My daughter is taking swimming lessons at the Jewish Community Center and I tagged along for the first time this weekend.
Thankfully the JCC does not test ones Jewishness as an admittance requirement. Although the facility caters to the Jewish community, it is available to anyone. Despite my Jewish credentials, had there been some sort of Yiddish quiz, or persecution-complex test, I would have most probably failed it. I'm what my Jewish acquaintances refer to as a "bad Jew".
Once upon a time I was a Jew in good standing. Our family would attend synagogue on a semi-regular basis and I was dutifully sent to Sunday school each week where I learned some Hebrew and lessons from the Old Testament and the Torah. Once I was 12, my lessons got bumped to twice a week so that I could prepare for my Bar Mitzvah.
Although my parents weren't religious, they felt it was important for me to have this cultural grounding. They felt Jewish and wanted to pass that onto their kids. I didn't quite understand it, but I was an obedient kid, so off I went.
Going to synagogue was torturous for me. I never really felt that whole "God" thing and it certainly didn't help that half the ceremony was in Hebrew. Maybe they're doing a better job of marketing Judaism to kids these days. There's probably Extreme Torah Reading and large chalices of Mountain Dew in which to dunk your challah. Back in my day, however, it was just like being lectured to, for an hour or two, in a foreign language.
The Bar Mitzvah was a whole other kind of torture. In this ceremony, where a 13 year-old boy is suddenly declared to be a man, the boy has to sing a section of the Torah and give a sermon. Considering that this required several skills that I did not possess (i.e. reading Hebrew and singing), this was challenging for me. Thankfully the Rabbi gave me a recording of my Torah section to listen to and an English explanation of the text.
Typically kids who aren't good at reading Hebrew prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs by learning how to read Hebrew. For some reason, I decided that was a poor strategy. Instead, I decided to memorize the series of meaningless sounds on the Rabbi's recording. I don't know if you're familiar with Hebrew, but it seems to mostly consist of a bizarre "HCH" sound, similar to the last sound in the word "Blech". Like that, but an entire language of it.
So, anyway, I spent weeks playing this damn tape. I'd play a few seconds of the Blech singing, practice, rewind, listen, and repeat. Eventually I learned the entire thing, which was probably about 5 minutes long. I also had to make up a sermon to go with it. I believe the topic was personal responsiblity. Inexplicably, I crafted a speech about picking your dog's crap, thrilled that I was able to use the phrase "pooper scooper" in front of the the entire congregation. This was high comedy to my 13 year-old brain (and still elicits a minor chuckle from my near 40 year-old brain).
I made it through the ceremony, only mildly embarrassing my parents. While I chanted my unintelligible and bewildering throaty syllables, the Rabbi followed along, pointing to the words in the Torah as I sang them. He was unaware of my complete inability to make use of his assistance (I think).
Days later my parents sat me down for a talk. To the best of my recollection, this was the conversation:
Parent X: Mike, now that your Bar Mitzvah is over, you get to decide what you want to do about Sunday Sch...
Me: I want to quit!
Parent X: ool. Take your time and think about...
Me: I WANT TO QUIT!
Parent X: whether you want to continue your education.
Me: QUIT QUIT QUIT!
Parent X: You could decide to finish up this year and
Me: Nope. I quit!
Parent X: ...
Me: I quitty quit quitterstein!
Parent X: You're finishing this year. THEN you can quit.
After that year, aside from one poorly thought-out attempt to pick up Jewish chicks in college, I never set foot inside a synagogue or Jewish-themed building again. That streak came to an end when I visited the JCC this weekend.
Although the JCC was a perfectly nice place, I don't quite get the idea of having a large complex, a jewplex if you will, for a community of people. I mean, I get the idea of having a synogogue, or a meeting room, or even a nice deli, but why do religious groups need their own yoga classes or swimming pools? I guess I just don't feel the sense of community that would cause me to post an ad on Craigslist that said, "Looking for swimming buddies. NO FORESKINS!"
Regardless, the JCC accepts us all. I thank them with guarded appreciation.