|I Love Being Jewish!
by Zalman Velvel
But for 45 years, I didn’t.
It started when I very very young. I remember there was a party, my family was there, and I smelled lox & herring for the first time. Then some strange man with a beard and a yarmulke came up to me and started snipping away at a very sensitive area. Eight days old, and already, it was no fun to be a Jew.
Thirteen years later, I was standing in synagogue, getting bar mitzvahed in front of 200 people, scared out of my wits, knees knocking, singing something I memorized from a record.
They told me afterwards, "Now, you are a man." So I went down to the corner deli and got a six pack. When the owner asked me for proof, I sang him my haf Torah. He threw me out of the store.
I’m joking, but the truth is, Judaism didn’t make sense to me, growing up in America. It seemed like this big collection of don’ts: Don’t eat pork or shrimp. Don’t eat milk with meat. Don’t eat anything on Yom Kippur. Don’t work on Shabbos – don’t even turn the lights on. Don’t talk in synagogue, stop fidgeting – sit still!
To me, the only good thing about being Jewish was eating bagels. I loved bagels.
I stayed that way for over thirty years- I had a 13 year old boy inside me who didn’t like the Jew inside of him. By the time I was 45, I didn’t go to synagogue, I didn’t observe any holidays, not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and I ate bacon cheeseburgers at McDonalds. I was in the final stages of becoming fully assimilated.
Then one day another strange man with a beard and a yarmulke entered my life, from some organization called Chabad. He walked into our real estate office and asked if we could help him find a good deal on a building, so he could start a synagogue.
"Of course we can help you, Rabbi. Sit right down. Can I get you something to drink?" It was commission time! Finally, I hit the Jewish Jackpot!
"So Rabbi, how much money do you have for a down payment?"
He said, "Whatever we need, we will get." I thought, this is going to be a BIG commission.
"I’m glad you have a wealthy congregation, Rabbi. How much was pledged so far?"
He whispered, "Nothing … yet."
He looked up and said, "God will provide."
God will provide? "But Rabbi, what if God is a little short of cash right now?"
I’ll never forget what he said. He said, "Zalman, there is a God in this world, and this is a good thing. How could God not let this good thing happen?"
I never heard a Jew talk like that, like some tv evangelist. I had to see what would happen. And you know what? A short time later God did provide, and the Rabbi had a synagogue.
Me, I had no commission. God didn’t provide that. And my savings account was drained. Guess where part of the downpayment came from? It turned out God was a little short of cash, too.
That was the 2nd time a man with a beard and a yarmulke operated on me. And then he started to sell me something. What was he selling? A Jewish education. A tough product. A very tough product.
I was a product of the secular education system- you get good grades, so you can get into a good college, so you can get a good job- and then (Sing) "Make money … be happy … make money … be happy."
But no matter how much money I made, something was still missing, under the surface. I think the Rabbi sensed that, and he and I boldly went where no muksah goy had gone before – to the star system Judah.
First, he suggested, I should learn Hebrew. "Why should I learn Hebrew, Rabbi? Nobody speaks Hebrew here … Oh, the Torah is in Hebrew. Okay, let’s learn Hebrew."
"Uh, Rabbi, what’s the Torah? What do you mean it’s the Bible? Then why don’t we call it the Bible? Okay, I’ll shut up and read." I wasn’t an easy student.
We studied Torah, and after that, the Rabbi suggested we study Kabalah. Kaba what? Jewish mysticism? You mean you Hasidic guys do magic tricks? Is that why you wear those long coats, to hide the rabbits? Can you do card tricks, too? Oh, Kabalah is the study of joy and meaning. Hey, I can appreciate that. Excuse me? Did you say you like to drink Vodka and talk about it? Hey, I can really appreciate that!
After studying, the Rabbi suggested we make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – no, not Jerusalem, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Okay, I thought, let’s see how the Hasids really live, when they take off their yarmulkes.
What I saw shocked me! I saw a society where men and women got married only once, for life. I saw children who studied, didn’t watch tv, didn’t take drugs, and actually liked their parents. I saw a society that respected its elders, and took care of it’s weak and disadvantaged. I saw with my own eyes that being Jewish wasn’t just a list of don’ts. Being Jewish was a set of values that pulled a family close, pulled a community close, and made life more than chasing after money – not that the Hasidim don’t like running into some money every now and then.
Given the example in Crown Heights, I felt encouraged to start practicing Judaism. At home, I announced that on Friday night my family would meet for a Shabbos meal.
"Can’t you make it Sunday night, Dad, like the rest of the world? "
"Sorry, Shabbos is Friday night."
"But Friday is movie night!"
"Sorry, it has to be Friday."
"Boy, I hope this isn’t going to be every Friday."
My family was less than enthusiastic.
We muddled our way through Shabbos for two or three months before something interesting happened – we learned to enjoy each other’s company. After a busy week, it felt good to relax and catch up with the people we loved most.
Elevated by this small success on the family front, I ventured next into the Jewish community. I began showing up at synagogue on Saturday morning.
After muddling my way through services for a few months, I made some new friends. And I got to hear some juicy new gossip. I’m joking, but the truth is the highlight of my week became farbrenging with the Rabbi after services, and enhancing our spirituality with a few l’chaims. Sometimes, we got happy and a little silly. But sometimes, after pouring out a little vodka, we would pour out a little of our hearts, and I would feel close to my people, and a little closer to God.
I also learned to enjoy the holidays. The crazy ones like Purim, and the difficult ones like Yom Kippur. The Rabbi talked me into dressing like Judah Macabee at a Hanukah festival at a local mall, and posing for pictures holding a plastic sword.
Five years ago, it was time to visit the Land. I went to Israel, along with my Rabbi. I felt the power of the Land and a closeness to the Almighty that exists only there. Three years ago, I became a citizen of Israel. In the near future, I expect to move there because, ultimately, a Jew belongs in Israel. Our history demonstrates that no matter how comfortable life is in our wanderings, chootz aretz is temporary. Israel is Home.
So, now I love being Jewish! For me, the benefits have been a closer family, a closer community, and feelings of fulfillment.
And I thank God, Baruch Hashem, for making me a Jew. It’s taken me 53 years to be able to say that, but the journey was worth it.
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