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[Some names changed to protect the innocent]

Posted by Jew from Jersey
8 October 2015

Every High Holiday service makes me think of Justin.

The Bar-Mitzvah is traditionally the beginning of a Jewish male’s active involvement in his religion. Traditionally, a boy sits in synagogue all his childhood, but only at age 13 is he allowed to participate in the service: to be counted in the minyan, to lead services and do aliya latorah. He already knows what to do. If he needs any coaching, he receives it from his father or male relative or someone he knows well. The uniqueness of the event is his joining as an equal in the company of men he has looked up to all his life.

For deracinated Jews since the mid 20th century, the situation is quite different. The boy approaches his 13th birthday with little prior exposure to his religion. He must quickly be prepared to lead a service and do an aliya. Since his father and other male relatives are probably not up to the task, he is usually trained by a professional rabbi or religious teacher who seems alien to him. He leads services and does an aliya once. This activity is not only strange to him, it is devoid of context as well. It is not so much an initiation as it is a one time test of endurance. Most such young men are probably glad to have been Bar-Mitzvahed, it’s almost like a trial by fire, but they have little reason to ever attend a synagogue again or perform another religious ritual as long as they live.

This was certainly the situation in my case and changed little until more than an additional 13 years had elapsed. The circumstances of my renewed interest in Judaism were the death of my maternal grandfather, when my wife and I drove down to Philadelphia to be with my grandmother, my parents, and my uncle and his family. No one sat shiva. In fact, my grandmother had already had the body cremated and was very surprised when her two children informed her that this was entirely contrary to Jewish tradition. It was also the day before Yom Kippur and the outbreak of the al-aqsa intifada.

My mother and her older brother are both mild-mannered New York born liberals who belong to conservative congregations. My grandmother considers them both religious fanatics. In their many visits to the main line Philadelphia retirement community where their parents moved several years earlier, they had found a conservative synagogue similar to the ones they attended in the towns where they lived. They had joined the Philadelphia congregation and were planning to attend the High Holy Day services, a time of year when non-members are usually required to purchase tickets in advance. Perhaps because of the unusual combination of circumstances, I actually decided to fast for the first time in my life. Being away from home and work, as well as very hungry, I joined my extended family for the Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services.

I can’t remember anything particularly interesting about the Synagogue or the services. The building was very large and the congregation appeared affluent. The Rabbi was very polished and very liberal. Everything in the temple was named after a donor or two. The cantor never missed a note. An old Jewish joke has it that every Jew needs a synagogue to not attend every bit as much as he needs one to attend. This was just the kind of place I thought of every time I had decided not to attend synagogue throughout my adult life. I don’t remember feeling particularly repentful as I beat my chest during the al het or awe-struck during the blowing of the shofar. But I did feel a strange instinct taking over throughout the performance of these rituals, a certain familiarity I wasn’t expecting.

Justin doesn’t look any more Jewish than his name sounds. I first saw him one year after my grandfather died. He was leading the High Holiday services at the university Hillel, together with a girl from the nearby College named Halle. It was the first time I had been in a synagogue of any kind since the Yom Kippur of the previous year. The room being used as a synagogue was somewhat makeshift. Most of the congregants were students. No one had tickets or paid dues. Justin and Halle had about a 50%-75% chance of getting either the words or the notes right. But they did do the entire service, in Hebrew, in all the special holiday tropes, with great attention and care, and without any of that bombastic “responsive reading” that’s all the rage in non-Orthodox synagogues nowadays. It was my first time at the Hillel, but I felt a lot more at home already than I had in Philadelphia a year before.

Justin had a good voice and seemed to like singing. I later learned that he played tenor sax, the same instrument I had given up years before, in the university marching band. He made a lot of mistakes, but I have an excellent impression of him singing the holiday tropes. In general, I have a very vivid memory of him on those few days. He wore a smart brown suit and a broad tie that I believe was yellow. But I remember his singing in particular. Sometimes, years later, after we both have graduated and I no longer know his whereabouts, after I have heard many other cantors more professional than him, I hear him in my head singing the holiday melody for the Kaddish or the special Yom Kippur liturgy such as uvkehn or hamelekh. I am sure his singing was very sincere and I wonder if I’ll ever hear those melodies sung in the same way. I can’t say that he was more devout than an orthodox hazan, but his devotion was precisely of a kind that spoke to me, more than anyone else I have heard before or since. I still can’t say if I felt repentful on that day, but that is the kind of singing that I would meditate on if I ever am.

I saw Justin several times after that at the Hillel. His suit had given way to the baggy shorts and polo shirt more common among college boys. He participated little in Hillel activities and didn’t even seem that interested in leading any services except the High Holy ones. He usually looked unshaven and underslept, but not as if he had been working particularly hard. But whenever I heard him talk, he always said something worth remembering. On one occasion I remember him joking at the expense of the conservative rabbi who ran the Hillel: “Do you know that Saul gets $1000 every time there’s a Jewish wedding at the U.? That’s what this is all about. Chabad doesn’t care who I date, as long as I’m observant. Hillel doesn’t care if I’m not observant, as long as I date someone Jewish.” But special ridicule was reserved for the reform Jews of the college town. Justin and some of his friends had recently attended services at the the reform congregation, to find that one of their Torahs was damaged and thus unfit for use. “The funny thing is,” said Justin in his animated storytelling voice, “that we don’t know how many years that Torah was sitting there like that and no one even noticed. Of course, in town who needs the Torah anyway? Let’s just meditate around a candle.”

Justin was probably more surprised than I was when we met the following year as teacher and student. His name had been on my class roster since the spring, whereas my name had never been listed as part of the course information. The reason for this was that I was approached less than two weeks before the semester began and was asked to teach the course. I had always wanted to teach a foreign language and thought myself qualified to teach at least two. However, there were already two full-time teachers teaching all the Hebrew demanded and Russian was being liquidated the year I arrived. My lucky break came in the form of a research grant that was awarded to one of the Hebrew teachers, who could then afford to pay me to teach his course.

What did surprise me probably more than it surprised Justin was that he was the absolute worst student I ever taught. I had already taught a course in another department and knew not to except motivated or disciplined students. I was also informed explicitly by the two-full time Hebrew teachers, both of whom had been teaching Hebrew at the school for over 25 years, that I shouldn’t expect much from students of Hebrew. I would be teaching a third-year course, which meant that most of the enrolled students would be two-year veterans of the classes of these two instructors. Implicitly, it seemed that they wanted me to be more demanding from these students than they had been themselves. I didn’t need much encouragement and I don’t think I let them down. I made it clear to the students on the first day of class that I would be assigning written homework and having in-class quizzes every week and that I would be expecting them to speak exclusively in Hebrew in class by the end of the term. Several students dropped the class immediately. Justin came to the first few classes, turned in a few mediocre assignments, and then simply disappeared without disenrolling from the course. The time for late add/drop was coming to an end. This is the time I usually approach students who are not doing well and ask them to consider either making more of an effort or dropping the course while they still can. Of course, my approaching them assumes that they come to class at least occasionally. Justin was nowhere to be found. Luckily, we happened to meet at Hillel on the last Saturday before drop/add ended. “We need to talk,” I said. He didn’t seem surprised.

When he came to my office the next week, he looked as unkempt and spaced out as ever. To his credit, he neither complained nor asked for special considerations, two particularly annoying and fruitless tendencies that are entirely too prevalent among students at the university. I had computed his grade average so far, as well as the grade averages he would need to maintain for the rest of the course to get a passing grade. I explained: “You can still get a B if you work very hard, but even if you just maintain the grade average of the average student in this class, you can still get a C.” “Yeah,” he said, “but I’m not the average student.” I knew he was right. He had probably just hung around to see if I would volunteer to give him extra credit without being asked. Since we both knew I wasn’t going to do that, I suggested that he drop the course. He didn’t object. He dropped the course and consequently lost his eligibility for a minor in Judaic Studies.

Why had he waited for so late in the semester for this to happen? Every class has a few weak students, but they usually make a point of pretending to work and pretending to respond to admonitions. Also, other weak students seem to be living in denial of their situation and actually believe until the bitter end that they are on the verge of drastic improvement. Justin seemed both mysteriously passive and brutally realistic.

I asked Gila, one of the two veteran Hebrew teachers, about Justin. Gila was known for her lax class discipline and low demands, yet she was always unforgiving when taking to me about her students. “They don’t even let it go in one ear and out the other,” she used to say in her heavy Israeli accent, “it doesn’t even go in the first ear.” Of Justin she was particularly harsh. “You did the right thing,” she said. I spoke up for Justin, saying he obviously knew some Hebrew and had told me that he attended an intensive Hebrew class over the summer. “Don’t believe anything he says,” was her verdict. Yet Gila had been giving Justin passing grades for two straight years. Otherwise he would never have ended up in my class in the first place.

I still haven’t found the synagogue that is really the place I would like to attend.

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