04/09/2014 11:17 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Choosing a Religion

Seated in front of me at a recent Sabbath evening service was a handsome man of about age 30. Sporting a stylish sport jacket, open collared shirt and, naturally, a yarmulke, he recited the prayers in Hebrew without need of a Siddur. When the rabbi asked the congregation to wish Shabbat shalom to a neighbor, he turned, offered the greeting and a hand to shake.

I approached my erstwhile neighbor when everyone had moved to the outside lobby. "What is your name?" I asked.


"Really," I said, surprised. "That's my name too. I'm called Stanley. How about you?"

"Shlomo," he answered matter-of-factly.

"Oh." I imagined that a man who knows the prayers by heart and uses his Hebrew name would likely dress as Orthodox Jews do. His clothes were as far away from that as were mine.

The conversation was brief but apparently enough for the other Shlomo. He glanced toward the table with sweets and, turning away, said, "Shabbat shalom, Shlomo -- or Stanley."

"Maybe I'll see you another Sabbath," I said, sorry he was departing, all the moreso as the man was surely good-looking.

The surprise meeting left me with the question of how we come to our religions. I regretted missing the chance for further inquiry to the other Shlomo. "If you'll forgive the intrusion, how devout are you, dressing no differently than me but being fluent in Hebrew prayers as I'm not? Did remembering those prayers and retaining your Hebrew name happen by choice, or did your parents push you and you complied? Do those things enhance your fulfillment?"

It's possible that Shlomo and I started out not so differently. I, too, studied Hebrew as a kid -- preparatory to Bar Mitzvah -- and I feel something of a loser in having forgotten most of what I learned. My parents never suggested that I use my Hebrew name, but they regretted my distancing myself from Hebrew and (my mother especially) the fact that my attendance at synagogue became infrequent.

My feelings about Judaism may be as sincere as the other Shlomo's, though someone next to me in the synagogue, seeing me stumble over prayers, would likely not be convinced. I arrived where I am today not through conscious rejection of my Hebrew background, but distracted by all that growing up and moving away from a nearly exclusive Jewish crowd when young brought on. It's turned me into what I call the "swinging door" kind of Jew, unquestioning member of the tribe but with only occasional visible proof.

In nearly all the half century living in New York, my most dependable connection to Judaism has been to light a candle on the Yahrzeits of my parents and brother, now long gone. But the shredding of so many old calendars began to have an unexpected effect on me: a wish for deeper spirituality. I enrolled in Bible-related classes and met for one-on-one study with rabbinical students from a local seminary. Eventually, those brought me to the synagogue where I met the other Shlomo.

The rabbi in this congregation bemoans the loss of congregants who slip away. The synagogue survives, but that doesn't answer my question of how we come to our religions. How many came from family pressure, how many from free will?

I looked for the other Shlomo on later Friday nights, but he apparently got what he wanted from the single visit to our synagogue. So I had no chance to ask how he arrived at where he is today or his take on Judaism, or which of his lessons I could apply to myself. I have to decide alone what works in the realm of religion (but one part of the challenge of growing old). I haven't gone back to re-study Hebrew, but I do have prayers outside synagogue, usually prayers of thanks in morning and at night. They are habitual but brief, maybe just as good as if they were longer. They are what I have.

Friday night services (even occasional) and the ones on High Holy Days, with the music and crowds and the chanting, lift me and leave me embraced in a way that doesn't happen any other place. I don't suppose the other Shlomo does better.

It's not so different from what my mother wished for me. She must be nodding in heaven with a satisfied look, saying, "It's about time you caught on, Stanley -- Shlomo!"

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How we choose our religion is an essay explored in Stanley Ely's new book, '"Life Up Close, a Memoir," available in paperback and ebook.