My paternal great-grandmother always told my dad, her grandson, that she stayed home from synagogue, even though her husband and sons went, because “God can hear me just as fine when I iron as when I sit in Shul.” She said she found organized religion — with its social and political hierarchy, its fashion show aura and its constant demand for tzedekah (donations) — a source of discomfort, not serenity.
The more I heard this story from Dad when I was younger, the more concerned I became about the soul of the great-grandmother I never met. I was convinced that she had not landed in heaven, since only regular synagogue attendees and devout Bible students could enjoy “life” behind the Pearly Gates.
I felt this way because I lived as observant a life as I could in a family that had faith but did not always follow traditions. I would convince Dad to walk with me and a parade of Stanton Heights neighbors down Stanton Avenue to B’nai Israel on Negley to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Sitting next to Dad, braiding the fringe on his prayer shawl and losing myself in the haunting and uplifting melodies, gave me comfort. Organized religion — with its paternal rabbi and cantor, its nurturing teachers and sibling-like peers — served as my extended family.
I liked attending post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes with others who, no longer forced to go to religious school by parents, instead chose to spend time learning about the patriarchs, matriarchs and all the generations these Biblical figures begat; mastering the challenges of the Hebrew language; and exploring the history of the State of Israel.
After spending several weeks in Israel when I turned 23, I even contemplated the unthinkable for a woman in the late 1960s and early 1970s: becoming a rabbi.
Instead, I married a rabbi, and everything changed.
We moved to a suburb north of Detroit so he could assume his duties as assistant rabbi of a conservative congregation. We spent our first Sabbath lunch at the home of the head rabbi and his wife, the rebbetzin. She took me aside and said, “Remember the following: If you wear the same outfit to services every week, people will say, ‘We pay her husband enough money so she should vary her wardrobe.’ If you wear different outfits, people will say, ‘We must be paying her husband too much money because she never wears the same dress twice.’ You cannot win.”
And so began my descent into the underbelly of organized religion; my journey took me down a blue-and-white road of synagogue life that showed me that behind the facade of morality often lurks some ugly truths about people.
A few months after the Shabbat lunch, I decided to host an open house in our Sukkah (temporary hut) for the congregation as a way to celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot. I spent weeks unwrapping and finally using wedding gifts — a blender, mixer, muffin tins, mixing bowls and other baking paraphernalia — to prepare hundreds of baked goods for the occasion. My young son and daughter had to develop the self-discipline to inhale without sampling the goodies.
When the big day arrived, I discovered that the congregants had more interest in sneaking upstairs to peek into closets, peer under beds and in corners, and test furniture tops for dust than to enter the backyard Sukkah with its tables bulging with delicacies and its walls and ceilings displaying the artwork of my children and their friends. My poor kids had to sit like sentinels on the steps to prevent intruders from invading the upstairs.
Great-grandma praying at the ironing board was suddenly becoming an appealing option to the organized religion I was experiencing.
Although I attended weekly Sabbath services, I tended to sit in the last row, not next to the rebbetzin in the front row. I felt this gave me a degree of anonymity and protection.
I was wrong. The very people who had just spent several hours in prayerful devotion felt no qualms about approaching me about the length of my husband’s sermon (too long and boring or too short and shallow), the clashing of his tie with his shirt and his eulogy of the previous day that either elevated the deceased too much or did not give the departed enough glory. When these same people began making negative comments in front of my children, I knew it was time to reassess the situation.
I understand that my cynicism comes from my own experiences. Perhaps not all organized religions or their particular institutions — whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or whatever — have the same foibles I encountered. However, what I did endure scarred me to the point that I cannot enjoy this winter season of festivity without feeling a deep sense of anxiety.
Green, red and white lights may compete with the stars for bragging rights, carrot-nosed snowmen may inhale the aroma of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and potato pancakes sizzling in a pan, and flames from the Menorah and Kinara may dance to the rhythmic songs of the holidays. I, however, find the season to be jolly more of a time to be melancholy.
Maybe the sadness of religion as an0 institution, not as a one-to-one relationship with God, kept Great-Grandma at the ironing board.
I no longer attend services, but I am glad and relieved that I have managed to keep my faith — my belief in God — despite my 13 years as a rabbi’s wife immersed in the organized religion of our congregation. Yet I do miss the camaraderie of people with similar beliefs and ideals sharing occasions of joy or grief. I hope I find that connection again.
Ronna L. Edelstein is a teacher and writer living in Oakland (firstname.lastname@example.org).