Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, Brother

When I was a kid, there was nothing more I wanted to be than my older brother, Brian. Four years my senior, he was my image of cool, and I did all I could to serve as his “Mini-Me.” I listened to the same music. I played the same sports. I mimicked his hairstyle. I even dressed like him.

(Of course, that was partly due to the fact that my wardrobe rarely consisted of much more than his hand-me-downs, but still.)

As I got older, I naturally individualized, developing my own set of interests, but I never strayed far from the course Brian had set. Sharing the same values, morals and sense of humor, I figured our lives would always track in a similar direction.

That is, until Brian made a life-altering move that I simply could not duplicate:

He became a rabbi.

It’s now been over six years since Brian gave up his prestigious post as Press Secretary for a U.S. Senator to go to rabbinical school, yet I haven’t fully grasped that he is a “Man of the Tallis.” Hearing him identify himself as “Rabbi Brian Stoller” on his outgoing voicemail message still makes me laugh in amazement.

And while I have seen him co-officiate our cousin’s wedding, listened to him talk in-depth about the Torah and heard him chant at our grandmother’s funeral, nothing could have completely prepared me for my recent trip to his congregation for high-holiday services.

From the very beginning, I felt as if I was in an alternate universe. When my family and I pulled up to the temple and identified ourselves as relatives of the rabbi, the security guards went scrambling to accommodate us, directing us to a special, coned-off area of the parking lot, only a few steps from the front entrance.

Once inside, you would’ve thought we were royalty, as numerous members kept stopping us on our way to our reserved seats in the VIP section to gush over how wise and well-respected Brian was.

I guess they hadn’t heard that he used to run around the house in Superman Underoos.

But as the service got going, all of the complimentary things they had said about Brian were proven to be accurate. He was self-assured and confident. He was an outstanding speaker. He was a commanding presence on the pulpit.

He was…a rabbi.

Sitting in the audience, watching him lead his congregants in prayer, I was impressed – though certainly not surprised – with what my brother had become.

But I was also struck by how drastically our paths had diverged. I mean, here I was, in synagogue for maybe the fourth time since the Clinton administration, and there was Brian, standing in his white robe, giving the sermon on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year.

I couldn’t help wondering how this had happened. Where did Brian find this motivation? How had he located this road to soul-saving enlightenment that I had missed?

After all, we had grown up in the same house, where Shabbat dinner consisted of saying the blessings over a Domino’s pizza. Sure, we both had Bar Mitzvahs, and the Jewish Community Center often served as our second home, but our religion was not an integral part of our day-to-day existence.

Yet Brian somehow ended up developing a hunger, a yearning to seek out and learn about our heritage. Maybe it was because he was rejected by a girl because of his religion, or maybe it was because he had spent so much time as a kid at his best friend’s home, who happened to be the son of our rabbi.

Whatever it was, I apparently didn’t get the memo.

Judaism has just never engaged me. Like many kids, my parents made me attend religious school, hoping that I would embrace the faith I was given at birth. But I got absolutely nothing out of it. The subjects that were taught were uninspiring, and the song sessions made me cringe with annoyance. When I wasn’t misbehaving with my friends or watching the clock to see how much longer I had left, I was waiting for the cute girl two desks over to finally make eye contact with me.

Going to services was just as tedious – and much more confusing. With all of the Hebrew and sophisticated English being spoken, everything went way over my head. I didn’t know what I was praying for or rising to my feet in honor of.

How can you connect with something that you can’t understand?

So I’d bide my time until an opening presented itself – typically, right before the sermon – to take an extended bathroom break.

Practicing Judaism felt like something that I was being forced to do, so once I was out from under my parents’ jurisdiction, I put an end to the charade. I did not see the point in going to synagogue or reciting prayers or celebrating traditions if I wasn’t getting anything out of the experience.

Instead, I’ve chosen to express myself spiritually in my own way. I pray more than I ever have, but I do it whenever and wherever I feel the need, regardless of what the calendar reads. I say prayers that make sense to me. I express my thanks to G-d in a manner that resonates with who I am.

Despite my lack of formality, I do consider myself to be Jewish, and I still fast on Yom Kippur and attend the family Seder on Passover. If I ever have kids, I plan on raising them with a Jewish background.

But once they reach an age when they are informed and educated enough, I’ll encourage them to make their own decision about their faith, and I will honor whatever they choose. Because no matter what any biblical law says, I believe that what truly makes a person a Jew – or a writer or a golfer or anything that is part of one’s identity – is what is in their heart and mind, not their family tree.

I realize that there are those who look down on me for not being more active, that some see me as a catalyst for the demise of the Jewish religion. And maybe I am. But I’d rather be viewed as a “bad Jew” by my peers than stand in temple as a fraud before G-d.

Besides, if not practicing Judaism on a regular basis earmarks me for a not-so-pleasant after-life, I figure my brother can make a few calls to negotiate for my eternal salvation.


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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?