Teach myself cello and Judaism Thats just fiddlesticks!

I don’t jog. I don’t meditate. I don’t watch sports. For relaxation, I usually turn to oddball pursuits like reading blogs, watching my cats wrestle or, most recently, playing the cello.

Right off the bat, I offer apologies to Yo-Yo Ma. I don’t exactly play the cello: I attempted to pretend to play the cello.

When my girlfriend Robyn’s mother set off for a monthlong idyll in Patagonia not long ago, I asked to borrow the family cello, which had been lying under the piano for ages in desperate want of a loving touch. I borrowed it because, having spent years watching Ma and his fiddlin’ confreres, I had a feeling of delusional audacity: “Hey, I can do that!”

Actually, I can’t.

I had the cello for several months, and a few evenings a week I sawed away, playing along to Beethoven or the Beatles. Mostly I conjured up notes so heinous they could trigger crop failure or cause entire pods of whales to beach themselves.

But occasionally I nailed a note perfectly in tune, with a singing vibrato, too. Though rare, those glory moments made it all worth it (though I don’t think Robyn would agree).

And there you have one of the keys to my personality. I am a dilettante. If you want to know a few words — but only a few — in French or Russian, ask me. If you want a list of the great Romantic poets, ask me (just don’t require me to quote them ex tempore).

I’m a dilettante when it comes to Judaism, too. I’m your guy if you need cursory explanations of the holidays or, say, the Hebrew term for the first book in the Torah (it’s “Beresheet,” though I don’t know the Hebrew names of the other four). I pray infrequently and poorly. I can hum a good Amidah but can’t recite it without the training wheels of a chanting congregation backing me up.

So what if I don’t know all 613 mitzvot? Who does?

So what if I don’t exactly know what it means to count the Omer? Who’s counting?

When I first got involved with Jewish life as an adult, I went at it like gangbusters. I joined a synagogue, enrolled in Intro to Judaism, learned the aleph-bet, joined the social action committee and bought scrip every week.

I was a modified B.T., or ba’al tshuvah (Hebrew for “master of return”). It’s the term applied to those who come back to Judaism after an extended absence. In my case the absence was my whole life prior.

And like many who discover a new passion, I wanted to know everything and do everything at once. I was in love with being Jewish.

As it turns out, the pace was unsustainable. After taking a few classes and reading a shelf-full of books, my Judaic knowledge and practice — much of it self-taught — fossilized. The lingering question I ask myself these days: Is that so wrong?

As Rabbi Camille Angel from San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Sha’ar Zahav explained, living a Jewish life is about the long haul. “There isn’t a destination,” she said. “Even halachah [Jewish law] is a path. You’re not getting somewhere. It’s how you live day to day, Shabbos to Shabbos.”

Angel says Judaism is about getting informed, adding that “you can’t get informed unless you try it out. You can’t just decide that [kashrut] is not for you. You have to keep experimenting with it.”

So maybe by calling myself a Judaism dilettante, I’m being a little self-demeaning. Better to see myself as someone on a Jewish path, a path with no end. Along the way, I’ve experimented with kashrut, prayer, fasting, tzedakah, Torah study, Hebrew and more. Some of it stuck, some didn’t.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I was never going to be a cellist. Unlike folk guitar, the cello doesn’t lend itself to self-teaching. So, I stopped.

As for Judaism, there’s no stopping, no matter how inexpert I remain. Because, as Camille also told me, “Each day is a new opportunity to return to the intention” of living a Jewish life.

A few weeks ago I gave back the cello, the dilettante clock having finally expired. My copy of the Torah lies by my bedside, in want of a loving touch.

Dan Pine</b can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.