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Remarks by Kathy Sykora, Kallat B’reishit, Congregation Darchei Noam, 5783/2022

20/10/2022 12:29:14 PM


Kathy Sykora


Shabbat shalom.

Wow! What an honour to stand here before you, in person and on Zoom. Thank you, Sylvia, Rabbi Tina, and the entire community, for granting me this honour. And what a pleasure to share it with Anne – I so enjoyed working with you when you were Board Secretary; and I see you are doing even more now.

There was an expression in my family growing up. When describing someone totally despicable and dishonest, we would say “I don’t believe that person even when he’s praying”.

What a strange expression for such a totally secular family. Growing up in Communist Czechoslovakia, religion was never talked about; and it played no visible role in my life. Why would anyone expect prayer to be an honest part of someone’s life?

If you looked hard, you could find ways in which we were different from our neighbours. When we exchanged presents on Christmas Eve, there was no star at the top of our Christmas tree. And at Easter, after painting Easter eggs and engaging in bizarre Slovak traditions involving plastic braids and cheap perfume, we always dined on matzah ball soup. My mom’s parents came to visit every Fall from their small town, but I didn’t know why; and when they dressed up and hurried out a couple of mornings, I had no idea where they were going.

My parents said they always planned to tell me that we were Jewish – but Slovakia is a small place, and my antisemitic schoolmates delivered the news much faster.

I was 12 when my grandfather died and was buried in a Jewish cemetery. It was the first time that I ever saw Hebrew letters. It was also the first time I saw my mother cry.

And when it comes to Jewish history, I only knew three things. Those three things were the Holocaust, the Holocaust, and of course the Holocaust. It was the Holocaust (where so much of my family perished), the Holocaust (where Jewish life as we had known it almost disappeared), and the Holocaust (whose return we can never stop being afraid of.)

In the late sixties, after Czechoslovakia was invaded and large numbers of its Jews came to Toronto, many engaged with their Judaism here. Some joined synagogues, some upgraded their Jewish knowledge and increased their observance, some even had their teenage sons circumcised. My family resisted all such temptations, angrily labelling them pretentious and inauthentic. What a lost opportunity, what a crying shame.

It turns out that Judaism is not a chain letter, and it does not disappear after one recipient neglects to send it to 10 of their family members. Perhaps we are the original social media – once something is out there, you never know who will find it.

In my late teens, a friend approached me one early Winter with: “So I meant to ask you: What religion are you?” She must have chosen the absolutely perfect moment to ask that question, because words started pouring out of my mouth that I never knew were there. I went on and on about my confusion about this question, and the pull that Jewish concepts and ethical principles exerted on me. As I was about to regale her with a 20-minute treatise on the difference between libel laws and Lashon Hara (one of those concepts I randomly came across), she stopped me, a little bewildered, and said, “All I wanted to know was whether I should be sending you a Christmas card or Season’s Greetings.”

So… What do you get when you pair an entirely secular, rational Jew with another entirely secular, rational Jew? Well in our case, we got two deeply spiritual children! With our first son Daniel, this was clear from a very young age in the stories he gravitated towards (we had to buy a children’s Bible when we exhausted our inner resources); and also in the stories he made up: “I know how God made the world!” he said one day while riding his tricycle, “He just changed himself into the world.” And when our younger son Alex was about nine and his Dad and brother went off on a long trip, he proposed that for the few weeks that he and I are on our own we should observe Shabbat. It was an amazing experience.

I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a “lapsed atheist”. I have abandoned many of the trappings of my original faith, such as eating pork, making plans without first checking for the dates of any upcoming chagim, or sleeping in most Saturday mornings. But my most basic beliefs have not changed. I still believe that the Torah was written by people, that counting time in groups of seven days is somewhat arbitrary, and that dead means dead. If I thought there was a God who could stop war, cure disease, and feed the hungry, but chose not to – well I would have to reject such a God.

Those “basic beliefs” have not changed, but my eyes opened to so much that, far from contradicting those beliefs, enhances and enriches them. The question of whether prayer is “honest” or “lying” is no longer a question I ask. Instead, I revel in the transformative power of ritual, in the strength it can give you to do what you need to do. Instead of arguing with our texts, I try to see what lessons the Jewish tradition has distilled from these texts. In the words of one of my favourite sages, Nova Scotia singer songwriter Ben Caplan, “The Good Book is only a lens to focus the view!” And I love discovering the poetry and wisdom of our prayers.

So, what brought us to Darchei Noam? We were searching for a new shul, and I was chatting with the mom of a school friend of my son’s, by the name of Liane Sharkey – some of you  may know her. And when Liane got tired of all my questions she said – why don’t you just come this Saturday and check it out? I came home after that Shabbat service and announced that I have found us a shul. This was a place I felt immediately at home in; a participatory shul where women and men were viewed equally and children were valued; this was a place that would welcome my family no matter where life took us, religiously or personally.

Was it all smooth sailing from then on? Of course not! Like any important journey, there were ups and downs. I recall being so bereft, telling my new friend Sheryl Shapiro about how I don’t belong, I will never belong, it’s no use… Sheryl’s response? “Pesach is coming – come join us for seder.” We have been at the Shapiros’ seder table almost every year since then.

And slowly, imperceptibly, almost reluctantly, I discovered community. Sometimes, community is a place where I socialize, learn, argue, disagree, expand my horizons, and occasionally contribute. Other times it’s the place where I celebrate my happy times and, as our family did just recently, mourn my losses. At its best, community is simply like those alien creatures invented by Kurt Vonnegut, who continuously transmit two messages, each an automatic response to the other: “Here I am, Here I am, Here I am,”, and “So glad you are, So glad you are, So glad you are.”

It is very moving for me to be talking about this as we read today’s portion. Moses is pleading to see God’s face; but of course we know this is impossible. What is possible, if you are very very lucky, is to see God’s back, to see where God may have been, to glimpse the possibilities. And after that poetic flight of fancy, we turn to the Maftir in the book of Bamidbar, with its prosaic list of offerings and sacrifices. Scholars will tell you we have replaced these with prayer, but I would suggest that nowadays, instead of offering eight bullocks, two rams, and fourteen lambs of the first year without blemish, we join committees.

I’ve had a good run on committees. The one I am most proud of to this day was our teen group DN teens, and it gives me such joy to know that some of the teens who were part of it continued to get together for the occasional shabbat dinner for many years. And trust me, I received way more than I gave. I have gained valuable transferable life skills from chairing committees; I have learned cool technical tips from running the website; I rounded off my Jewish knowledge in my time on Adult Ed; and I experienced some very moving moments while leading shiva minyanim.  Most important, I got to collaborate with some of my favoured people every time I turned around. One recent example was co-chairing the Membership Committee with an old acquaintance and now dear friend, last year’s Kallat Bereshit, Marianne Levitsky.

Looking at my family’s history from the place that I am now, I see a different picture. Two Holocaust survivors, who had joined the Communist Party early to try to keep the greatest imaginable evil at bay, only to find that the system they committed to was also an evil one. Then having to leave their home, professions, friends, and way of life at an age when most of us start looking forward to retirement. It may have taken more trust than they could muster, to give Judaism another chance.  And yet, they softened. My father, who I say kaddish for today, told me some family stories.  One was the story of his maternal grandfather, a Kohein who would leave the shul during duchaning, saying that Judaism should not be hierarchical – that all Jews should bless each other, and not one “clan” bless the rest. My great grandfather – an early Reconstructionist! My mom came to shul with us many times, primarily because she was a good sport and would join us for whatever crazy activity we came up with. But when illness showed up in our family, I saw her wiping tears during the misheberach. And when Rabbi Tina came to visit her when she was old and frail, they made a really lovely connection.

So here we are. There is a mezuza at my front door and candles are lit every Friday night; we explore Jewish life in our travels; and I know the difference between Tisha B’av and Tu B’shvat (though I do still sometimes need to think about it.) My children have more Jewish knowledge than I do, with stronger Hebrew and a greater familiarity with Israel than I will ever have. And they bring their confidence and love of all that into their interfaith relationships, enriching them and making them stronger. And while my 2-year-old grandson does not debate Talmud much (at least not yet), he sure does love the challah his Daddy bakes!

Was it hard to make all those changes? I love ritual, and so introducing a few rituals into mine and my family’s life was very satisfying. I revel in details, and so learning a few minutiae of halacha was a kind of a guilty pleasure. I am pretty good with languages, and so picking up a tiny bit of Hebrew to keep up with services was right up my alley. By far the biggest challenge was to change from viewing Judaism as an ancient, austere, unforgiving, terrifying place to viewing it as my life-affirming, hope-inspiring, wise, loving, and joyful home.

Here I am. So glad you are.

Shabbat shalom,

Kathy Sykora

Sun, 29 January 2023 7 Sh'vat 5783