One of the stories my family likes to repeat is the one about the day my aunt married my uncle, when my grandmother pulled the wedding band aside before the reception. "Just to be clear," she told the bandleader, "there will be no folk dancing."
My grandmother was not worried about riverdancers overrunning the reception. She meant there would be no hora—the circular frenzy of flying feet that signifies, above all else, that you are in the presence of Jews.
How my mother's mother—the daughter of Conservadox Jews, the granddaughter of a guy who spent most of his days at the Downtown Talmud Torah and was buddies with Mordecai Kaplan around the time Kaplan founded Reconstructionism—grew weary enough of Judaism to put her foot down on the hora, I'm not entirely sure.
Maybe it was the lingering influence of my grandfather, who before dying of a brain tumor at the age of 42, had worshipped The Golden Rule and the Sports Pages, devoted himself first and foremost to the latest technology, described himself as a humanist, and proudly voted for Norman Thomas in 1948. (Had my grandfather been alive this week, I think he would have fit right in—emailing this article to folks, tracking Bernie Sanders in the polls, gearing up for football season, and pre-ordering the latest iPhone.)
My grandfather was by no means an atheist. He believed in the divine—God just took on a slightly different form for him. He used to tell my mother that he believed in Santa Claus, at least as a symbol of the spirit of giving. (Many of my mother's fondest memories of her childhood before her father died involved elaborate Christmas mornings.)
I don't think my grandparents eschewed all Jewish traditions. I did manage to once find a photo of my grandmother smoking a cigarette in front of what looks like a Passover plate and a kiddush cup. She was movie-star beautiful, my grandmother, and she looks in the photo a little like Rita Hayworth might have looked had she been invited, at the last minute, to a seder at the house of her studio chief, Harry Cohn.
If my mother's parents passed down any kind of principles to their daughters, it was mostly of the ethical sort. Do unto others, you are your brother's keeper (and that goes for your sisters too), we live in one world—one planet—and everyone in the world is responsible for everyone else.
My father's parents were a little more traditional, though they too had all the hallmarks of mid-century modern assimilation. The menu from my father's bar mitzvah reception reveals that shrimp cocktail was the first course, and my father's mother spent more time making people feel like chopped liver than making it herself. (I'm sorry, Nana, but it's true.)
By the time Judaism got passed down to me, it was a little watered down. It's not that my parents didn't try to give us a Jewish education. We belonged to a Reform synagogue and dutifully went to services at the High Holidays, lit the candles at Hanukkah, faithfully stopped buying Christmas trees after my brother's bar mitzvah, and had a seder together every year until the year my parents got divorced.
Nowadays, thanks to my sister-in-law, my parents once again spend Passover together. And they, coincidentally, independently, joined the same synagogue in New York, where they happily attended Rosh Hashanah services this morning. They even sat together.
My own interest in and commitment to Judaism has waxed and waned over the years. Back when I was 12, my parents asked if I wanted a bat mitzvah (I guess girls had more choice about the matter than boys), and I was resolute: No. I was just too conflicted about what I believed—and who, if anyone, I believed in—to feel I could go through with the act in a way that didn't feel like an act.
Today, my relationship to Judaism would make my great-great-grandfather and his buddy Mordecai surely think I'm meshugeneh. I sit on the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but on my daughter's 13th birthday, Amy and I sat with her in church. (That's probably the start of a whole other blog post.)
I will celebrate with friends tonight, eating apples and honey and talking about Hillary and Bernie. Tomorrow, I will perform my own variation on tashlich—throwing myself into the ocean for surf lesson number two.
Like my grandfather, I do believe in the divine—but who or what that is just takes on a slightly different form for me.