My journey to Judaism began on my first date with my future wife in 1982. It may have taken me 30 years to become a Jew officially, but one’s identity is an evolving concept, rather than a static state of mind.
When I met Ilene Wasserman, there was certainly no ambiguity about her identity. While dating, I learned a new language — a new code so to speak — as I tried to figure out the nuances, the trials and tribulations, perhaps, of an interfaith relationship.
My first “bubby” experience came at Passover 1983 when I met Ilene’s grandmother, Esther, as we picked her up in the Bronx on the way to seder at Ilene’s parent’s house on Long Island. I had never been to a family celebration with so many extended family members talking, often over each other, and telling — and retelling — stories. They accepted me without a moment’s hesitance, but not without questions. They asked lots of them.
As the oldest child of a small family of origin with no aunts, uncles or cousins, this was a completely new experience for me.
When Esther died in January 1984, it was my first experience of shivah. It was a strange, yet peaceful, and not so sad experience. I observed the celebration of a life, the caring for the living, a period of time designed to help those in mourning. It was a totally different experience than the viewings and funerals I’d experienced up to that time.
A pattern began to emerge. A wedding and marriage, a baby naming, a bris. Drop-offs and pick-ups at Hebrew school, and, of course, the defining American Jewish cultural experience — summer camp for my children. Not long after, a seemingly never-ending series of Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and parties.
The deaths of four parents were interspersed along the way. Membership at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley came in 1993.
Woven throughout all of these life experiences were the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Pesach — every year and never at the same time. At every holiday and life-cycle event, of course, there would be a prayer, a song, a ceremony, a service, indeed a ritual. Family, friends, people and stories were a part of every step.
As a child, teenager and young adult, I never had any equivalent experiences. I could understand them on an intellectual level, but could not connect with them on an emotional one. I was in this Jewish world, living it, warmly embraced by my community — but not one with it. At least in my mind, I was still “the other.”
Our two children were grown, and the parents of friends began to reach the end, and so another round of shivahs intruded on our lives. But this time, instead of just showing up and standing there during the service, I began to reflect on what I was hearing, putting myself in the shoes of the mourners, listening to the stories of the deceased, just being in my community — and by doing so, reaching a new level of understanding. I was becoming aware that for all those years I had been existing just below the level of intellectual consciousness — and perhaps searching for some kind of meaning. Or was it identity. Or both?
What I realized most clearly was that Judaism was the journey of a people to become a civilization. It manifested itself through the study of Torah, the practice of tikkun olam, an unshakeable commitment to family and community, all of which, in turn, forged a bridge between generations. Torah is really about engaging in a quest for knowledge through the conduct of inquiry. Judaism embraces the idea that wisdom and salvation are not received blessings for unquestioning faith, but earned through the acts one performs and the lessons one learns in making the world a better place.
It also became clear to me that the concept of “the chosen people” is not that Adonai chose the Israelites to lead the nations, but that the Israelites became the Jewish people because they chose themselves to do the hard work of repairing the world. To this day, no other people, on a collective basis, have ever self-selected themselves to do so.
Being Jewish, I came to understand, is about improving the place where you live, how you live and the world you inhabit. There is no cause nobler. That idea, that singular focus on “do unto others,” is the essence of Torah, and what it means to be Jewish.
All I had to do to see that example in operation was just wake up every day. My wife and children live it every day, with career paths focused on helping others first and foremost. I could not be prouder of them as I continue to learn from them.
My journey to Judaism was long, but it did not cover a great distance. I was right there, living it, becoming it the whole time. I was home, as I am now, in my community, with my family. The discovery was in me. I simply had to realize for the journey to be complete that it did not reside in my head but in my heart.
Mark Taylor has resided with his family in Lower Merion for 30 years. After going before a Bet Din and immersion in the mikveh in April, he read Torah for the first time on June 15 at Beth Am Israel. These remarks are excerpts from the d’var Torah he gave at that time.