Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mandalas, Haikus, and Starbucks: The New Judaism

We went to Friday night services last night--the first time in a long time that we've gone simply as grown-ups, without children in tow. Once a month they honor recent birthdays, and The Wife had been alerted that she was on the list for this month. So we went.

It was a special service in another way, as well: the honoring and blessing of the confirmands.

I never had a confirmation as a Youth. I barely made it to Bar Mitzvah, dropping out of our local synagogue at 12 as I did. The place was a Bar Mitzvah mill, processing kids three at a time with all attention focused on the party and none on the allegedly important religious service. I hated it, and told my parents so. They hauled me up in front of the rabbi and said, "He says this place is a Bar Mitzvah mill." To which the rabbi said, "He's right."

So I dropped out and got coaching from one of my father's law students, who was Orthodox. And we had a make-shift service at a country club, presided over by a colleague of my father's, who also happened to be a Chasidic rabbi. It was an amazing event, and very meaningful to me, but there was nothing organized anymore for me to continue with, and I was an easy-to-distract 13-year-old, so...there it ended.

Anyway. The service began last night, and the four confirmands sat there--three girls and one boy. I didn't know any of them--I haven't had the time to really get to know anyone in this congregration. But they looked like nice kids.

Each of them had a chance to speak during the service. The first girl spoke about how she had wanted to express her feelings about religion through art. A friend held up a painting she had done recently--a wonderfully colorful and swirling mandala, with the Hebrew word for love at its center.

Another girl spoke of her "Ashke-phardic" background and how important it was to her. The third recited 10 haikus about her confirmation. Each of them spoke about their relationship with the rabbi, the conversations and disucssions they had had throughout the year, often over coffee at Starbucks.

What struck me throughout the service was how small and intimate and loving everything about the service was. While there was ritual and recitation and all the things that make up a religious service, there was also such a strong sense of family, and love, and...ease, I guess. Nothing rigid or imposing. It was an extended family, raising and celebrating its children.

And the four kids felt such a strong connection to their religious culture--not because of indoctrination or having to tow any particular line--but because of how it both challenged and accomodated them--asked them what they thought and felt about important issues and challenged them to think deeply, consider other points of view, and connect their own feelings and thoughts to the history and tradition to which they belong. There is room for me here, they seemed to be saying, and also, I am needed here.

Those aren't messages I ever got, as a 16-year-old. So maybe there's hope.