For more than 40 years, my Jewish heritage was the farthest thing from my conscious mind, even though my background is stronger than most. Both my parents and my beloved aunt were graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute. I went to the Yeshivah of Flatbush for eight years, then attended Marshalea Hebrew High School and Camp Ramah, took two long trips to Israel (last in 1960) and spent one year at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
None of these early experiences (except the second trip to Israel) was my choice. After 20 years, I had enough. The world called out to me. The spirit of the times was ecumenical, and I felt more in tune with universal truths than with Jewish identity. It seemed too narrow. I loved artistic and intellectual activity and followed my passion to a Ph.D. in English literature and a career as a corporate writer. My spiritual quest led me inward toward various modes of meditation and self-discovery. Under the surface, though, my early experiences were percolating in my heart — a love for the Hebrew language and its rich old and new texts, a sense of peoplehood and belonging, and the dream and reality of the state of Israel.
After I moved to Boston from Florida, where I had begun the process of slowly finding my way back to my Jewish roots, I joined Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, a welcoming community of seekers and thinkers. The experience of returning made me feel like a female Rip Van Winkle. As I awakened, I noticed that during the years of my “sabbatical,” there had been a Jewish renaissance and I began to catch up with the many wonderful things that had happened while I was away.
My long absence had created a space for my heart to grow even more fond of Jewish studies. Like many Jews, I am a perennial student and I enjoy learning more than almost any other activity. Me’ah was an opportunity to update my knowledge, create a context and fill in some missing puzzle pieces. As I have come to know and cherish every member of our Me’ah “family,” the teachers and the students in Me’ah continue to astonish me with their lively minds and warm hearts. Our Wednesday mornings are the high point of my week. Each of the students and teachers has travelled a unique path to Me’ah, yet we all share a love of learning and an insatiable curiosity.
Lynne Heller introduced new and exciting dimensions of the Bible by inviting us to study it as a literary text. Her approach resonated deeply for me. In preparation for one of her classes, my sister and I spent hours reading aloud the Saul and David stories in Hebrew — stories we had read as children. As adults, we were awed both by the narratives and by the sheer power of the Hebrew words. In the second semester, Reuven Cohn, a patient and enthusiastic teacher of Talmud, inspired me to reconsider my lifelong aversion to its legalities. The experience of studying Talmud with a classmate, a practice called “chevrutah,” was joyous as well as profound.
I owe a debt of thanks to Me’ah for welcoming and supporting me in my journey of return. I have learned a great deal, and I know I will continue to study and teach as long as I live.
Tammy Mitchell is a student in the Coolidge Corner Me’ah class at Temple Sinai.