawaii for supporting me through some very tough times in my life. If I had to pick a religion for some reason, Judaism would probably be it. Although my actual beliefs may line up more with various Eastern religions, I never felt the sense of community with them that I did in the synagogue.

As you've probably guessed, the community issue is really important to me. But I think that deserves its own post, so the details on that subject will have to wait for another time. I've rambled enough for now.

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