The joy of reclaiming my Jewish heritage

For many of us, being Jewish means having a deep sense of security about our place in the world.

Paradoxically, it is from this position of security that it becomes possible, even necessary, to regard everything as open to question and debate and to embrace the angst of the human condition. Perhaps that is the greatest cultural tradition of Judaism, the striving to understand, to question and to prove.

The most important of Jewish rituals sit comfortably with these themes and are grounded in the practical and the rational. Every Friday evening at the Shabbat table, the family puts aside the stresses and distractions of the week and comes together; conversation flows, arms flail as points are made and rebutted and Jewish insight and humour flow as freely as the red wine and the rich, hearty foods.

As with all Jewish rituals, the day of rest (Sabbath) mandated by Jewish law serves a vital function in the pursuit of a happy life. For one day each week, the usual preoccupations of life are put to one side as one reflects on larger questions about the meaning and purpose of one's life and engages in moral self-evaluation.

Another of the rhythms of Jewish life is the laying of Tefillin or phylacteries. It is among the most sacred and admittedly peculiar of Jewish rituals.

It involves the placing of one small black leather box containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah just above the forehead, with leather straps falling freely on either side of the head, while a second box is placed mid-way between the shoulder and the elbow and is held in place with sturdily-bound leather straps running along the arm and around the palm of the hand.

The ritual is performed daily by observant Jewish men, typically before reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy for the last 2000 years. It calls on a merciful and loving God to forgive sins, heal the sick and bring an end to the exile of the Jewish people. It concludes with a prayer for universal peace.

The Shema Yisrael follows, which is the most sacred invocation in Jewish prayer and thought. It declares one's belief in God and affirms one's Jewish identity.

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

What is the function of these ancient rituals? What relevance do they have in the relentlessly materialistic and secular contemporary world?

The act of laying Tefillin has a remarkable meditative quality. This is a practical benefit. It is peaceful, silent, solitary. It is another of those precious intervals that is guarded from the disruptions of daily life.

One feels no compulsion to grasp for one's iPhone when standing in solemn reflection wrapped in sacred garments. You emerge from this ritual centred, focused and alert having contemplated enduring ancient truths - the sanctity of family, the paramount concern for good health, the desire for wisdom, the pursuit of peace.

This morning ritual also has historical significance. It belongs to a different epoch. There is something rich and beautiful in that.

Among the extraordinary discoveries comprising the 2400-years-old Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran, east of Jerusalem, were Tefillin, virtually identical in content and form to Tefillin we use today. It is difficult not to feel that sense of powerful historical continuity to ancestral lands and ancient customs when performing daily rituals in a manner identical to one's forebears.

This is an important component of religious ritual. Each nation's history is unique, complex and worthy of being studied. A powerful impetus for preserving ritual and passing it on to our children is to transmit that history so that each generation feels connected to its past and, in turn, is more inclined to inquire of it, to preserve it, to teach it and to understand it.

Ritual that serves a practical purpose as a trigger or reminder of important values or noble conduct is far more likely to be transmitted from generation to generation and indeed is worthy of such careful preservation.

The wearing of twisted and knotted ritual threads or tassels that protrude below the shirt and jacket, known as tzitzit, are explicitly commanded in Jewish law to be worn by men and serve an important practical function. The visibility of these tassels to the wearer, unlike the Jewish head-covering (the kippah) acts as a constant reminder to the Orthodox Jewish man of his religious obligations.

This is a recognition of the fallible nature of man - the mind wanders, weakness may set in - so we implement ways to remind ourselves of our true purpose, to bring our focus back to our Creator and the purpose of our life. That is, to enrich the world through worthy deeds.

While I was raised in a home where God was hardly mentioned and religious customs were long buried under Soviet prohibitions and generations of forced assimilation, as I reached adolescence I decided to reclaim my heritage. I have cherished Jewish religious rituals immensely. I feel they bind me to my Creator and my ancestors, and also to my people and our shared history and destiny.

Religious observance causes me to rejoice in the knowledge that today I live in a country that is respectful and enlightened, in which I am free to practice my faith. I also see religious observance as an act of defiance and celebration in the faces of those who have sought to snuff out the Jewish people.

Tyrants have fallen but the ancient traditions of the Jewish people continue to flourish.

For all of these reasons, I believe in the importance of religious and cultural traditions and have begun to teach them to my young daughter. I want her to understand what it means to be Jewish and how fortunate she is to descend from the remnant of European Jews who survived the Holocaust.

I want her to feel a personal connection to her forebears and to take pride in her rich people's history and spiritual treasure-house.

Jewish values, and the customs that inculcate them, sit in harmony with my other core beliefs. I will teach my daughter Australian values of inclusivity, tolerance and mateship, and she will know universal ideals of freedom, compassion and the pursuit of knowledge.

Free will being what it is, it may be that, for all my intentions and plans, my daughter will repudiate my beliefs and take no interest in her own heritage. That is her right. Or perhaps she will marvel at these things and seek to enhance the role that culture and religion serve in our family.

But it is my duty, as I see it, to impart the values and the ideals that I cherish and that have brought meaning and joy to my life in the hope that they can also enrich hers. Transmitting the beautiful rituals of Jewish life will be a powerful means of achieving that.


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