“I’m a terrible Jew,” I used to say — by which I meant that I was wholly ignorant of tradition, taking a sort of perverse pleasure in the shock value of the comment. I was raised by postwar, secular European parents who decided they’d had enough of religion. I didn’t know Sukkot from Shavuot, and we grew up with Christmas trees and Easter eggs. Researching this essay, I learned that into her teens, my younger sister thought one of our parents was Catholic and one was Jewish. I remember being asked to sign the ketubah at her wedding (her husband was observant), and looking blankly at the rabbi when he asked me my Jewish name. He ended up coaching me, with some reproach, through a hastily imitated Hebrew “Moishe.”
So when it came time to write my second novel, which deals with the recovery of stolen Nazi art, I realized I was trying to send my protagonist on a journey of Jewish self-discovery that I had not experienced for myself. I confided my difficulties to Rabbi David Wolpe, who directed me to the American Jewish University’s eighteen-week “Introduction to Judaism” course, largely designed for people looking to convert for marriage.
I signed up at once, and was the only Jew in my class. The other students would look at me from time to time with a combination of what I took to be pity and mystification. They were trying to gain admittance but I was already in; what was I doing there? Over eighteen Tuesdays, I received a remarkable education and made some lasting friendships. The highlight was my engagement with the idea of the Sabbath (about which, more presently); the nadir was my benighted attempts at reading Hebrew, which eluded me as thoroughly as it had at my sister’s wedding.
I enjoyed the class, especially the historical perspectives, but I was aware that too often I was experiencing it almost clinically, with an intellectual detachment. Yet, I was drawn back again and again to Sabbath. (I’d already read and been deeply moved by Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World.) I loved this notion of sanctified space and time; in the incessant hurly-burly of the internet age, a slice of time preserved for quiet contemplation seemed a gift from God, even to an atheist like me.
Yet I’d never been to a proper Sabbath dinner. At some point, I confessed this to the young rabbi who taught my course, hoping for an invitation, which is precisely what he offered. I remember how nervous I felt as I arrived early, bearing flowers, certain I would be seen as the dilettante, the fraud I knew myself to be.
It was a small family gathering with a few other friends present. I explained that I was writing a novel and was there to watch and learn. They indulged me, even incorporated me into the evening’s routine, but I could never fully shake off feeling on the outside. I didn’t know the prayers; I didn’t know what to do. I thought of my Hungarian maternal grandfather, who was observant. When he visited America in my early childhood, I would go to temple with him on Friday nights, but that was the extent of my Jewish education. I wondered what he’d make of this tableau — of his grandson, tentatively returning to the fold. (My parents and sister remained resolutely but respectfully irreligious; no such stirrings of a Jewish awakening seems to have stirred in them.) Would he be pleased, or disappointed that I’d been gone so long?
I watched my rabbi and his friends and family lapse into easy, friendly discussion after prayers, and I envied them. I have experienced it before and since, when I’m in a synagogue or anywhere with a large number of Jews; I have also felt outside of this warm, welcoming rapport, denied something by my religion-free upbringing.
And yet. At the same time, there is something in those rooms I always recognize, something I cannot help but feel a part of. Eventually, my spasms of resentment toward my parents’ choices fade, and although I often find myself feeling that I’m too far gone, too old, that it’s too late for a fully realized Jewish self, I can at least see that I’m not a terrible Jew, not anymore.
Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, and many other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He lives in Santa Monica, California.