We have become a little clan over the years. There are eight of us cousins, grandchildren of the late Jewish historian Israel Goldberg, who wrote under the name Rufus Learsi. We called him Grampa. Our children, his great-grandchildren, speak of him as Rufus. We gather for Seders and family events and other occasions to carve a turkey or spin a dreidel or shmooze about jobs and politics and our kids.
We were gathered a few weeks ago at a small Conservative synagogue just outside New York City where one of the great-grandchildren was becoming a bar mitzvah. At one point I found myself out in the lobby chatting with my cousin Danny, who is director of a small Jewish federation in New Jersey. He told me he’d been trying to figure out the next phase in American Jewish history. We do this from time to time.
“Look at it this way,” he said. “What gives the Jewish community a structure?” He rattled off the history we both knew. Before the Civil War there was one national Jewish organization, B’nai B’rith. In the late 1800s the synagogue movements came along and dominated the landscape for a time. Next came the defense agencies — the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress. After World War II things largely revolved around the federations and the UJA fundraising campaign. “But I don’t know if this chapter will last another generation,” he said. “There’s a new chapter coming, but I don’t know what it is.”
Well, I couldn’t figure it out either. I walked back into the sanctuary thinking to myself that he had put his finger on an important question. And then I heard something that sounded like an answer, or part of one.
The Torah reading was about to begin. As is the custom in this synagogue, bar mitzvah boy Jonathan delivered his homily on the text before the chanting of the weekly portion. The rabbi would talk afterward.
The portion that week was Vayikra , the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, which deals in explicit detail with the rules of Temple sacrifice. “If you’re a vegetarian, this isn’t the parsha for you,” Jon said with a sly grin.
He went on to describe the larger theme of Leviticus, the third of the Torah’s five books, which is devoted mostly to the ancient Temple ritual, methods of sacrifice and the mission of the priests as mediators between the laity and the divine. By and large, he said, this is a religion that most of us today scarcely recognize.
Then, unexpectedly, he brought up Deuteronomy, the last of the five books. From his studies, Jon said, he had come to understand Deuteronomy as a book devoted mostly to rules of ethical behavior and of justice in society. It almost seems as though it were describing a different religion. Leviticus, he said, describes a religion that’s about “slaughtering livestock” and is governed by a hereditary class with special powers and privileges. Deuteronomy is about a religion of personal morality, social justice and the direct relationship between the individual and God, the kind of religion we easily recognize today.
“I think the reason Leviticus and Deuteronomy are both in the Torah is to show us that a religion can change and grow,” Jon said. We’re not exactly the same community we were yesterday, he said, and our religion grows with us. “The Torah wants us to understand that.” Odd, I thought. That’s what Danny just said.
The erudition, insight and poise on display that morning would have been remarkable in an adult. In a 13-year-old public school student it was dazzling. No less so his leading of the Torah prayers and his chanting of the Haftarah , a passage from the prophet Isaiah.
Downright astonishing, though, was his parents’ role in the ceremony. Their morning began in the ordinary way — hugging guests, finding seats for relatives, beaming as their son spoke. But when the rabbi called them to the bimah for an aliyah, a Torah blessing, something new happened. He began the traditional Hebrew summons in the usual way: Mi Sheberach avoteinu — May the One who blessed our ancestors bestow a blessing upon… and then he called the parents’ names: Geoff Lewis ve-Chana bat Yosef Hakohen ve-Yehudit.
Anne Field, Jon’s mother, was called by her Hebrew name, but Geoff, Jon’s father, doesn’t have a Hebrew name. He’s not Jewish.
Now, I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in my day. I’ve seen children of interfaith families who performed the traditional rituals as credibly as any other Jewish child. I’ve seen non-traditional services where the non-Jewish parent had a speaking part. But I’ve never before seen a traditional, old-fashioned Hebrew davening in which a non-Jewish parent was welcomed as a participant, honored like any other parent who brings a Jewish child into the covenant — perhaps even more so, since he was bringing his child into a covenant he had not taken as his own.
The inclusiveness didn’t stop there. Both parents stood before the open ark and offered blessings to their son — Anne in Hebrew, Geoff in English. Anne’s nephews lifted and wrapped the Torah; Geoff’s niece led a prayer for peace.
At first it was a shock to watch. Almost immediately, though, it felt completely natural. Now I can’t get over the shock that this is still unusual. Geoff is one-half of the couple that raised this Jewish child. How could he not be part of the celebration, not share his joy with the community as his child becomes a man? And how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed?
Part of the credit, of course, belongs to Jonathan’s parents, who decided to give their children their heritage. Part of it belongs to the rabbi, David Schuck, who has built a remarkable community in the suburbs and dared to open its gates as few other rabbis have done, building the future without betraying the past. And part of the credit belongs to old Rufus, who built his family with a historian’s touch.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).