Chris Farrar (Columbus, OH)
I’ve been Jewish all my life, but for the first 17 years I didn’t know it. It’s fair to say that I didn’t really know what “Jewish” was. In fact, once when I was 8 or so, I went with a friend to Mass, and then told his mother – to her great delight – that I was definitely going to be Catholic.
Well wouldn’t she be surprised.
My father was raised Baptist but really had no interest in religion. My mother’s family was Jewish, but very secular.
I, my sister and brother were raised without any religion or religious connection. Due to my father’s influence, I imagine, we always had a Christmas tree, we went on Easter egg hunts and generally did the things that Christian families did. But nothing Jewish.
I grew up without any of the normal Jewish childhood experiences. No Yom Kippur. No synagogue. No Passover. No summer camp. “David melech yisrael” would have been just a string of sounds in a catchy tune.
It was as if my mother’s Jewish heritage didn’t exist.
So here’s what happened.
Some time in the middle of high school I underwent knee surgery and had to stay home for several days. After exhausting all the science fiction in the house I was desperate for something to read. The only thing I could find was “The Source” by James Michener.
This novel takes place in Israel in the early 60s. It looks at the history of the Jews through the lens of an archaeological dig. The site is a fictitious tel named “Makor.” In Hebrew the word means “source.”
When I finished that book I knew I was Jewish and I grabbed at it with both hands. I read book after book on the history of the Jews. I took courses. I even joined the Jewish Defense League for a while, until I came to understand them better.
Later I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and learned Hebrew. I taught it at the university as a TA. I married a wonderful Jewish woman and raised three amazing Jewish children. And now there’s a Jewish son-in-law and a new generation of Jewish grandchildren.
Early in my relationship with Judaism, after I returned from Israel, it seemed to me that the only way to be Jewish was to be ultra-Orthodox. The Chasidim were the saving remnant, the keepers of the sacred flame. I moved into the Lubavitcher Chabad House at UCLA. I put on tefillin every morning. I kept kosher. I kept the Sabbath.
This lasted a month. At the end of the month I knew I couldn’t be Jewish in that way. I wasn’t even sure I believed in God. Not, at any rate, the way I needed to in order to live the Lubavitcher life. That wasn’t going to be my connection to Judaism.
Instead, as it has developed over the years, my connection has been to the Hebrew language, to the holidays, to my family and to the history of the Bible and of the land of Israel as understood through the perspective of archaeology.
On Yom Kippur we think of it as repentance.
What it really means is “return.”
For me it’s been a return to a history that is my history, to a language that is my language and to a land that is my land.
And it’s a return to a book of writings so compelling in its message that it has become the foundation of our whole concept of the obligations of our shared humanity.
And for me, more even than this, it means a return to wonder.
Who were these people, my ancestors? How did they live? How did they think? They were a tiny outpost of humanity, living in a poor nation, smaller than many US counties. They were ravaged horribly by powerful nations, not once but over and over again. They lost their Temple and their sacred city but somehow, uniquely among ancient peoples, they didn’t lose their God.
How did they, among all peoples, develop the moral, ethical and spiritual foundation now embraced by half the world’s population?
If they could see how the power of their belief has cascaded down the centuries, what would they think of it? What would they think of the re-emergence of their nation in its own land, of the resurrection of their language?
Would they recognize their God? Would they see Him in the miracles of the Tanakh? Would they see Him in the rebirth of the land of Israel? Would they see Him in the spread of their vision through Christianity and Islam?
Or maybe they would see Him in the way a day of teenage boredom can change a person irrevocably, sending reverberations not only down the decades of his own life but also down the lives of generations to come.
So, back to t’shuvah. Return.
Not just a return to history; but rather, perhaps, a return to the future.
Chris Farrar grew up in southern California, earned a doctorate in linguistics, and worked in technology marketing and, eventually, in data analytics. His first novel, By the Waters of Babylon, follows twelve-year-old Ya’el as she’s deported to Babylon after the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The novel is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books. If you’d like to learn more about Chris and his work, visit his website: christopherfarrar.com.