A Lesson from the Shema

Michael P. Amram

I blinked and the black stripes on the rabbi’s tallis grazed the whites of my eyes.  I nodded off once or many times more during the service.  I realized where I was, that we were still someplace warm and friendly in the anonymity of the congregation.  I was surrounded by more than 80 Reform Jews surely more pious than myself.  I asked myself what I was doing there, if I could sincerely say I was there for a purpose.

The uplifting words of the Shema always sounded good to me.  It was a mantra that I said in my trying adolescence:

“Shema, Yisrael Adonai
Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad…”

The verses went on, and with each I felt the bullies take another hit.  Each was sung by the cantor in the same way; in a sharply rising, falling and rising delicately and falling meter.  It was recited at the beginning of the service.  But the second time it was recited, the congregation rose again and eventually sunk back into their seats, sensing that the rabbi was wrapping up the service.  I always stood tall and proud for the Shema; chest out, sometimes even mouthing the words.  Mostly, though, I was stretching from the transcendent nap in which snippets of sermonizing sublimated my mind.  The cantor supplemented the rabbi’s efforts; he would pose the ideas but the cantor really sold them through song, harsh intonation and dramatic enunciation Hebrew sometimes requires. After the Shema I nodded off again to mumbles of the Kaddish in which the anonymous names of the dearly departed were read.  The rabbi always called them out to his congregation with a tenderness that was hard to ignore. My sister and parents listened intently.  They did not nudge me, nor would I have budged had they.  They never pushed me in any circumstance no matter how “traditional” it was.

Some 15 year olds can’t appreciate anything that precedes their own gratification, and certainly in the course of a worship service.  I had the Oneg Shabbat on my mind; the refreshment phase of the temple experience that consists of flaky pastries and thick, gummy, sweet cakes; cookies and powdered sugar rolls.  They always inherited the smell of the temple.  It was a stagnant but strong, piercing smell that holds your nose the younger and more impressionable you are.  Always, the taste was ethnic, exotically bland, tangy and sweet.  Although the sweetness was not a gentile sweet; it was a subtle, sugary mélange that chose its buds cautiously as it rested on the tongue while you kibitzed.  We kibitzed; we talked amongst ourselves in the social part of what became to me to be “Friday night at the temple.”  Strangers had one thing in common; they practiced the same kind of Judaism.  Some were more lax than others.  Some led Seders that lasted longer, some tore off their Challah pieces more haphazardly than others but we all enjoyed the Oneg.

The rabbi’s hands were raised when I blinked again.  He had a delicate strength that prepared me for the angst of being a teen.  He gave me something to remember as I grew up awkwardly at home and dealt with bullies at school.

“May God bless you and keep you….”

The rabbi was small in stature but the tallies, the yarmulke and the raised hands created a surreal giant on that bema; the elevated stage at the head of the temple.  After each nodding off my eyes adjusted to the light and each time I was exponentially dwarfed by the giant Star of David on the ceiling.  Slowly the brown doors of the Ark drew shut; signaling a last chance for a week to glimpse the huge Torahs and their elaborate velvety coverings and silver breast plates.  This was the end. The final, official end.  In the longest hour I’ve known, trite, self-serving prayers were read, an interesting sermon was finely orated; homage had been paid to Israel and God and the dead had been acknowledged. Blessing us was the last thing on the rabbi’s checklist.

I felt fulfilled. I had turned my heart to my parents; a reciprocal gesture that was implored to me at each Sabbath meal. In the midst of my teenage recalcitrance these sentiments were glibly exchanged between me and my parents:

“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”

I was disobedient at 15, particularly to my dad, a fact that made it all the more ironic that we said those words at that point in our relationship.  I was in the pathos of adolescents, and often at odds with my dad. I thought I knew it all.  (It is interesting to me now, though, that what we read from a Jewish prayer book a sentiment which offered reciprocation from the parents while the commandment most Christian kids are taught simply states: “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”)

The word Bar Mitzvah is derived from Hebrew and Aramaic and literally means “son of the commandment.”  It is most often a ceremony that takes place at age thirteen and it recognizes a boy’s entry into manhood and their obligations to the commandments.

Eagle Scout became my concession to a Bar Mitzvah.  Scouting also poses a set of laws.  There are twelve, two of which are obedience and reverence.  At the time I was often disobedient and my reverence to anything was complicated by growing pains.  The acquisition of Eagle Scout teaches discipline much the way the study for a Bar Mitzvah does. Moving through the ranks, earning the merit badges and the final, charitable, Eagle project all require dedication that was usually hard for me to find at the time. I wanted to quit many times along the way, but my parents saw this was something attainable and pushed me.  The closer I got to the award the more I knew it was something I wanted.  It was something I could do right and be proud.  I didn’t do it because I thought it was expected and I had my parents’ pride to win, I didn’t do it because I knew I would get money (I did get $200) and I didn’t do it to compete with my peers.  It was ultimately my decision and I feel I am the better person for having done it.  I now thank my parents for pushing me to get the award

At the very least, the subliminal lessons of those temple services got me through adolescence.  Religion, the identity with a group and the commitment to something with more longevity than an Oneg Shabbat were all displayed to me in a way that left me options.  I wasn’t forced into anything like I hear so many kids are by parents. I look back at those years in the early 1980’s and see what I am now because of them; how it made me more committed to family, how it taught me the responsibility of identifying with a group for better or worse and how it made me appreciate something, even if it wasn’t served on a silver pastry tray.