Writer Jonathan Papernick embarks on a quest to become a better Jew—and a better man.
I’m a bad Jew. I’m also a skinny Jew, an arrogant Jew, a neurotic Jew, an erotic Jew, and even a dirty Jew—at least I’ve been called each of those names more than once. But now, at 35, with one book of fiction under my belt and a couple manuscripts in the can, I’m on the verge of having a son. And for the first time in my life, I want to be a good Jew.
I’ve been bad in all the familiar ways. As a child I sat on Santa’s lap and hunted for Easter eggs. In school, I slavishly dated Ukrainians, Latvians, Czechs, and Croats to the exclusion of Sarah, Rachel, and Esther. I’ve even worked for minimum wage on Yom Kippur. For years I neutered my family’s last name, chopping it in half to form Pape, somehow unaware of the papal connotations. Judaism for me has always been a buffet where you decide to celebrate the feast of Passover but not observe the Fast of Gedalia; you give your son a bris, but not a bar mitzvah. I’m a pick-and-choose Jew, and for the most part, I’ve chosen not to pick.
By now I’ve outgrown Santa’s lap. I married a Jew, and I suffer through Yom Kippur services nearly every year, seeking some sort of community and belonging. So far, all I’ve found is hunger and crushing tedium. But the upcoming birth of my first child has me asking why I’ve turned away from the accumulated wisdom of my forefathers—and wondering if returning to that wisdom might make me a happier man, a better man, a good Jewish dad.
In Stars of David, a recent book of interviews with Jewish luminaries, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier wrote, “I can respect heresy, I can respect alienation… I don’t mind renegades or apostates… My point is that American Jews aren’t renegades; they are slackers.” He goes on to condemn secular Jews for not bothering to learn about the Judaism they are rejecting. Maybe he had a point. I hadn’t been rebelling at all, according to Wieseltier. I was just lazy.
To prove Wieseltier wrong and figure things out for myself I would have to bury long-held biases and open my mind to incomprehensible, spooky rituals. I would have to learn how to dress, how to purify myself at a mikveh, how to negotiate like a macher, how to pray, and how to respect my mother like a good Jewish son. I would have to disassemble the old me and build myself up again from the dust. Even if I don’t succeed in becoming a better Jew, at least I’ll be making an informed decision.
Wearing a kippa seemed an appropriate place to start. Growing up Reform, I’d never covered my head at services. I didn’t even wear a kippa at my own wedding. I was even accused of being a Jew for Jesus at a reading I gave at a Puerto Rico synagogue. But if I was afraid to announce my Jewishness with a kippa, then how could I possibly expect to become a better Jew? So I devised a test. I would wear a kippa for two weeks. Everywhere I went, everyone who looked at me would know instantly that I was Jewish. I’d immerse myself in the experience of public Judaism.
To lead me on this quest, I chose Sam Tarlin, the longtime manager of Kolbo Judaica in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sam has outfitted many of Boston’s Jews over the years and used to wear a kippa himself, until the sheer bulk of his Jewfro got in the way. His store carries a dizzying array of headgear, and they all made a different statement. The knit kippas were popular with both Conservative and Orthodox Jews, silken embroidered yarmulkes favored by wizened old zeides. The colorful Bukharan caps were usually favored by left-leaning, crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing types, and the felt ones were usually worn by yeshiva bochers, or seminary students. I pointed to one with the much-despised (in Boston, at least) New York Yankees logo and asked if it was kosher. “It doesn‘t matter what’s written on it; what matters is that your head is covered,” Sam told me. “Some people wear baseball caps.”
For a moment, I brightened at this loophole, but that would be missing the point. We were in Boston, where virtually every button-nosed Irish Catholic college kid within a hundred miles has at least one Red Sox hat. Finally, I chose a simple blue knit with gray and white embroidery around its perimeter. Looking in the mirror, I couldn’t even see evidence that I was wearing one, perched as it was on the back of my head.
Thus clad, I began firing questions at my kippa guru. “Does Jewish law require me to wear a kippa?” “Do I sleep in it?” “Do I have to take it off before going to the bathroom?” No, no, and no, Sam patiently answered. Believe it or not, there’s no Jewish law saying that you need to wear a kippa. It’s a custom, but it’s not a rule. “When you are wearing a kippa,” Sam explained, “you are representing world Jewry. So you are going to want to think twice before you act, before you shout at somebody in line at the bank or drive on the Sabbath or eat something that isn’t kosher. This is called marat ayin, causing someone to misunderstand Judaism.”
Out in the street I felt as if I had come out of hiding. My Semitic good looks notwithstanding, I always felt I blended nicely into my surroundings; in jeans and T-shirt, I was just one of the crowd. Now, everybody would know with absolute certainty that I was Jewish, and I wore the kippa with an unexpected mixture of pride and shame. At my mega-big-box gym, as I hung upside down in the Roman chair, abs straining, kippa clipped stubbornly to my head, I felt that I was a fraud, a joker wearing a Halloween costume. I was no more connected to God now than I had been a week earlier. I was a bit player from Central Casting who didn’t even know his lines. In my own paranoid mind, I imagined that people saw the worst in me as a kippa-wearing Jew: the rampaging Jewish settler, the sickly Torah scholar. What built-in biases led me to assume that others would see me in the most negative light? Were they guilty of marat ayin, or was I?
As the days wore on, I realized that it was not enemies of the Jewish people who were singling me out, but Jews. In the supermarket, in restaurants, at the Target store, they nodded at me, just a subtle, wordless signal acknowledging that we were members of the same tribe. It was as if I had finally learned an elusive secret handshake.
At dinner, my cousins Carol and Lewis laughed for a solid five minutes when they saw me in my knitted kippa. “Just don’t embarrass us and order pork,” patrician Lewis quipped, as he sipped his Dewar’s on ice. I’d never planned on keeping kosher as well; that was too much to take on all at once. I realized, as long as I wore the kippa, I would have to tread carefully—no sarcastic comments to shopkeepers, no flipping the bird to idiot drivers, and no pork. The reputation of world Jewry depended on my good behavior.
It was a relief to take off my kippa at the end of the week. I can’t say that I felt a greater spiritual connection to a higher being with my head covered, but I was conscious every minute as I wore the kippa that I was part of something bigger, that I was responsible to a greater community. I wouldn’t say wearing it made me a better man, but I was guided by the better angels of my nature, the way a muzzle keeps a junkyard dog from biting.
I knew religious Jewish women went to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to cleanse themselves after their periods (or for childbirth, conversion, or other major life changes). But I was only vaguely aware that the bath could purify men, too.
The tradition of ritual cleansing goes back thousands of years to its roots at the River Jordan. Historically speaking, mikveh was the most important cornerstone of any Jewish community, more important even than a synagogue, since according to some Jewish customs, men are expected to visit the mikveh before the sabbath. A bridegroom visits the mikveh the day of his wedding, and in some communities men must immerse themselves the evening after a nocturnal emission.
But the ritual of mikveh is also a symbol of personal transformation. And that’s what I wanted: a physical exercise that would bypass my judgmental brain and enter directly into my soul. I imagined the experience to be a sort of shadowy hazing ritual with bearded rabbis chanting incantations as I sank into a murky pool. But all I wanted was a spiritual dip into a clean pool, where I could offer myself honestly to the water, my body in vulnerable repose, prepared for metamorphosis into a better Jew. In the end, I tried both approaches, murky and clean.
Beth Pinchas in Brookline is the only exclusively male mikveh in the Boston area. Seat of the renowned Hasidic Bostoner Rebbe, Beth Pinchas is part of the New England Chassidic Center and caters to the pious adherents of all 613 of God’s commandments. Following the biblical injunction for men to ritually immerse before the Sabbath, I visited early one Friday.
I felt like I had stepped into another century as I trudged, towel and soap in tow, through the mutterings of morning prayers. In my sweatpants and T-shirt, I couldn’t have stood out more from the men praying in their black suits and hats, but they looked right through me as if the material world I represented was nothing more than a gust of wind. Tucked away in the basement, the mikveh room was damp and dingy, equipped with two dripping, moldy shower stalls and a small greenish pool beneath jaundiced fluorescent lights. A sign announced that for the sake of good health, no asbestos was being used on the premises. The room was heavy with the stink of chlorine, so I dunked quickly, mumbled an approximation of a prayer and got the hell out of there. I felt neither spiritually nor physically clean after my perfunctory dunking, and I rushed home to take a hot, soapy shower, wondering why anybody would ever want to submit to such a ritual.
On the opposite end of the mikveh spectrum is the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh, which is more day spa than bathhouse. Mayyim Hayyim is sort of a new age-y counterbalance to rigid Jewish orthodoxy. “Mikveh immersion is presently going through a revival among non-Orthodox Jews. A lot of people want to acknowledge change with Jewish ritual,” Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director, explained. “For people who have not found fulfillment in studying Torah but are hungry for something meaningful and powerful and rich, this can really meet a need. And you don’t have to speak a lick of Hebrew, or know the weekly Torah portion; you don’t have to wear a kippa.” Perfect, I thought. Sign me up.
I arrived early the day of my immersion to shower, clean my nails and ears, brush and floss my teeth, blow my nose, empty my bladder, and remove my wedding ring and glasses. I was to be as naked as the day I was born, without anything on my body marking rank or status.
But I also needed to prepare my spirit. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote, “If a man immerses himself, but without special intention, it is as though he had not immersed himself at all.” As I stood naked before the mirror in the preparation room, my penis bearing silent witness like a bearded sage, I thought about the transition that immersion in the mikveh would help me mark that day: the shift from incorrigible slacker to (hopefully) responsible father.
With its soft ambient lighting, heated tile floors, and shimmering waters, the bath could have been a hot tub at a luxury hotel; in such a setting one would not have been surprised to see a bottle of Cristal lounging expectedly in a bucket of ice, Al Green’s “Lets Stay Together,” playing softly in the background.
I unwrapped myself from a pure white sheet and descended the seven steps into the pool. The water was warm, almost viscous. I was reminded of Kline’s words equating the mikveh with the womb, how for a brief moment in a floating state, not interacting with life, not breathing, you are surrounded by God. As required, I recited the short blessing for immersing provided beside the pool. I felt the waters soft against my body, and thought of my son in utero. At that moment, I was experiencing some facsimile of everything he knew of this world. I bobbed to the surface, and recited another prayer, this time the shehechiyanu. Dunking a third time, I recalled a midrash about how unborn babies hold the answers to every mystery in the universe, and I wanted to stay there just a little longer to learn some secret that was just beyond my grasp, a secret my unborn son now knew and would soon forget forever. Then I remembered Kline’s caveat that the mikveh is also “like a little taste of death—and then rebirth.” And I released my breath and popped to the surface for the last time and recited the prayer again, wondering whether I had left a shell of the old me sinking slowly to the bottom of the pool.
Driving home, warm in the afterglow, I knew that something had shifted in me —not a sea change tsunami of the soul, but something more subtle, like a minute hand moving one click closer to the hour. I hadn’t changed one bit at Beth Pinchas; I was too distracted by the chlorine, the mold, and the lurid surroundings. In the bath at Mayyim Hayyim, though, the silence had allowed my subconscious to crack open, just a little. I relate best to the world through my fiction, so maybe it was no surprise that what crept though was the idea for my next short story.
When it comes to negotiating my way through life, I’ve always been hesitant to ask for my pound of flesh, which may explain why I haven’t fulfilled my mother’s dream of becoming a lawyer. It’s also why—as my father, the lawyer, loves to point out—I didn’t earn my first dollar until I’d reached my late twenties. If I was so determined to be a Person of the Book, he wanted to know, why couldn’t I write at least one bestselling blockbuster, like his favorite writers Herman Wouk and Leon Uris?
As I write this, my first collection of short stories is the 1,161,399th best-selling book on Amazon.com. So I have written a bestseller, technically. But my book netted just a four-figure advance, and a few years ago I earned a total of $8,500 as a freelance writer and teacher. Now that my son has arrived, tearing locust-like through formula and diapers, I wonder how I am ever going to give him what he deserves—which is, of course, everything.
If you believe the popular stereotype, Jews are supposed to drive hard bargains, especially when money is concerned. But when my wife and I bought our first home, we settled right away on the asking price, afraid we might lose our dream house if we put up a fuss. I’ve given away short stories simply for the privilege of publication, traveled at my own expense to do free book readings, and, when I do get paid, I’ve waited with the patience of Job for the check to appear in my mailbox. I know I’m never going to earn a lot of money, but I should at least know how to cut a decent deal.
Clearly, I needed someone to unleash my inner macher. So I went to see Moshe Cohen, president of The Negotiating Table, a Boston-area company specializing in mediation skills and conflict management. Cohen teaches a course on negotiation at Boston University’s School of Management and has advised many large corporations. He charges a hefty fee, but I stood my ground and refused to pay it—at least I would have, but it never came up.
Much to my relief, Cohen insisted that I wasn’t alone: he has seen plenty of Jews like me, Jews who are not good at getting what they want. Cohen, who was born in Israel, said that my problem has a lot to do with growing up in North America. “Anywhere outside of the US and Canada,” he said, “people are always negotiating everything.” As immigrants, previous generations of Jews brought that wheeler-dealer mentality with them. It had long been a survival skill. The fact that Jews historically could not own land drove them into professions such as banking, money-lending, and commerce, all of which consist mainly of prolonged haggling. And, of course, Jews have been negotiating with a silent God for thousands of years praying for Redemption.
In a typical Jewish household, particularly at mealtime, opinions, questions, and challenges fly back and forth with ferocious intensity, creating a sort of minor-league negotiating table where all family members are free to take a stance and swing. And they do, often simultaneously. I think back to the Passover Seders of my youth. When the family elder asked how much I wanted for finding the Afikomen, it was a signal to me that a battle of wills was underway. My opening—and only—gambit: shrug my shoulders and proclaim that I haven’t got a clue. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.
Determined to toughen me up, Cohen left me with this challenge: find ten people who would say “no” to me. It may seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that it is much easier to get a “yes” than a “no.” Most people don’t want conflict.
But getting what you want, I soon learned, sometimes requires little more than a healthy dose of chutzpah: I asked a former teacher to read a manuscript I’d been struggling with. I asked several synagogues for a speaking fee that could keep my son in diapers for a few more months. I called a small publisher and asked him to take a second look at a revision of my novel that he’d previously rejected. To my astonishment, everyone complied.
I realized suddenly that all of life is a negotiation, and before I knew it I was asking for and receiving an extra potato with lunch at IKEA, a lower rate at a Washington hotel, free babysitting passes at my gym, and erasure of my small library fine. It may be literally small potatoes, but I was becoming a winner. I could feel my confidence grow by the day—I could make things happen simply through sheer force of will.
That doesn’t mean that everyone says “yes” right away. When I tried to return a dangerous baby gift—a mobile of tangled fishing wire, sold under the insane logic that it’s safe as long as the baby doesn’t play with it—I came face to face with a surly store owner. At first, she flat-out refused me. But a successful negotiator must go back again and again, Cohen counseled, adding that by the third request, the person being asked is either really annoyed or says yes. I took Cohen’s advice to remain silent after making a request, challenging her to speak first; the first to speak is likely to capitulate. And she did.
I felt I could accomplish anything using Cohen’s rules. Well, almost anything. I can’t say “No” to my baby son, and my mother still calls me ten times a day like it or not. I can use every one of Cohen’s tactics on them, and they don’t budge. They’ve got my unconditional love, and they aren’t afraid to use it against me.
When I told my wife that we would be observing Shabbat as the next step on my quest to become a better Jew, she acted as if I had announced I was leaving the Tribe to become a Buddhist. She assured me that she would always love me, adding, “I’ll miss you.”We’ve both always felt like the Shomer Shabbat live in a different world, one we associate with the ultra-Orthodox we’d seen as twentysomethings in Jerusalem. Back then, the weekly sounding of the Shabbat siren meant another day of forced abstention and deprivation. Buses stopped running; shops and restaurants were closed. It was a wasted day. But I found ways to adapt. Learning that Domino’s Pizza delivered on Friday nights, my roommate and I spent our Sabbaths in front of the television, watching poorly dubbed kung fu movies as we polished off a box of wine. We even discovered a bar that sold Palestinian beer and bacon and cheese sandwiches, and close to sunrise, we stumbled drunkenly home to our apartment as the streets filled with the faithful on their way to synagogue for morning prayers.
But as forever-fatigued parents, my wife and I typically flop into bed well before 10. Since we don’t do anything on Friday nights, I reasoned, we might as well try keeping Shabbat. My wife only agreed after I promised that we wouldn’t spend the week tearing toilet paper in preparation.
Rabbi Arthur Green, a Reconstructionist rabbi and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, seemed a little wary of my quest to become the Perfect Jew. He agreed to meet with me, but only after I’d read an article he’d authored about sacred time and sacred space. “Shabbat,” he wrote, “the day of holiness and rest, is the central religious institution of the Jewish people.”
As I absorbed his words, I realized I had brought a misguided mindset to my quest. I had worn a kippa for the shallowest external reasons, making a fashion statement rather than taking a spiritual leap. I had dunked in the mikveh because it sounded fun; I had learned to negotiate because I wanted to feel like a big shot. As for Shabbat, I had mocked it as an outmoded tradition that was strictly the domain of religious obsessives. But I soon realized that observance of the Sabbath has historically been the most obvious sign of being Jewish. By ignoring it, I was arrogantly rejecting centuries of tradition and wisdom because I was too lazy to learn what it was all about. Much to my relief, Rabbi Green understood my concerns that Shabbat observance had been hijacked by a certain population of Jews. But he favors a more liberal interpretation of Shabbat and has created his own list of Shabbat dos and don’ts.
Why would a committed secularist like myself want to keep Shabbat? “We are living through one of the great ages of the speeding up of consciousness,” the rabbi told me. “Just watch kids following those little critters across the screen on video games. The idea that we have to turn the screen off and be face-to-face and talk to live people across a table might be revolutionary a generation from now.”
Shabbat, as I learned, is a social institution, built into Judaism so that we have time to rest and reconstitute ourselves. And I would need that rest, because getting ready for Shabbat was the most stressful event since my son’s birth. It took me nearly five hours to shop and prepare enough food for Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch, to tape over light switches so that I wouldn’t inadvertently break the Sabbath, set timers for lights, craft a spice box out of tinfoil and cloves, hide my telephones, and tear myself away from the Internet. Lastly, I had to remember to turn my oven down to 200° and leave it on so that we’d have warm food at lunch the next day.
When Friday night arrived, something amazing happened: I heard silence, true silence, for the first time in a long time, as if my house had taken a breath and let out a deep sigh. We enjoyed a quiet dinner with friends, and my wife and her college friend geeked out like a couple of day-school veterans and sang Hebrew songs after the meal. As we slid into bed, I remembered what Rabbi Green told me about having sex on Shabbat: it’s actually a double mitzvah. And, in the darkness of our bedroom, I had no difficulty fulfilling that mitzvah. Without the distractions of my nightly podcast and my wife’s New York Times crossword, I followed Rabbi Green’s advice to the letter.
As we walked to our local synagogue the next morning, it was as if we had stepped out of history, out of a woodcut etching; a tall slim kippa-wearing Jew and his wife and baby, trudging timelessly to synagogue. Though Rabbi Green had said we were not required to pray on Shabbat, we felt that we should visit our local synagogue for the first time. It took over an hour for a minyan to gather in the traditional egalitarian shul, and aside from two or three others, we were the youngest people in the joint by almost fifty years.
And as we sat listening to the charmingly archaic Ashkenazi pronunciation of the rabbi, I realized that though time may slow down that day, the hours and days would keep moving forward and before long these few faithful souls would be gone and the synagogue would stand empty. I didn’t want that to happen, because somehow I knew I would be losing a small part of myself. Though we had never met these people, we were greeted as family, and I was invited up to the bima, to say the blessing over the Torah portion. It was the first time I had done so since my bar mitzvah.
When we arrived home, the computer inside our goyish oven had turned itself off, not understanding that we Jews actually like to eat lukewarm chicken and potatoes at Shabbat luncheon. And as the day came to an end and we smelled the spices intended to bring us back to the regular week, I realized that in observing Shabbat I had not bound myself to meaningless regulations; on the contrary, I had unbound myself from the siren call of commerce, technology, and pop culture. I felt that I could think without the static of the modern world filling my head like a hive of buzzing bees.
A week later, as I found myself navigating my diaper-laden supersized shopping cart through the hellish morass of Costco’s Saturday rush hour, I felt a longing for that inner peace I had discovered within me. I tried to remember the words I had recited on the bima just a week before, hoping for a booster shot of Shabbat serenity. But they were already lost to me.
In my short story “There is No Other,” a child dressed up as Mohammed for a school Purim party sings The Aleinu with otherworldly precision as the class gapes at the live dynamite strapped to his chest. It is a provocative story, possibly one of my best, but I’m ashamed to say that even as this seventh grader upbraids his classmates for not knowing the words to this central prayer, I had to search the book Judaism For Dummies to find its meaning.
My fictional doppelgängers know how to pray, but I don’t. So I decided to change that, if not for the sake of my soul, then at least to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Going to synagogue had always felt vaguely punitive to me. I thought that everyone knew I was a fraudulent Jew. I didn’t know the prayers, I didn’t know the music, and I didn’t know when to sit or when to stand. I was lost among my own people.
In all seven stories in my first collection, characters engage in prayer; the title of my novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood, references the unetanah tokef, a prayer central to the High Holiday liturgy. The old aphorism says you should write what you know, but some deep-seated yearning within myself, it seems, has had me write what I want to know.
I needed to try services out for myself, to make it meaningful in the practical sense. I arrived at the small chapel at Temple Beth Israel for morning minyan with my 13- month-old cradled in one arm, a borrowed tallit and tefillin set in the other. It was five minutes before 7 and his daycare didn’t begin until 8:30, so he was going to join me in synagogue, like it or not. The three or four faithful already gathered smiled at the presence of a child nearly an entire lifetime younger than they were, and I realized immediately that our attendance at this small gathering was somehow life- affirming—an acknowledgment that their little prayer group could continue beyond their lives.
The leather straps of the tefillin had always reminded me of outré bondage wear, or a junkie tying off his next fix. I had only worn them a few times in my life, when I had been waylaid by mitzvah-counting Lubavitchers in the streets of New York and Jerusalem. I was assisted by Morris Hollender, a grandfatherly Old World elder who led services most days with his thick Yiddish accent. As he wound the straps around my left arm, I noticed the faintly blurred blue tattoo on his own left arm.
I read Hebrew at a strictly remedial level, and I found that by the time I had worked my way to the second line of each prayer, everyone else had moved on to the next page. But as I returned to prayer services each week, I realized that I was picking up just a little more, and that the tunes became familiar and that I missed going to services on the Tuesday when minyan wasn’t held. I don’t know if I felt any sort of spiritual connection as I struggled through the prayers, but I did feel a connection on a deeply human level as my son and I were greeted each morning by Morris and the others, and when I was asked whether I would come the next day to mark the yahrzeit of Morris’ wife’s family. My presence counted in a way that it never had at larger synagogues. Most days we didn’t even have a minyan, and others I served as the tenth man, allowing us to open the ark and remove the Torah. And yes, I did return the next morning and I stumbled through the Kaddish as best I could as Mrs. Hollender wiped away tears.
Even though he wouldn’t count as part of the minyan for another twelve years, it was the presence of my son who brought smiles to the face of Morris and the others as he quietly played beside the bima. Morris told me that he had survived the tortures of Auschwitz, and that he and his wife had never had children. I was reminded of the words from Deuteronomy found inside the tefillin box, “and you shall teach [these words] to your children,” and I realized that in some way, every Jewish child who carried on the traditions would honor Morris Hollender’s past, and that my son Zev, little “Velveleh,” was his hope.
One morning during services, Morris Hollender knelt down in the nearly empty chapel next to my son, found a tefillin case on the seat behind him, and placed it on Zev’s forehead between his eyes. “It looks good,” Morris smiled sadly. “Too bad he isn’t 13.”
A version of this essay previously appeared in the column “The Perfect Jew” for Jewcy.com.
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