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B”H Says the Man Who Hated Religious School

Do you remember being dragged to the pediatrician’s office to get your first booster shot? First came panic, then hysteria, followed by a mad dash from the crazy nurse trying to stab you with a footlong needle — all ending with you pinned down by the doctor, the nurse — and your mother.

Now, and I mean no offense to my formal Jewish education, being subjected to religious school felt as horrific (granted, less dramatic) as that fateful booster shot. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t understand why I needed it and only relented out of parental pressure.

So you might be surprised to hear that, all these years later, I’m getting ready to keep a kosher kitchen, observe Shabbat and take work off for the bajillion holidays on the Jewish calendar; all this from a guy who — in college — didn’t think twice about dating non-Jewish women or noshing on pepperoni pizza (occasionally at the same time!).

I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve only recently felt a connection to my religion. In fact, despite religious school, my Jewish identity was shaped through growing up in a spiritually nurturing home in West Bloomfield, spending summers at Camp Tamarack and eating matzah every Pesach — to the point of constipation.

Still, becoming Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) is kind of a big leap for me. How did this happen?

My cousin was scrambling to find an apartment in Ann Arbor when a mutual friend led her to a sublet with a few young women. That fall, I drove to Ann Arbor to hang out with my cousin, and there I met one of her roommates — Shira. By the end of the night, I was pretty sure I had found my partner.

Shira was raised in a Modern Orthodox family and expressed to me early on [in our courtship] that she wanted to raise children within a similar religious framework. I remember asking her why she was so interested in continuing to keep the holidays. To her, we don’t practice Judaism because we’re supposed to or because that’s what God wants, but rather to uphold and transmit ancient rituals and traditions. The divinity is in being part of the long chain of observance.

As our families began to merge, I had a chance to spend many chagim (religious holidays) at Shira’s parents’ house, sometimes with my parents there, too. No phones, no driving, no laptops.

At first, I observed the holidays as a kind of “boyfriend obligation.” Eventually, though, I started to feel my own connection to the various holy days — especially Shabbat. For instance, I adopted the practice of ritual hand-washing that is required prior to reciting the HaMotzi (prayer over the bread).

The ritual involves pouring water over each hand while quietly reciting the corresponding prayer to myself. I’ve internalized the practice to such a degree that I even began to wash without Shira there to do it with.

Living in a world where I send and receive dozens of emails and phone calls every day, where driving a car is a huge part of my life, Shabbat has reminded me not to only step back, take a breath, take a walk or take a nap, but also to switch focus “from the world of creation, to the creation of the world,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote.

Shira and I now are engaged to be married. As I’ve become more interested in practicing observantly, I also recognize that our religious practice may be different from either of our parents’ traditions.

Beyond the unifying thread of ritual, I’m interested in actively redefining what Judaism means to us, and how the Detroit community Shira and I plan to live in will enhance and shape that experience.

No longer feeling like it’s an obligation to practice Judaism, I finally feel like I can practice on my own terms. Baruch Hashem!

ZAK ROSEN is a freelance public radio producer, living on Detroit’s East Side. This summer, he plans to join his fiancee, Shira, and live in Tel Aviv as she completes her remaining two years of graduate school.



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