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Yom Kippur 2013

Bruce Ward

It is a joy for me to share this honor with Elaine Smith in the telling of our very different Jewish journeys. Our Kol Nidre liturgy speaks of life as a journey, although we did not read that portion last night --- but life is journey we are on for some time before that realization hits us. The same is true for my Jewish journey. I was on that journey for a long time before it hit me, but unlike life, it is still unclear where my Jewish journey began.

There are no predictors in my heritage for the changes that came my way. Ellis Island, Hester Street, or the Lower Eastside are not in my background. Of course, like many of you my earliest ancestors came to these shores on a boat – in my case the boat was the Mayflower! My great (8) grandparents are John and Priscilla Alden. That makes me a cousin to the likes of presidents John and John Quincy Adams, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Orson Welles, and get this --- Marilyn Monroe! My great, great grandmother was Ann Eliza Lincoln, a cousin to President Lincoln. Her father and Lincoln’s father were brothers. Impressive perhaps, but now I can do all this one better and join with you to say that our ancestor wrote the Ten Commandments!

I grew up in a small, farming village not far from Green Bay. There were two Jewish families in town – one headed by a physician, the other by a junk dealer! While I did high school sports with the physician’s son, Mr. Fineburg’s junk yard was more to my liking. What a treasure trove of things. Old clocks and motors, wheels and radios – all wonderful clutter. Great things to take apart, and I even got a few back together. Visit my office or workshop and you will see why my family says this is where my Jewish journey began.

My mother was a Methodist Sunday school teacher who had great affection for Hebrew bible stories. We created dioramas and models of these stories for her classes. I built an ark that promptly capsized when we put it in water, and clay tablets that seemed unbreakable. One day she came home with something I had never seen before - a mezuzah. I believe I was 12. I recall vividly looking at the scroll and seeing the Hebrew, and saying without hesitation that some day I would read that for her. In time I did – and that mezuzah is now on the doorway to our dining room. My Jewish journey may now have been underway, but I didn’t know it.

Fast forward to my college years. I went to Macalester College in St Paul, MN. In our typical sophomoric way we loved to say Macalester was a small Christian college --- for small Christians! But it was and is anything but that! Rabbi Jaffe was once an adjunct faculty member there. (For those at the second service this morning you know that was when he was rabbi at Temple Israel in the Twin Cities.) Its current president is Jewish. Central to its mission is the very Jewish imperative of healing the world. Macalester was one of the first colleges to promise haven to Jewish scholars fleeing the impending Holocaust. Some of my professors were those transplanted scholars. One, our political science professor, was the guru for Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy, all of whom were around. Kofi Annan is a graduate. I took my first Hebrew courses at Macalester. My teacher was Mondale’s father-in-law. It seems likely I was now on my Jewish journey, but it hadn’t sunk in.

During college I was interested in history and philosophy, not just in science. That led subsequently to my studying in a Presbyterian theological school, noted for its scholarship in Near Eastern History and Literature. I took every course available in Hebrew and Hebrew bible. I came to Harvard for continued graduate work in the same fields, and along with it a career turning point. My projected degree would leave me teaching in a small Christian college, which had become a non-starter for me. While the program was wonderful, it didn’t work for me and I didn’t do well. I left and later finished a doctorate in another part of the University. If asked back then I would say that I was Jewish. But I really didn’t know what that meant.

And then as fate would have it, I met Toby. When we decided to get married there was no question I would become Jewish. Toby called Rabbi Yales about my conversion. The class had started and he was not optimistic about my joining, when Toby told him about my background at Harvard in biblical archeology, Near-Eastern history, and Semitic languages. After a long pause, as was his way, he said “we need to talk.” And talk we did. Judaism 101 for me was right here in Isaiah in the rabbi’s office. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from our talks --- besides our friendship --- was that I knew very well what it meant theologically to be a Jew, but I didn’t know what it meant to live Jewishly. It was not without challenges. When Toby married me three non-Jewish children came along for the ride, and Toby moved into a household that was essentially non-religious. How do you deal with such challenges? For us the best measure of how that all worked out is this: from the day Ethan was born his three older siblings – Andrew, Kirsten, and Chris – were with him for every step in his Jewish education, from Abbe’s class to Isaiah graduation. Those bonds remain strong. At Ethan’s bar mitzvah Rabbi Jaffe recalls with great affection Chris saying: I had been to many bar and bat mitzvahs in Temple Isaiah, but I never dreamed I would be going to my brother’s.

The question people always ask of someone like me is whether or not I would have become Jewish had I not met Toby. I tend to see it along the lines of Pasteur’s famous quote that “chance favors only the prepared mind,” and becoming Jewish was something I had been preparing for over the years. There is an epilogue to all this. Several years ago our family sent in cheek swabs to have our DNA profiled. About 50% of my DNA is commonly shared with most Ashkenazi Jews. So for me, I like to think my Jewish journey really started thousands of years ago, and I can credit my genetic code for many of the wonderful changes that came my way.

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784