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09/30/2014 03:06:36 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Delivered Rosh Hashanah Evening, 5775

Twenty six years ago, I was living in Olympia, Washington, a place with very few Jews.  At the time, I wasn't counted among them.  But I had agreed to raise a Jewish child, and it was time to take my son, Isaac, to the local synagogue for his baby naming ceremony. 

I had no idea what to expect.  In my paranoid imagination, as soon as I walked through the doors, it would be immediately apparent that I did not belong there.  I imagined heads turning, women looking me up and down, nodding knowingly to each other, and whispering:  Shiksa!

Before I continue this story, I need to tell you something about the word shiksa.  It's a Yiddish word, the feminine form of the word "Sheygetz."    "Sheygetz" comes from the Hebrew "sheketz," which means something disgusting, an "abomination."   The Torah forbids eating certain animals by using the phrase, "sheketz hu lachem" -- it is an abomination for you.[1]  So the words "Sheygetz" and "Shiksa" are not nice words. 

But most people don't know that.   Most people don’t know that "Sheygtez" and "Shiksa" mean something abominable.  Most people think the words simply mean "non-Jews."   I will never forget the time when I was rabbinical student and I agreed to help lead a Shabbat service at a local retirement home.   When I walked in the room, an elderly woman looked at me, turned to her neighbor and said rather loudly:  "She looks like a real shiksa!"  The woman then smiled at me, so I just smiled back at her.  But inwardly I crumpled, worried that she was questioning my Jewish credentials.   Years later, I learned that in some Jewish communities of long ago, it was the practice to compliment a blue eyed or blond Jewish girl by saying "she looks like a real shiksa." So even though “shiksa” is not a nice word, most people don’t use it in a mean-spirited way. 

Back to the baby naming story.  The synagogue in Olympia was a small wooden building near a state capital office complex.   It was the only one in town.  It didn't look like a place that would be scary to enter, yet as I approached it carrying my infant son, I felt a knot of anxiety grip my stomach. 

I agonized:  Why had I agreed to this?   Did I even know what I was getting into?  When I promised to raise a Jewish child, I did so with little knowledge or reflection.    Before we decided to get married, my husband at the time, Bob, had declared that it was important to him that we raise any future children in the Jewish faith.  I wasn’t ready to agree to this so quickly.    I had long given up believing in traditional conceptions of God, and I was cynical about religious institutions in general.  Why would I want to raise my child in a system that I had rejected?

And I so asked Bob what he thought Judaism was all about.  Bob's answer to me was shaped largely by his experience growing up here at Temple Israel and his admiration of the social justice work of Rabbi Michael Robinson.   “To be Jewish,” he told me, “means standing up for the rights of oppressed people, and working for justice, for a better world.   You know, like being a light to the nations and all that stuff.”  “Okay,” I thought.  “A light to the nations.  Of all the organized religions, this one sounds all right.”  And so I agreed. 

I remember feeling anxious as I walked into the synagogue that Friday evening long ago.   We had to climb steep steps outside, and pull hard on the heavy front door in order to open it.   Inside the sanctuary some things seemed familiar, reminding me of the time I spent in church as a child:   neat rows of pews, prayer books, and even the same slightly musty smell.   Yet many things were unfamiliar too.  Most of the men wore kippot (although I didn’t know what they were called then).  I had seen those head coverings only in films and on television.   And what were those strange letters over the Ark?  They must have said something important, but how could I know what it was?    These same letters appeared on the prayer books in the pews; the books that at first glance had seemed familiar suddenly appeared strange. 

I remember nothing about the service or the naming ceremony, only that it was led by a layperson because the community was too small to have a full-time rabbi.  I do remember that I was worried that my son would start to squall, or loudly fill his diaper, or commit some other sacrilegious act.  At the end of the ceremony, the congregation began singing “simon tov u’mazal tov.” I was confused by it.   I had no idea what mazal tov meant – in fact, I was so ignorant of all things Jewish that I thought that Molotov cocktails were called Mazaltov cocktails.

I know that I am not the only person in our sanctuary tonight who has felt out-of-place in a synagogue at one time or another.  The night of my son’s baby naming, I thought that everyone there would know I was a shiksa, an outsider, someone who didn't belong.  But now I know that even those who were born and raised as Jews feel insecure at times about whether they know enough Jewish stuff, or whether they do enough Jewish things.  Even people who have grown up Jewish can worry that others are judging them, or they might think that they are the only ones who don’t know how to read Hebrew, or who believe a certain way, or who doubt God's existence.

Well, it turns out that I worried for nothing.   Following my son's baby naming ceremony, there was a small oneg in the basement of the synagogue.  Someone had made a cake, decorating it with “Mazal Tov!” and a Star of David drawn in squiggly blue frosting.    I was touched by the fact that someone went to the trouble to make a cake for us.  They didn’t really know who we were.   They didn't really care about whether I was a shiksa.   All they cared about was recognizing and celebrating my infant son, a new member of their community.   

This speaks to one of the strengths of our Jewish people.  Whenever possible, most Jewish communities have welcomed others into their midst, as I was welcomed by that small synagogue 26 years ago.  So one of the reasons I tell you this story tonight is to reassure those who are here that this is a community in which we don't care where you came from, or what you might know or not know, or what you believe or don’t believe.  All we care about is that you are here.   It is your presence among us that makes us stronger.

But there's another reason I tell this story tonight.  I don’t have to tell you that it’s not easy being Jewish in the world today.    Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in Europe, including attacks on synagogues and individuals,  and virulent anti-Israel protests where people chanted  “Death to the Jews.”  I was shocked to learn that “Prominent public figures across the Muslim world, including Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan, are promoting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory suggesting that the terror group ISIS was created by Jews.”[2]   And the war between Israel and Hamas this past summer was, quite simply, heart-breaking.   We live in a harsh world, and it has too often been that way for Jews.   In some ways, we are like the world’s Shiksa – in the most negative sense of the word.  We are outsiders.   And some consider us to be an abomination.    

Yet despite the harsh world that we often live in, and despite the fact that some consider us to be an abomination, there have always been people like myself whose hearts led them to join our people.  One of our early Jewish texts, the Talmud, describes the question to be asked of all  who sought to join the Jewish people:  “‘What reason have you for desiring to (convert); do you not know that Israel at the present time is oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?’”[3]  For two thousand years we have asked others “Are you sure you want the tsuris (trouble) that comes with being Jewish?”  And for two thousand years, people have responded “yes.” 

It didn’t take me long after my son’s baby naming ceremony to realize that I wanted to join the Jewish people.   To this very day, I consider it to be an enormous privilege and a blessing to be a part of the Jewish people.  I consider it to be my life’s work to teach others about the treasures within our Jewish heritage, and the joy of being a part of a Jewish community.  I embrace the ancient and enduring mission of our people:  to be l’or goyim, “a light unto the nations.”[4]  

Even during these difficult days, when it is hard to keep the flame burning, we are here.  We are here together.  May the glory of these most sacred days rekindle our flame; may our light shine ever brightly in this New Year. 

[1] See Leviticus 11: 12, 20, 23


[2] ADL website

[3] Yevamot 47a-b

[4] Isaiah 42:6, 49: 6

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779