This is a true story about me, and my regular bouts of acquaintance with the Jewish faith.
I should have known – by the look on the face of the custodian – that I was in over my head. In front of me stood a young Caribbean man, maybe 29 at the oldest, and he could tell that I was either of lapsed faith, or no faith at all. Maybe – just maybe – I was a spy for the Catholics, the Pentecostals, or even worse: Temple Beth Shlomo of Brooklyn Heights. Those bastards had beaten Congregation Beth Elohim of Park Slope in the playoffs of The Inter-Jew Softball League three years straight. It was no secret that the team’s pitching coach served as cantor at the third Sabbath service of every month. Maybe somewhere in the prayers, written in cryptic Hebrew, would be the coach’s conditioning program.
That, of course, wasn’t the case either. What this very savvy custodian was dealing with was a 26 year-old writer who, despite coming from a Jewish family, had never attended a single Sabbath service in his life. My question to this astute gentleman was simple: “Isn’t the main temple supposed to be open for Sabbath service?”
“Yeah. But which faith are you? There’s the service at the main temple. Or, there’s the Reform service here in the annex synagogue.” he replied.
At that moment, a smile crept over the custodian’s face. Sure, in my khakis and buttoned-up oxford shirt (I left the top and collar button open, so as to show off a little chest fro), I looked like someone right out of Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University. But this guy saw right through my disguise. In a single moment of cultural ignorance, this mild-mannered custodian exposed the disconnect I have always felt from my Jewish heritage.
“Yeah. I think here is where you want to be.” as he indicated the annex synagogue in front of us.
A few moments later, I sat in a pew, waiting for the service to start. I was only there, because of a writing class. The assignment, “Do something out of my daily routine”. My recent Fridays had been spent working on a new draft of something or other, or trying to find a cheap place to get drunk. Was an hour and a half of religion going to kill me? Especially, a religion that technically doesn’t recognize me as one of their own, despite a recent, minor yearning of mine for them to reconsider? My father was Jewish, my mother Episcopalian-Quaker. I am the seed of their crossbred, heathen affection. In my upbringing, religion was the last thing that ever seemed to matter – be it Christian or Jewish. Sure, it irritated my grandparents that their oldest grandson was “different” from his (at least) 10 other mitzvah’d cousins. Especially since he is the one to carry the Fried name into the 21st Century. But they made their peace with it. Actually, on his deathbed, my grandfather revealed three things to me: 1) Our family was really from Minsk, 2) As the oldest, he shouldered the burden of being the shining example to his six siblings, and 3) Towards the end, he tried very hard to start a non-profit in my name: “The Matthew Fried Foundation For Lost Jewish Boys And Repressed Homosexuals”. The third one was a surprise to my then-girlfriend, who also happened to be in the room. Never the less, the man did love me; and in the four years since his death, I began to want to know more about the faith. Not to eventually convert. It would be about family, about feeling a connection to a past that, more or less, explains why I was here on this planet.
Parents – these are the things your kids will wonder about in their twenties if you let them read Kerouac in grade school.
The service began at 7:00 p.m. By 7:10, I was already lost. You see, I don’t speak a word of Hebrew. And even though every prayer has an English translation, it’s really more of a decorative thing – like an imitation Gucci bag on a tourist. Anyway, I mumbled along through all of the service, throwing in a “ch” and a “feh” to sound authentic. I couldn’t let anyone know that I didn’t know what I was doing, especially not Josh – the well-studied Asian-American lawyer who sat behind me. He was my own age, and in the process of converting to Conservative Judaism. He was a law student at Yale, working for the summer at a corporate law firm. His big summer plans in New York City? Hit up as many different shuls in the five boroughs as possible. In case anyone is keeping score, the custodian and the convert were officially more Jewish than me.
Of course, things got a bit more awkward when I found myself nodding off by the midpoint in the service. Like clockwork, “The Guilt” set in. It’s like I could hear my grandfather screaming at me, “This is why we needed that non-profit!” But then, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t my fault. Outside of being sent to chapel services for three years in private school, I never went to a regular religious service. In a weird way, I sort of felt like Obama after being handed the economy on Day 1 – “Have fun, Mr. Messiah!” And also, wherever that “connection” I am looking for is, I now certainly know it wasn’t in a sub-basement in Brooklyn. I don’t know what my feelings are about God, The Afterlife, or The Phillies repeating as World Champions. As I sat there, listening to the rabbi go on about thanking The Invisible Dad getting for us through another week, I simply thought: “This really isn’t working for me.” As I said, at my core, religion was never a big deal. Perhaps that does mean, upon expiration, my 10 Jewish cousins will join the rest of The Frieds in Heaven while I’m re-incarnated as a squirrel in Bombay. That thought actually doesn’t bother me. What I did realize was: a religion doesn’t change who I am, or who my family is. The famous “How Jewish Are You?” debate will rage on until the end of Time. I can at least know I got a little piece of pie: an inexplicable amount of body hair, a shiksa fetish, and a fondness for early ‘80s hip-hop.
The service concluded at 8:30, and I was more than happy to leave. My first goal: find a slice of pizza, topped with the most un-kosher pepperoni in all of Brooklyn. As I made my way down the pew, Josh extended out his hand to me. His face was beaming with excitement. This was a man who clearly wanted to be of The Chosen People, and couldn’t wait for it to be official. We shook hands and wished each other, “Shabbat Shalom.”
As I quickly paced away from the Congregation, I thought about my 10 Jewish cousins. I thought about how – mitzvah or not – they were all given a choice of how to observe their faith as adults. It hit me that I always had the same choice. By now, all 11 of us had made our decisions, and we were happy. So, not to end this story on any kind of an inappropriate note, but I would like to announce the founding of my new non-profit: The Matthew Fried Foundation For Lost Jewish Boys and Unemployed Post-Grads. A recommended donation starts at $10. All proceeds go towards paying my rent next month.