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Yom Kippur 2013

Elaine Smith

I feel honored to share with you my own Jewish journey.  I have never felt that what I have given and received from my religion was so very unique     But we’ll see.

For this journey I begin with my parents, both of whom were American born  of Conservative Jewish  background,.  my  mother   raised in Flushing, Long Island,  my father  born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut,  of  a working class family.  I am proud and puzzled  how my father, with this background and with his high school diploma from a Trade School in New Haven, graduated as an electrical engineer from Yale University  Class of 1916.    He ultimately spent over forty years engineering with the Southern New England Telephone Company.  As I grew I wondered if, had he not been Jewish,  would he have been recognized for higher position.  Maybe I was  biased. 

My father’s mother was a founding member of the Jewish Home for Children in New Haven, where, during it’s lifetime, at least a few hundred Jewish kids, orphans, children  from broken homes, and such,  were raised with loving care and a Judaic background.    

My Mom was whisked off at age 20 to Hamden, Ct,  about 4 miles outside New Haven.  No trolleys.   Mom  called it the wilderness.    I don’t know if they even thought about how Jewish, or I should say non-Jewish, were their surroundings.   I was born in New Haven and grew up  in Hamden.  I played with  neighbors or school kids.    I never had  Jewish friends in these early years.  Jewish community?  What was that? 

My parents  were active members both of the Conservative temple Bnai Jacob in New Haven, and  in the Jewish Home for Children, and  had Jewish friends in New Haven.  But where did this leave me?    Though  I attended Sunday School once a week via carpooling ,   I simply was not part of the Jewish young people who were growing up in this city.  Did I feel left out?  Not really.   I had religion where I felt it mattered – down deep.   Jewish Community – not then a part of me. 

In second grade, the teacher for some reason wanted all our mothers’ first names.  I sat in the class knowing very well my mother’s name was Sadye (and often called by father  “Sprintsa”.    However, as I heard the class calling out names such as “Helen”, “Mary”,” Joan”,  “Jane”,  I gulped, and when called upon I meekly said, “Helen”.  Of course after class I did immediately approach the teacher to tell her I made a mistake.  What she thought of that, I will never know, but I NEVER FORGOT IT.  At age eight, something was brewing within me  somehow related to my Jewish Journey. 

I was fortunate  to attend and thrive at a small private school in Hamden from 6th grade thru high school – for fifty dollars per  year - one of the best deals of my –and my parents’ - lives for the preparation it gave me.  I was always excused from participating in the annual Christmas pageant.   At morning chapel, I knew all the hymns, sang heartily, but closed my mouth at the words Jesus or Christ.  This  was community – just not Jewish.

During my early youth  my folks and I often visited the Jewish Home for Children, which we called “The Home”.  I had what might be called today “a blast”, running around with so many kids.    They were Jewish, through and through.    This was a small Jewish community offering a large welcome mat whenever I came. 

My mother gave me when I was nine or ten a small book, Prayer Book for all Occasions, (Hebrew and English), from which I read and then just knew the prayers by memory, before sleeping and when waking up.  It was worn when she gave it to me,  more worn when I passed it on to my own daughter.  This was my intimate Jewish community. 

 I of course had   friends in school, just  no Jewish friends. I  always felt different in some inner way  but I seemed to enjoy the difference. .   I recall as a sophomore in high school being part of a “self taught comparative religion course” – i.e., 3 friends  and I toured the three Protestant churches on the New haven green and  I also brought them to the synagogue.  

But definitely in these years  Judaism was  sitting very much enclosed, inside of me.     I think I used to figure that with the low percentage of Jews in the country,  it did not make sense for me to be hanging out mostly with Jewish girls.

 I should mention that my folks sent me to a Jewish  camp for three wonderful summers.  What I remember mostly   was a duet sung with my brother,  Ba Mer Bist Du Shane!”

My first year of college – up here at Wellesley – very exciting for me.   I will always recall the letter telling me that my roommate would be Anne Hirshberg from Atlanta. Georgia.   Anne was a delightful person . But why did they pair me with someone of my own religion???   To me, it just was not right.  When  Yom Kippurcame,  there was no Hillel then that I knew of – and I am NOT  sure I would have sought it out.   The college chapel had a small room for contemplation in its basement.  I do not think there was a cross,  but  to me  at that juncture, this was beside the point.    I found a place where I alone could sit quietly and pray.  This was meaningful to me.    That was  religion that I could express.  And I never have forgotten it. 

A few years out of college  I came back to Boston to work.  Working in a biochem lab – not a Jewish social mecca, living with 3 college friends, not a Jewish environment.   I began to assess  my own Jewish Journey  -   “Elaine, when it comes to your future,  you  need to meet some Jewish guys.”   I used to pass a conservative temple on Comm Ave in Brookline.  So   I  attended a lecture there  -  asked a fairly intelligent question so I would at least be recognized – and from that I received a phone call from a fellow named Howard Smith -  so the love for my life turned up – and it has been a great sojourn  together. 

We settled in Lexington in 1952, and like my own parents, not considering whether there was a Jewish community around.  Howard  hung a shingle, “VETERINARY CLINIC”  outside his office and our living quarters next door on Waltham Street near Mass Ave.  Every minister in town stopped  by his office , to each of whom he would politely say “I am Jewish”.  Only the Unitarian minister of course responded, “That does not matter.”   We did seek out in Arlington the Jewish Community Center, which then became the ALBJCC quartered  in a large home on Mass Avenue at Winthrop Road.   It was of course pleasant to meet folks starting out as we were.  However, when the JCC decided to become a temple, the split came – it seemed like:  Reform to the left – Conservative to the Right. 

Howard and I both having been raised in Conservative environments, neither of us was drawn to  Reform Judaism of the 1950s.  To me this was Judaism  which had been REFORMED.    At Temple Emunah  we tried to do our share as   founding members.  I served on the board of the temple and the sisterhood .  Our three children were raised through Emunah’s religious School, and all three Bar or Bat Mitzvahed there.  We were somewhat entrenched in Conservative  ways, and , whether we appreciated it or not, we were not looking beyond those borders. 

In those years a fair share of friends  came from the secular environment through Lexington Tennis Club, Belfry sClub, Lexington Lions Club.Lions Club– two of these no longer exist.     We were very  sensitive to the fact that this town was a prominent  Protestant stronghold, with Catholics in town having seen  discrimination.   For me, again, my religion was doing quite well, I thought,  staying put deep down inside.      Outward expression of Judaism from both Howard and me developed with the desire to work toward unity in town.   In the early ‘60s  Howard  formed a committee via the Lexington Council of Churches (now the Interfaith Council) for a Lexington Night at the Pops, with a reception at St Brigids Church followed by busses round tripto Symphony Hall.    It felt good to participate in this community event.

It does happen I believe to all of us, that our mindset can evolve, regarding   our community  and our personal lives.  On my Jewish Journey,  I began to realize more  and more that I was not gaining fulfillment from the total experience with Conservative Judaism in Lexington.  .  There are many facets to this revelation,  but suffice it to say that Howard and I both felt it was time to reevaluate.    What were we seeking?  We were not sure –   I knew I wanted to feel greater understanding and  appreciation of my religious surroundings, that this would make me comfortable. 

We spent one Yom Kippur holiday at Dartmouth College.   Folks had come from all over Northern New England for Kol Nidre,  a heartwarming  experience.  The following  year high holidays we participated in  Brandeis  Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist services.   We decided to come to a few Friday evening services here.  To me, over a period of  thirty years Reform Judaism had certainly changed course – to the right,  you might call it.  Let us just say that for me it became more enlightening and at the same time more secure.  We spent some time with Rabbi Yales, who,  very graciously, suggested that while we were most welcome at Isaiah, we should NOT make a precipitous move.   There had been rabbinical changes at Emunah.   Things had settled down.

Obviously, we chose to make the move.  Yes, we were past our “prime” when this happened – but  who is to say when is prime time? We have now been members of Temple Isaiah for over twenty years.   I must say that when we joined, we thought  we knew a fair number of folks from Lexington (some  were old friends who took the opposite path to us when the well know SPLIT came about.)  It was not   easy.  But  I must have been ready finally in my life, while appreciating all the varied associations we have had, to find, not only a welcoming Jewish community, but a Jewish community that would be real for me. 

We joined a new Havurah,  (which unfortunately  did not last), but whose members offered us a pathway to stronger relationships within the temple.  I began to realize personally that there was a great deal I could gain in satisfaction  from learning within these walls.

One of my first projects was to become a Bat Mitzvah -  a wonderful experience – first time ever literally to feel the Torah and spiritually to feel that this was my Torah too.   I began to feel perhaps I might even have something to offer that would somehow be appreciated.    

Rabbi Yales was always welcoming.    I also felt strongly the privilege to know and appreciate Rabbi Jaffe and Irene , such that I can thank them as leader and friends.

When I retired I began to attend the Minyan  on Saturday morning.  To me, at first I went because  it seemed the nearest thing to Conservative worship.   Now it means so much more:  It means learning and sharing, and being stimulated, inspired  and befriended by good people.  It means realizing that it is OK to feel  unknowing about aspects of Judaism, while understanding  that this is an ongoing process, that others are as willing to share   their uncertainties as much as their knowledge.    It means reaching out to understanding biblical reading in a personal way  for its pertinence and relation to our world today. 

I have always been Jewish but have never felt – inside and outside- as comfortably Jewish as I feel today.   

For all this and more,  I am grateful that my Jewish journey has taken me here to this community.    Thank you.

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784