I was recently asked, “Sal, what kind of Jew are you?” It was not a rhetorical question.
Two years ago, I started blogging for the Jewish Journal of LA as the Accidental Talmudist, based on my unlikely quest to read the entire Babylonian Talmud over a seven-and-a-half year period. I say unlikely because I’m a filmmaker by trade, with no formal Jewish education beyond my disco-era bar mitzvah.
I started a Facebook page to promote the blog, and that turned out to be a wonderfully direct way to speak with, and hear from, my readers.
I post six days a week, sharing bits of ancient wisdom from the Talmud and other traditional Jewish sources, as well as faith-affirming items of history, humor, and personal observations.
I’m constantly surprised by how much interest the Facebook page generates — 110,000 followers as I write this — and growing at about 500 per day.
I’m truly honored that people want to know more about me, but does it matter whether I’m Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Other?
I never claimed to be a rabbi, and I do not issue rulings.
People often ask for me for advice, and I opine if I can, but I start by reminding them that I have no authority.
When I quote G-d, prophets, sages, or more modern rabbis and teachers, I try to cite my sources so my readers can learn as I do. I do not speak for a movement, and I think I make that pretty clear.
Nevertheless, some people always want to know, “Sal, what kind of Jew are you?”
I don’t have a simple answer.
I can say I’m a lot more observant now than I was growing up: I was born in Chile, moved to America when I was five, attended public schools in New York, and went to Hebrew school two afternoons a week to prepare for my bar mitzvah.
I liked Hanukkah, but dreaded Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — how many pages until we eat?
I was always proud to be Jewish, but I didn’t connect with Judaism. I felt my parents were doing the rituals because they didn’t want the tradition to end with them.
It was only years later that I discovered how inspiring, ingenious, evolved, and elevating our tradition can be, and I have sought to strengthen and deepen my connection to G-d through Judaism ever since.
I’m especially drawn to great teachers and I’ve found them in all branches of our faith. I serve on the board of a Conservative synagogue, and my children attend its day school. Our rabbis are brilliant mensches, and I love praying with them and our congregation. Our shul is home to the Library Minyan, a well-known, lay-led congregation that’s literally packed with prominent rabbis, professors, writers, rabbinical/cantorial students, and Jewish educators.
So you could say I’m a Conservative or Masorti Jew, but that doesn’t sum me up. We keep a kosher home and spend a lot of time in shul, which is not entirely typical in the Conservative movement. I also pray in Orthodox shuls often, and learn with Haredi rabbis. (“Haredi” is usually translated as Ultra-Orthodox, but I find that term demeaning. It also fails to describe people who seek nearness to G-d in all aspects of their lives.)
We unplug on Shabbat, my wife bakes challah every Friday, and we’re slowly taking on more and more observances that seemed foreign to us when our journey began.
Why aren’t we Orthodox? Perhaps we’re just not ready yet. We’ve watched people get too religious too quickly and burn out. I’m also uncomfortable with certain Orthodox ideas.
Yet we are very comfortable with the most Orthodox principles: G-d made the world, G-d runs the world, G-d gave us Torah, and G-d’s universe is both loving and just, even though our lives may not be.
I believe with all my heart that there is a reason why the righteous sometimes suffer in this world and the wicked often prosper, even though I may never understand it.
So perhaps I am Conservadox.
I like to pray in utter stillness, meditating on an idea that brings me closer to G-d, even while the congregation races on around me.
I like to sing and dance with abandon, rising together with those around me and approaching G-d along a more tribal route.
Perhaps I’m a Renewal Jew. I can’t be sure because I haven’t visited a synagogue affiliated with that movement, but I love the idea of bringing all my intellect, education, experience, spirit, musicality, doubts, and questions with me as I practice our tradition, and I know that rabbis of all stripes would recommend exactly that.
So I suppose the most honest answer is that I’m a complicated Jew, and as far as I can tell, that’s the biggest denomination of all.