I am now 59. I was Bar Mitzvahed in May 1970 and at that point almost abandoned any active interest in Judaism. That proved to be temporary. I series of developments from the summer of 1972 through the next winter changed my perspective. I am now an active, somewhat observant Reform Jew. My interest started to develop during the second half of the summer of 1972. I changed sleep-away camps and met a much more mature group of primarily Jewish campers. After camp was over the Olympic massacres concentrated my mind a bit.
But the two main factors were Judaism’s pragmatic death rituals (which suddenly became very important to me) and being made aware, by a sharp rebuke by a then-stranger, and now close friend of 44 years of Judaism’s promotion of education, accomplishment and family.
Role of Judaism’s Death Rituals
Judaism’s death rituals are almost unique. They are well-known for centering around the rapid scheduling of the funeral, rapid burial of the body, and a short but intense mourning period, called “Shiva.” When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I actually had very little interest in Judaism. I cleaned out my desk at Hebrew school first class day after my Bar Mitzvah on May 2, 1970.
Fast forward to late 1972 and early 1973, my sophomore year of high school. Even before my father’s death of January 5, 1973, I had developed friendships with people who took Judaism seriously. More on that below.
My father died in the wee hours of the morning of January 5, 1973. By that afternoon The rabbi was in our living room going over the funeral. He carefully explained the rationale of Jewish death rituals, and I participated actively in the drafting of the eulogy. I frankly learned more about Judaism in that 30 to 60 minutes then I learned in my last year of Hebrew school, when I was 12 and 13. That was in the spring of 1970.
Since then I’ve always found Jewish rituals concerning death both sensible and comforting. In fact, I wrote the eulogy for my stepfather’s funeral in 2013, and my mothers a year later.
I love the valuation of education, of family cohesiveness and orientation towards accomplishment.
Family and Educational Values
During the fall of my sophomore year of high school, during 1972, I was cracking a typical joke about “doctors, lawyers and Rabbis.” Someone who I never met before, whose first name was also Jim but had a distinctly non-Jewish last name, interrupted me and asked if I was Jewish. (More on this person,Advice on Upcoming Tense 40th High School Reunion). Then he said “don’t you have any pride in your religion or heritage?” He went on to point out the number of people with accomplishments that were Jewish. This from another 15-year-old high school sophomore. To this day, despite some rifts, we remain very close friends.
The fact that Jewish families are typically very close provides a nurturing environment for education. Homework is taken seriously by parents. Trust me, he children turn in it. That just doesn’t happen in many other families. Also, bullying and violence are seriously discouraged. This reduces opportunities for distraction and drama.
Jews are not perfect by any means. But overall, for a religion or culture, I’ll take it any day.