Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'It isn't easy being Jew'

I was talking with someone recently who said she is expecting houseguests soon, and she lamented that they are vegetarians, with a roll of her eyes. "I'm not going to have any of that at my house," she said.

I'm amazed that I know people who say things like that.

Anyway, it made me think about the houseguest I had over Thanksgiving weekend. She is an American expatriate who lives in Israel and is an orthodox Jew.

The orthodox rely on strict interpretation of the Torah (I had to look that up on wikipedia.org), which means, among other things: married women do not show their hair in public; they follow strict kosher dietary laws; they observe the sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; and they dress modestly, wearing long sleeves and clothes that cover most of their bodies.

I looked at it as a mini-immersion into another culture. It was a learning experience, and helped me understand and respect people who have orthodox views - even those wacky vegetarians.

As my house guest explained to me, being orthodox is not easy. After all, they are expected to follow 613 mitzvoth - or commandments. This was echoed by a  Russian, Gabriel, who works at Segal's Kosher Foods in Phoenix, and who was an angel (wink, wink) during my guest's visit.

"It isn't easy being Jew," he said, after telling us about a doctor who has been in the process of converting for eight years. Eight years!

My houseguest has been practicing orthodox Judaism since the 1980s, and she no longer refers to herself as a convert. She's Jewish. Period. She said the religion is difficult, but people support each other and keep together as a community.

The community members help each other prepare for shabbat, for example, by preparing hot meals and keeping them warmed over the 24-hour observation period. Members cannot light or extinguish flames during shabbat, so they are unable to cook or heat food, turn off or on lights, and drive or ride in vehicles. (Shabbat starts Friday at sundown and ends Saturday at sundown.)

I can't help but wonder what drives the orthodox to be so devout. What do they think would happen if they failed to observe one of the mitzvoth? Last week, I realized that my question misses the point.

When a group of people observes similar rituals, they create community, which most of us want and need. I belong to several communities - my family, my girlfriends, my To Be Re family and my job, to name a few. With my To Be Re fitness family, I depend on the "rituals" of cardio, weights and nutrition to keep me fit. To Be Re members depend on each other for support; we share recipes and tips, and we cheer each other on. I've never been devoted to a health and wellness program this long.  And it's all because of community.

The other thing I realize about orthodox practices is that rituals prepare individuals for mindful meditation and reflection, especially during the sabbath. As they go through the mechanics of preparing food, lighting candles and bathing, they quiet their demons and awaken their spirituality.

I am grateful to have had the experience. Shalom.

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