I'm a Catholic, but for many years I've had a deep love and interest in Jewish religious life and culture. The Hebrew scriptures are a constant inspiration and challenge. I find the creative reading on display in rabbinical literature to be a delight. The tradition that has been preserved and also allowed to grow and develop is so rich. And yet, I look at it all as an outsider. I went to the Ninth of Av event that was held at Green-Wood Cemetery and it was profoundly moving and meaningful and I feel so grateful that I was able to participate. And it leads me to ask, how can a non-Jew like myself find respectful ways to participate in Jewish life?
It sounds, to me, like you're doing exactly what you ought to be doing: finding Jewish events that are open to people of different backgrounds and faiths, and participating with curiosity and respect.
As I read and re-read your question, I can't help but wonder what I ought to be doing, the questions that I should be asking to make sure that you feel welcome and included.
Because at the heart of your question is a feeling that I understand, and that I think many others do as well, the question of being an outsider and trying to find a way in. Though it is specific to not being Jewish in your circumstance, I can assure you that many Jews feel the same way, and articulate a very similar search for an entry point.
A Catholic friend recently asked me if I ever felt bad or envious, growing up, that I didn’t celebrate Christmas. I didn’t. I admired the lit tree, and the smell of pine needles and the general cheer surrounding the holiday, but I didn’t feel left out of that.
I felt outside of something much larger.
My brother and I were two of less than a handful of Jews at a small creative high school where Christian rituals were woven into our curriculum. Several of my friends were daughters and sons of Reverends and Pastors. It was a kind-hearted and warm community where we observed the Advent, performed a Shepherds play and sang Mozart’s Requiem at a cathedral in France.
It was knowing that I was an “other” that drew me towards my own faith; I often wonder without that feeling, if I would have gravitated so strongly towards a tradition that wasn’t practiced with much observance prior to that point.
I studied comparative religion in college, reading the Gospels, Lao Tzu, the Islamic mystical poets, Rumi and Hafez; I loved mining through these texts in the safety of an academic setting, where I didn’t feel so foreign.
The truth is I feel a deep kinship with the sentiment that you express in this letter. I feel a connection to people who share a curiosity for ritual, and faith and tradition. Their one of origin, or another where they find meaning.
Respectful, you’ve identified something in this world that helps you feel anchored, that makes you curious and connected and inspires you to search.
One of the most moving sights that I’ve witnessed is riding on the subway on Ash Wednesday and seeing commuters, in their business attire, with the grey smear of ash on their forehead. Though some of our expressions of faith vary, I feel so joined in these moments and grateful for how much we can share and learn from one another.
I feel blessed that you want to do so along side me, and I will do my best to make you feel welcome there.