An Unaffiliated Jew: How I Got Religion

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University of Baltimore MFA student Ellen Hartley describes her stint in Hebrew school, the scandal that rocked her temple, and the pivotal personal decision she made at age 15.

I am an unaffiliated Jew. I wasn’t always. I became an unaffiliated Jew in 1956 when I was 15.

Before that I had felt comfortable within the fairly relaxed Jewish framework in which I’d grown up. My parents came from an Orthodox background of Eastern European immigrants. Their families kept kosher and observed the whole shebang. My mother officially left the fold as a teenager, when she and her cousin Ethel sneaked out of Yom Kippur services and went to a luncheonette for their first ham sandwich. When my parents married, they moved 250 miles away and dropped the Orthodoxy. Our refrigerator regularly held sliced ham for sandwiches; oddly, my mother drew the line at bacon, which she claimed made her ill. I remember my father making bacon and sausages for my brother and me on Sundays when my mother slept late. We’d run the exhaust fans so the “porky” odors would be extinguished.

When I was young we lived in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of D.C. My parents joined the Arlington Jewish Center, where I attended Sunday school. It was a modest, neighborhood-y kind of place in an old converted church. I don’t recall anything particularly religious other than dressing up as Queen Esther for Purim (all the girls were Queen Esther). Once my mother tore into Rabbi Sod for referring to “sin” in his sermon; “Jews don’t believe in sin!” she declared. My mother could be ferociously persuasive – “sin” was thenceforth banished from his oratory.

When I was 10 we moved into D.C. and became members of Adas Israel, a prominent Conservative synagogue. Since I had missed the first two years of Hebrew school, I was tutored privately to catch up with my class (grade 3, or “Gimel,” the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet), which I was soon able to join. We each chose a Hebrew name — mine was “Esther,” not after the eponymous Queen, but because at birth the family had dubbed me “Esther Ralya,” after two great-grandmothers who’d recently died (a common Jewish practice). My birth certificate, however, contains my English name, Ellen Rhea.

In class I enjoyed parsing ancient Hebrew and gobbled up its idiosyncrasies (when Noah builds the ark, God “clouds a cloud” to bring on the flood). My friends and I found it hysterically funny that the Hebrew word for “tent” is ohell – “Oh, hell!” we’d cry with fervor. It was fun to learn a language which reads backwards – i.e. right to left – and I became rather proficient in sounding out the biblical text, even though I didn’t understand much of it. Astoundingly, some 60 years later I can still recite the first line of Genesis: Borayshis boroh Adenoi es ha shomaim va es haw oretz (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth) – vivid in my memory.

A few years later we Hebrew students were required to attend Saturday morning services. I didn’t have a problem with that, other than a slight resentment that my parents wouldn’t join me – apparently they’d had quite enough Jewish education as kids, now it was my turn.

“Why me?” I demanded.

“We want you to learn about your religion,” they said, “so you can choose for yourself whether or how to practice it.”

That made sense and I didn’t press the issue. I liked studying the language and Jewish history, though I was somewhat put off by the customs (like keeping kosher) which we didn’t observe at home. The members of the congregation were a mixed bunch, ritually speaking – some kept kosher and most didn’t.

The Saturday morning services might have been boring, except for the music. By my teens music was integral to my life – I was playing flute in a reputable community orchestra and spent several summers at music camp. The synagogue’s cantor, Jacob Barkin (Jack to his peers), had a gorgeous tenor voice, and I would shut my eyes and daydream as I listened to his chanting – my version of prayer. Did I believe in God? Who was God anyway? My parents and teachers were vague on the concept of the Almighty – God the Father? God the Redeemer? God the Prime Mover?  The question didn’t bother me – Judaism, outside of the Orthodox version, seemed flexible on the issue. I certainly believed in music – by then my gods were Bach and Mozart – and no one seemed to care whether I prayed or daydreamt during the service. Apparently just showing up was sufficient to affirm my Jewishness. So I put in my weekly appearances, basking in Cantor Barkin’s luxurious tenor.

I wasn’t the only one to appreciate his voice. The Washington opera company featured him in the very first opera I attended – a summer outdoor performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Barkin played the seductive Duke of Mantua, and though his craggy face and beefy exterior didn’t exactly fit the part, he carried it off through the magnificence of his singing. Art may well imitate life, but in this case it was the other way around – the following year Cantor Barkin was kicked out of the synagogue for sleeping with the rabbi’s wife (I think she was the rabbi’s wife, in any case someone important). Obviously, despite his homely appearance, he carried his lustful charm beyond the opera stage. Whereupon a huge scandal fell upon the face of the temple, and the temple gods said,” Verily, let him be cast out.” But no sooner did the synagogue door shut, another promptly opened. Jack Barkin moved to Pittsburgh, where he became the leading tenor in the Pittsburgh Opera. Poetic justice as far as I was concerned. Music was no doubt his God also.

The scandal may have shocked the congregation, but it didn’t rock my affiliation with the Jewish faith. Saturday services lacked the magic of Barkin’s reign (I can’t even remember who replaced him) but the chants were still soothing, and I was able to maintain my dreamy meditation. So despite my dubious “belief,” I remained a member of the flock.

A year later that would all change.

Judah Abramowitz, an aggressive trial lawyer who taught Hebrew school on the side, ran the class on Jewish laws and customs. My memory pictures him as a tall, bony figure with thinning black hair and a perpetual smirk. A good teacher, though. As long as he stuck to factual history I had no complaints. The “shalts” and “shalt nots” were more problematic. It was fascinating to learn about the huge 16th-century Jewish settlement in Recife, Brazil. We discussed the origin of keeping men’s heads covered in the synagogue. Then we came to the laws of kashrut. We were well aware that pork and shellfish were prohibited, but who knew about insects? About rabbits and camels! As I’ve mentioned, most of the congregation did not observe the dietary laws. So when Mr. Abramowitz declared that according to Jewish law, eating treyf (non-kosher) was sinful, my hackles were raised. I remembered my mother’s successful challenge to Rabbi Sod, years ago, on the subject of sin. I told Mr. Abrams it was a Christian concept. “Perhaps ‘sin’ was an unfortunate choice of word,” he admitted. He meant simply that observing kashrut was a necessary rule of Jewish practice. How necessary? Did he keep kosher? He said he did.

Some weeks later I was out to dinner with my parents at Duke Ziebert’s, our favorite restaurant.   As I lifted a luscious chunk of roast duck to my mouth, I chanced to glance around the room. Two tables over sat an unfamiliar woman with – of all people – Mr. Abramowitz from my Hebrew class. He couldn’t be – but, yes he was – engaged in retrieving the meat from the claw of a lobster. Outraged at the hypocracy, I charged over to his table, glared him in the face, and exclaimed,” Why, Mr. Abramowitz, you’re eating a lobster!” He turned as red as the creature he was devouring.

“Oh, Ellen!” my mother cried, her face reddening as well, “how could you embarrass us like that?” Secretly, though, I suspect she was proud of me.

That was it. I quit the class. I was through with Judaism. I would follow my own path. To this day I choose not to affiliate with any organized religion – I’ve relinquished the cushions of tradition and “security” to risk finding my own way. So far it’s worked. I’m 73 and I’ve never been tempted to rejoin the fold.


Ellen Hartley is a nonfiction writer, currently enrolled in the MFA program at UB. When her career as a professional flutist failed to pay the rent, she became a lawyer and served as Assistant State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. She has also taught at Towson University and written music reviews for local papers.

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