I slipped into an aisle seat figuring I could sneak out early if I got bored, or if I felt out of place. I looked up as others entered the synagogue's sanctuary and I'd nod a greeting when I'd spot a familiar face. As a pianist struck up notes and a choir of four began to sing prayers for the Friday night service, I settled in.
But why, in the midst of this fellowship and serenity, did I feel as guilty as if I had crept into a casino?
I was embarrassed to tell friends and family of my evening activity because upon returning to Chicago from Los Angeles three months ago, I had declared: "I've given up religion. I'm not going to High Holiday services this year or join a synagogue."
My dear crowd accepted this decision without debate because they have been witness to my forays in and out of Judaism. Growing up in the 1940's, my family's relationship with religion was cultural, rather than observant: We devoured fatty foods; championed Jewish athletes, movie stars, and comedians; supported Israel; and prayed that headlined criminals were not part of our tribe. And we attended synagogue services only once a year on the High Holidays.
But that mediocre piety didn't prevent my parents from pushing my brother Ron to become a Bar Mitzvah. As for me, in 1951, when I was 13 -- the age for this rite of passage -- girls in my group weren't similarly coerced. So I faltered on my faith for several decades.
Things changed in 1989, and I peg it on Empty Nest Syndrome. Both of our daughters were out of the house and I was seeking a project my spouse and I could do together. Instead of moving to a new residence -- which was my usual solution for our feeble marriage -- I suggested we join a synagogue.
We did. I jumped in, submerged, and resurfaced with a desire to have an adult Bat Mitzvah. I hired a tutor, learned to read Hebrew for my Torah portion, chanted, and hosted a celebration. Alas, one year later, our marriage expired and my link to that Reconstructionist synagogue ended, too.
In 2012, after my second husband Tommy died and I moved from our house to a downtown apartment, I joined a Reform synagogue where on Saturday mornings a group of 20 or so debated the week's Torah portion. "I love the intellectual stimulation," I told those skeptical of this fresh trail in my religious journey.
In Los Angeles, I quickly found another Reform temple and another series of Saturday morning studies. So why, after these two seemingly worthy religious experiences, did I vow, upon returning home to Chicago, that I would be avoiding Judaism, Torah study, and the High Holidays?
"I wanted to feel part of a community," I told a friend, whining like a pathetic teenager who had been excluded from the popular girls' clique. "But I was never invited to anyone's home for dinner. At both synagogues, they'd all been together for decades, and evidently weren't interested in squeezing in this newcomer."
"Maybe if you had stayed longer," she suggested, "or joined committees, then you'd feel more part of the group." But I wanted to be immediately bonded. I was impatient, felt wounded, and decided I was finished with religion.
So, what happened last Friday to send me to evening services at the very same Chicago Reform temple I had huffed my way out of? My theory is while I originally believed I was seeking community and intellectual stimulation, I was really searching for something deeper, something to heal losses. In the first case, I was a recent widow who had buried a dear husband, and in the second, a transplant who moved away from good friends in a beloved city.
Evidently some pains remain: Tommy's death still feels fresh. And by returning to Chicago, I left behind my adored Los Angeles family. Add in, some in my circle face health challenges. Perhaps it is these facts of life that propelled me to find a harbor.
At last Friday night's service, as I sat in the synagogue's sanctuary, I listened to the choir and absorbed the rabbi's words. (In my absence, a new rabbi and assistant rabbi came on board. The latter is a woman -- a bonus in my view). And, I joined the congregation in reciting communal prayers for healing and mourning.
Based on my seesaw history with Judaism, my relatives and friends may be skeptical about this current religious plunge and wonder how long it will last.
Does it matter?