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Call JEFLER

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Even in English, “O Lord our God and God of our fathers” was a mouthful for a 9-year-old. So, feeling certain we knew each other well enough to dispense with such formality, I decided to give God a nickname. Something we’d keep between the two of us. (And in an emergency, God forbid, He would also know right away that it was me.)

Our covenant in those days was just that personal and straightforward, simple enough for a child to understand. My job was to behave; His, to make sure only good things happened to my family and me.

That being the whole point, it occurred to me to use the initial letters of all our first names to form an acronym. With two parents and three siblings, I had four consonants and two EEs to work with.

And so, like an invisible med-alert bracelet, I bound Him for a sign around our wrists:

JEFLER IS OUR GOD.

IN EMERGENCY,

CALL JEFLER.

Our synagogue, B’nai Israel, was a grand and mysterious place that went well with my childish theology. Just inside the Negley Avenue entrance, a tunnel-like corridor wound steeply around the sanctuary’s perimeter. Its curved slope connoted an ascending pilgrimage, especially for those with little or tired old legs.

At the summit, one came into a cavernous hall with a high, domed ceiling. Chandeliers in the shape of giant Stars of David twinkled brightly. Down a long center aisle, the rich mahogany Ark, resplendent with gold-painted lions, rose up 25 feet from the dais. And hidden behind its sliding wooden doors, then a sheer white curtain, were the sacred Torah scrolls, each ornately garbed and crowned.

Once, around the time JEFLER got His name, I sneaked into the darkened sanctuary. It was a spooky scene, the only light being the red Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) that hung above the Ark. Standing in that awesome space, I wondered what would happen were I to steal a bit farther … right up into the Ark itself! Might I then feel like one of God’s own Torah scrolls, holy and beloved?

On Saturday mornings, the choir sang from a loft so high up it evoked an angelic presence. They accompanied the Cantor, who pled our case with high notes so vigorous they turned his whole face red. Yet when the liturgical mood shifted, he could also beseech God in a sacred falsetto whisper.

We rose to our feet when the Ark was finally opened. As the Cantor reached in to remove one of the Torahs, its silver crown and breastplate jangled in anticipation of the excursion down into the hubbub of the congregation. “Ki mitziyon teytzey Torah,” sang the choir -- “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law.” The Cantor then led a procession around the sanctuary, pausing for those who wished to kiss the Torah ... and singing majestically all the while.

His voice was my Pied Piper. When I was old enough to take my place in the celestial choir loft, the first thing I had to learn was how to funnel so large an exuberance into just the small sound I was trying to emit. Sometimes, it was all I could do to mouth the words.

Singing was thus my first love, but also the source of my earliest disillusionment. For all too soon it was clear that my vocal reach was exceeding my grasp. The solos were going to other members of the youth choir. Then, as my Bar Mitzvah approached, my voice began cracking, unpredictably.

God smiled on me that day, and I made it through in rare form. It was as though I’d been granted a boon, one opportunity to sing decently and uninhibitedly before the ax fell. Thereafter, my adolescent vocal “gap” continued to widen, to the point I simply couldn’t produce anything remotely resembling a well-placed tone.

In high school, my musicianship (if not my singing) endeared me to our choir director, a formidable spinster who brooked no nonsense. Out of the blue one day, as though JEFLER Himself had put the word in, she anointed me her student-conductor. Soon thereafter, she sent me to take a musical aptitude test at the local conservatory.

My scores confirmed a good facility for pitch, rhythm and such. But the fine print cautioned that first and foremost, an aspiring musician must show distinct vocal or instrumental promise. And someone had placed three asterisks beside that admonition, as if I might have missed it.

Meanwhile, in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, I learned to make rousing speeches that got me elected president of a multi-state district. My picture appeared in the local Jewish Chronicle, making me a veritable poster child for what an active Jewish teenager should be.

But for all this outward display of Jewish identity and conviction, my memory of these pre-adolescent and teenage years includes, just under the behavioral surface, a budding spiritual malaise. For as the growth spurt within my Adam’s apple had disrupted my vocal registers, some slower, cerebral process was now taking aim at my religiosity. Indeed, within just a few years of the pinnacle that was my Bar Mitzvah, a chasm had opened up between my nascent, worldly sensibilities and the ceremony that had once so moved me.

Judaism, to be sure, was no less rich in religious symbolism and ethical substance. But my own inner shine, what our sacred objects merely reflect back to us, seemed to have tarnished. A phrase from the Sabbath prayer book comes to mind: “Chadeysh yameynu kekedem -- Renew our days as of old.”

Some modicum of resistance to religious doctrine or observance is probably part of normal development, calling us from our bright-eyed but ineffectual childhood into a more capable if less impressionable adulthood. But I believe my growing skepticism was of a more virulent, Ashkenazi strain, to which Jewish teens of my generation had virtually no resistance. For in the sixties, we were still reeling from the shock of the Holocaust. Is it surprising, at such a low point in our long history, that personal communion with God (which seemed not to have availed the six million) should have taken a back seat to a more sectarian, less overtly spiritual religious life?

The Zionists championed our physical survival, but American Jews were not threatened in that immediate, corporeal way. What my elders feared was the further decimation of our ranks by assimilation into the wider (secular) American culture. The litmus test for an upstanding Jew thus came to be a deferred one – would his grandchildren grow up to “identify Jewishly” (whatever that might mean by then)? Or would our more gradual and voluntary disappearance no less hand Hitler his final (if posthumous) solution?

Of course, the Orthodox measure of Jewish living remained the dutiful, i.e., unquestioning performance of mitzvot (religious commandments). But for the less devout majority, our sectarian identity subsisted on an often lackluster showing-up, for holidays and lifecycle events (where you could at least always count on a good meal). In that environment, Jewish communal leadership seemed to fall to those who could articulate a “Jewish point of view” on the subject at hand, with poise, verbal clarity and mental conviction. Like good lawyers, in short. But neither the message nor the modeling bespoke any kind of direct, personal or life-influencing relationship … with God.

In my current late-middle adulthood, I must admit that placing such modifiers (“direct, personal, or life-influencing”) next to the abstraction many of us have come to call “God” gives me some pause, sounding almost “un-Jewish.” But this, I think, makes my very point. Going back just a handful of generations (and from there, all the way back to Abraham), we Jews have had, at the very center of our identities, a distinctly personal if uniquely collective relationship with Hashem Eloheynu, the Lord our God. I believe our more recent resort to Jewish culture or “peoplehood” as a raison d’etre, i.e., uninformed by any immanent deistic sensibility, has left us emancipated, but spiritually bereft.

How a post-Holocaust Jew recaptures (or reframes) a relationship with God, assuming he still wants one, is no small dilemma. I can only say that during my formative years, my religious mentors had little to offer in this regard. Indeed, they seemed not really to want the job. “Fine,” it was as if they were saying. “How very bright of you to be skeptical. We hereby pass the torch of Jewish communal leadership on to your clever generation.”

Nevertheless, from my still formative perch half a century later, I can see that well before this problem had even gotten my attention, some latent yearning, for chosen-personhood, was already stirring in that little boy gazing up in awe at the Holy Ark. And like some hidden kabbalistic thread reaching back through the generations, it was setting the stage for the quite confusing, sometimes torturous but ever soul-searching saga he would live to report below.

 

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                                                          Congregation B'nai Israel, in Pittsburgh, PA