Ritual Views

I grew up secular, but death seemed to need old words. I opened my computer and typed in “prayers for the dead”

A few years ago, I found my neighbor lying dead on the floor in her apartment. We lived across the hall from each other in crumbling basement units, the kind where the rising story arcs of young people on their way to something better intersect with the falling ones of older, sicker people on their way to something worse. For several years, she and I said hello as we crossed each other in the moulding staircase, she shepherding her trembling white dog. Then one night I heard someone screaming and ran out into the fluorescent buzz of the dank hallway. Her door was open, and a shaggy man in a jean jacket was crouched next to her body. She was epileptic; she had had a seizure and broken her neck. Her friend had called and called and there had been no answer. She had been lying there for some time.

After the ambulance took her away, I paced my apartment wondering what I could do or say to honor her life. I knew almost nothing about her. The superintendent, clutching the bannister in her dressing gown after the sirens woke her up, told me the woman was not as old as I had thought. She had a variety of health problems and couldn’t work. She left behind the fearful dog and an ailing cat. I’m a writer; it’s an article of faith for me that reality can be coaxed to dwell inside fresh language, that our new and singular lives demand contemporary forms of expression. Yet I found myself at a loss for words that could contain or acknowledge the transmundane nature of what had happened. Death seemed to need old words. I scrounged my cupboards and came up with a candle. Then I opened my computer and typed in the search term “prayers for the dead.”

I started with the one I knew the name of: Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. B’alma di v’ra chirutei. Reading the Aramaic words on the screen, I didn’t feel I had the right to say them. Was it wrong to say Kaddish for someone who wasn’t Jewish? Was it wrong to say it if I wasn’t exactly Jewish? I tried looking instead for the Christian prayer, googling “ashes to ashes,” a phrase familiar from the movies. That felt even more foreign. I felt like a spy in a virtual sanctuary, and it seemed wrong to have entered sacred space so easily.

My candle was burning down. I googled “nonreligious poems for funerals” and found something noncommittal about a lark. I read it aloud, feeling like a cop-out.

About six months ago I started tentatively attending synagogue. I had a new boyfriend who was being too nice to me, and the small attentions — sending homemade word-puzzles in the mail, bringing me coffee in bed, holding my hand — felt like special treatment I didn’t deserve. Love made me feel guilty, and at the same time, it felt like contact with something greater and more mysterious than my individual narrative. Incongruously enough, the experience of being loved raised the same questions for me as attending at the death of my neighbor — what was human life for, and what did it mean? I wanted to find a place where people were talking about the tension between our unique lives and our participation in a greater cycle of life on Earth. I wanted to hear someone talk about how our time here should be spent.

My father grew up Jewish and my mother grew up Dutch Calvinist, so my sister and I grew up essentially neither. With my mother’s family, we celebrated what my sister calls “the capitalist holiday calendar.” We lived with my mother, and while we always had a Christmas tree and still hide chocolate eggs at Easter, she is a fervent secularist who saw that we never darkened the door of a church. When my father lived with a Jewish girlfriend, we participated in some Jewish ritual at their house, and occasionally went for Shabbat dinner or Passover at our grandparents’. Religious observance, however, mostly boiled down to the bar and bat mitzvahs of our endless cousins, three-day celebrations that started in the synagogue and ended on the dance floor in an uncles-gone-wild conflagration of Mardi Gras beads, smoke machines, and weed.

I felt like a spy in a virtual sanctuary, and it seemed wrong to have entered sacred space so easily

Christianity played no real part in how my mother thought about herself, or, by extension, about us. But for my father, Jewishness is an ethnic identity. As secularly inclined as my mother, he didn’t want my sister or me to become bat mitzvahs or receive a religious education. Yet when, as a teenager, I told my father I was going to dinner at a boyfriend’s house to meet his parents for the first time, he asked with concern, “Do they know you’re Jewish?” Things have changed in Canada since my parents’ and grandparents’ time: In my experience, the only people thinking about whether you’re Jewish are other Jews. Recently, someone described my last name as “an ethnic dog-whistle.” According to the Mishnah, however, if your mother is a horse you are a horse and if your mother is a donkey you don’t count. “This implies that ‘horse-hood’ is passed down through the mother, regardless of the father’s species,” say the experts at myjewishlearning.com.

Google “Judaism patrilineal descent” to call up the storm of “dissent over descent.” Myjewishlearning.com is in the first layer of results, flanked by other American sites run by Jewish organizations offering introductory essays on Jewish life and law. As you scroll down, sites like The Half-Jewish Network: Welcoming Adult Children and Grandchildren of Intermarriage start to crop up. A few years ago I was walking across a university campus and a girl in a pink baseball cap sporting a bejazzled J ran over to ask if I was Jewish; she seemed to be representing a campus club. When I explained that I was Jewish on the wrong side, she said, “Oh. Well it was nice to meet you anyway,” and dashed away from me. If you’ve never been told that your blood isn’t pure enough, let me say: it’s not a great feeling.

I chose a temple by scrutinizing photographs of rabbis online, looking into their faces for signs of rejection. The rabbi I found was young, female, and gay; it seemed probable that she had spent time thinking about boxes and who fits inside them and what happens to the people who don’t. I sent the rabbi’s bio to my sister; she’s always taken an interest in Jewish history, and the mysterious pain of existence has overshadowed significant periods of her life. She agreed to come with me to a Shabbat morning service to see what it was like. The Reform temple turned out to be up the street from the Orthodox one where my grandparents used to go; we pushed a red button outside the entrance and a uniformed guard let us in. “Shabbat shalom,” an old lady said to us as she passed in the hallway. “Shabbat shalom,” we responded, feeling like criminal imposters. It was the torpid height of August and services were being held not in the large hall (a sign by the door said, “Please turn off your cellphones. God knows how to reach you”) but in a small, red-carpeted chapel at the back of the synagogue. We slunk into a pew, our faces burning. Once the service started, we stood up and sat down when the others did, fumbling for the right pages. The congregation sang in Hebrew, and the cantillated progression of flattened notes was both vaguely familiar and utterly alien. Reading along in English, I caught glimpses of the sentiment that had brought me: “Author of language and light, help us to use words as You have, to cast light into dark waters, and draw out justice and truth.”

We went back a few weeks later for a Friday evening service that started with a vegetarian potluck, where we met more people in their twenties and thirties, some of whom were also Judaism newbies — Jewbies, as my sister and I started calling ourselves. A few were married to Jews or, like us, had Jewish fathers and were raised secularly. Everyone was madly in love with the queer, progressive rabbi. Over the next few months, in my sporadic attendance at Saturday morning services, I noticed other Jewbies becoming more proficient in the Hebrew prayers. I asked one how he had learned the complex formulations in the prayer-book — was he studying with one of the rabbis? “Oh, you can totally download the audio,” he told me. “I’ve been practicing in the car on my commute.”

The year before my father’s bar mitzvah, his family was living in Brazil, and he was sent home to Montreal to live with his grandparents and go to Hebrew school. At my great-uncle’s funeral a few years ago, a shaky old man came up to my father and placed a hand on his cheek — it was the rabbi who had taught him to read Torah. Historically, Jews learned to chant Torah from their fathers, a practice which gave way to special preparatory bar mitzvah classes where students learned to pronounce the Hebrew alphabet and intone the Torah cantillation style under the guidance of a rabbi. By the time my cousins were becoming bar and bat mitzvahs in the 1990s and 2000s, Hebrew school instruction might be accompanied by CDs — some learned their Torah portions only by ear and never learned to read Hebrew at all.

I’ve been learning to pray from YouTube. When I first searched for videos of Jewish prayers, I wondered if it were possible to culturally appropriate your own heritage by only partially participating in it. But, I reasoned, YouTube isn’t exactly a hidden drawer in a fusty oak desk — if people fluent in Jewish prayers were posting videos of how to sing them, didn’t that mean they wanted the uninitiated to learn? In the same way that YouTube is a semi-legal free-for-all, where uploaders blithely infringe copyright and only the most egregious offending videos are taken down, it fosters a kind of schoolyard education, where accurate and inaccurate information is circulated and debated. For someone with one foot in and one foot out of the formal space of the synagogue, YouTube felt reassuringly casual.

When I started looking for recordings that matched what I was hearing in temple, I expected the melodies to be standard. Instead, I found droves of singers who sounded nothing like our cantor. It seemed that nusachim, the traditional prayer melodies, developed regionally, incorporating elements of local musical culture as the Jewish diaspora migrated across the globe. A rabbi knows how to locate you within your family, your community, and the greater historical context of Jewish immigration to North America. YouTube knows my IP, but it doesn’t really understand where — in the landscape of Jewish diasporic traditions — I am. Some interpretations of the nusachim are now as different as the Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious versions of “My Way.” Few video-makers announced which traditional form they were following, so I clicked on dozens, straining my ears for passages I recognized. I found videos of a rabbinic Sharon, Lois & Bram prancing to up-tempo prayers on guitar. I found stern videos of men with billowing beards in echoing sanctuaries. A YouTube series called Prayer-eoke featured Hebrew script that moved and spun as it was sung. Some of the videos came from cantors, and were associated with particular synagogues; some were of young men sitting on their beds, Middle Eastern cityscapes visible out their bedroom windows.

A sign by the door said, “Please turn off your cellphones. God knows how to reach you”

Learning in this hit-and-miss, impersonal way is the opposite of having a rabbi lay a hand on your cheek. But the variety offers an opportunity to find an aesthetic and personality for prayer that feels right. In the past, the version of Judaism available to you was limited to the practice of your own congregation; now that our lives extend into virtual space, it’s possible to compare Jewish life and prayer in Montreal and Mogadishu or Tel Aviv. I ended up watching mostly videos of women and girls; female cantors are new in the Jewish tradition, as is the participation of women in Torah reading. In my grandparents’ synagogue, men and women sat separately and my aunts did not become bat mitzvahs (one switched to a conservative congregation and became a bat mitzvah as an adult). I found it reassuring to watch a cantor named Marnie smiling in a sunny New Jersey synagogue office chanting the Reform version of Avot v’Imahot, a prayer referencing the ancestors: Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak v’Elohei Yaakov, Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel v’Elohei Leah. In the Orthodox version, the prayer mentions only the patriarchs of Genesis: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob. This version blesses the matriarchs as well: God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.

There’s a video I keep coming back to. It opens in a backyard somewhere in pine-forested North America, where a pale girl of about 12 clutches a metal chalice in one hand and a blue prayer-book in the other. At the prompting of a parental voice offscreen, she grins shyly into the camera. “I’m Yael and I’m going to be singing Shabbat morning — Kiddush,” she says, stumbling over the word, “which begins with V’shamru.” V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat, laasot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam. The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.

The pine trees, the shabby white house with its air-conditioner teetering in a first-floor window, the oblivious joggers passing on the road — I’m reminded of the continuity of Jewish life and ritual through historical convulsions that have sent the Jews from the desert to the forests I know, from goatskin tents to aluminum siding, from closed study sessions for men and boys to YouTube clips of women and girls. It’s evidence of a living tradition, the capacity for ancient forms to shift and expand to fill with contemporary values, contemporary life. I loop back to the video’s beginning, drawing Yael and her backyard out of darkness, letting them fade into darkness again.

Of course, I could have emailed the rabbi and asked her how to find the right nusach versions. But I didn’t want to ask the rabbi; I wanted to skulk in the twilight glow of the internet watching preteens in their backyards so I could maintain a safe distance from real religious life. While the mind of the internet algorithmically sees me looking — all my banner ads are now for Jewish roots DNA tests — it doesn’t quite look back. I’d like to know these prayers, but I’m not sure what I plan to do with them. I can’t quite commit to saying them with conviction.

For people who grow up within a religious tradition, actual religious belief can seem comfortably optional. Belonging is established, and participation in religious rites can be an expression of cultural continuity rather than faith. But for someone brought up on the outskirts of a religious community, choosing to step inside seems to require a stronger declaration of belief. My sister and I are both squeamish about the idea of God; it’s just so starkly antithetical to the worldview we were raised with. For most of my life, “spiritual” was a dirty word — I still grimace involuntarily while typing it. “I kind of get it when I think about it as being basically nature,” my sister says. “I feel like I experience the divine when I look at pictures of baby animals on Instagram.” From what I’ve read, Jewish conceptions of God — like the melodies used in different synagogues — vary widely. The one I like best is the vision of a divine order that underlies the patterns of the natural world; a force that doesn’t necessarily deal in human affairs, but which we can glimpse in our dealings with nature and each other. The other idea I like is that the world is created anew every day, and that we are partners in its creation.

It feels like real life and virtual life are alternating steps on a staircase leading to a succession of rooms where belonging might be

Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not an evangelical religion, and it’s known for a preoccupation with in-group and out-group status. It’s possible to become a Jew through conversion, but there is a tradition that a rabbi should rebuff a potential convert three times. It’s considered a test of a convert’s sincerity, but it comes out of historical persecution; when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, Jews were forbidden to proselytize, and converting a Christian was illegal. Similar prohibitions persisted in Europe into the Middle Ages. In the U.S. Reform movement, secularly raised patrilineal Jews like my sister and I are now accepted after a course of study without a formal conversion, and if children with a Jewish father are raised as Jews they are fully accepted. In Canada, conversion — a lengthy process wherein a potential convert must be judged acceptable by a sponsoring rabbi before being questioned by a beit din, the regional rabbinic court, and finally immersed in a mikvah, the ritual bath — is still required.

Paradoxically, this may be why synagogues and rabbinical councils don’t seem squeamish about having tutorials on Jewish prayer online for anyone to access. Prayers don’t need to be kept under lock and key because, fundamentally, religious knowledge is not what makes you a Jew. In the eyes of most rabbis, if your mother is not a Jew, and you have not formally converted (a service as yet unavailable over YouTube) you are not a Jew, even if you know all the prayers by heart.

Since I’m not sure I will ever truly believe in God, I don’t think my goal is to convert. I may never become a real Jew. I may always feel ambivalent about participating in synagogue life and prayer. In the glow of my computer screen, repeating after Yael, I’m still not sure what right I have. But it feels like real life and virtual life are alternating steps on a staircase leading to a succession of rooms where belonging might be. The questions I started with, about love and death and the nature and purpose of human life, are grave enough to absorb all the traditions and inventions available to us. The virtual world isn’t free of these questions; we arrive bearing them.

Recently, I attended Saturday morning services after YouTubing my way to proficiency in two or three of the main prayers. In the six months or so since I had first googled “Montreal synagogues,” I had become more comfortable entering the temple, but I still felt self-conscious. This time, I was hungover and nervous. Coming with my new knowledge of prayer felt like showing up to tenth grade wearing a T-shirt for a cool band I didn’t know much about. (The most recent time I saw my father he was wearing a Wu-Tang Clan tee. “Do you even know what that is?” my sister asked. “No idea,” he said, “I just thought it was a nice T-shirt.”) When I arrived, I sat down with a few of the other Jewbies. We were in the big chapel, and it was full; it was the weekend before a wedding and the couple were there for their aufruf, a ceremonial calling-up to the Torah. Their families and friends packed the pews. When the rabbi started the service, she made a point of saying that even if it was your very first time in a synagogue, you should join in the singing anyway. The point, she said, was not to do everything perfectly, but to do it imperfectly together.

On a web page entitled “New to Jewish Prayer? Nine Tips for Beginners,” I had read a rabbi’s comment that prayer is a learned art, and the specific recitations of a Jewish service are meant to be objects for study. The post is on reformjudaism.org, a site run by an advisory board of Reform rabbis, cantors and educators, which makes a point of welcoming interfaith families to their resources. “If you become a regular you will learn them, but remember, no one is born knowing this stuff,” she wrote. I still felt like an imposter chanting the Hebrew phrases, but I noticed that much of the congregation sang hesitantly, muffing the repetitions and losing their places when pages turned. Behind me, I heard two old men matching the cantor note for note. Imagine, in this economy, I thought — old people knowing something. The series called Nisim B’chol Yom is my favorite — “For Daily Miracles.” Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, matir asurim — Praise to you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who frees the captive. Praise to you who has given the mind the ability to distinguish day from night. Who lifts up the fallen, who removes sleep from the eyes, slumber from the eyelids, who stretches the earth over the waters.

Much of ritualistic practice is about creating meaningful memories through repetition. It’s a way of grounding the profound eeriness of human life in the rhythms of nature and the passage of time. It feels a little sad that the memory I’ve created for myself of learning these rituals is of being alone in my dark apartment, watching the faces of strangers in their yards or bedrooms demonstrating how our ancestors spoke to the divine. I don’t as yet feel an ownership over the knowledge I’ve gained so strangely. But my deepest experience of connection to something transcendental was always solitary. I grew up in the country, surrounded by the kind of forest shown in the video of Yael’s house. I spent hours as a child and teenager wandering alone, pressing the springy moss on the rocks, wading in creeks and picking up fragile birch bark, always aware of the unseen presence — half mythical, half dangerously real — of bears. In a way, because Jewish prayer is a communal activity — traditionally, 10 Jews must be present for certain prayers to be said — I’ve found it tricky to square with my experiences of divine presence rooted in solitude. Learning prayers from YouTube allows me to approach the concept of prayer alone before entering the complicated social space of the synagogue.

Midway through the service, a wicker basket full of gummy candies was passed around the pews. The Jewbie next to me and I shrugged at each other; it wasn’t clear what they were for. Near the end of the service, the bride-and-groom-to-be stood on the bimah, having finished their Torah reading and discussion. At a signal from the rabbi, everyone around me rose and pelted the couple with candy. “For a sweet life,” I heard an old lady pronounce. I’m not sure the prayers and rituals that mark Jewish life belong to me, or whether I will come to believe that they do. But, like my dad and his Wu-Tang T-shirt, I just like them. I can’t go back and give myself a different upbringing that offers room for greater speculation about the stuff of life. But I can choose to start now to learn a language and set of rituals for this questioning that can, in time, acquire the patina of tradition.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.