In Judaisms minor leagues, I had three transcendent moments

When you work at j., you tend to get caught up in the big events on the Jewish calendar. A couple weeks ago, it was Israel in the Gardens. Last weekend, it was the opening of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

We put out special sections and edit extra articles about these events, and while I’m certainly not saying that’s wrong, it also becomes quite easy to let all these big trees block one’s view of the forest.

So allow me to put next month’s Jewish Film Festival on the back burner, to leave our great Israel at 60 coverage in the rear-view mirror and to wait two months to start thinking about the To Life! festival.

Recently, I attended three events in the Jewish minor leagues, so to speak, where, just like in baseball, things can be as fulfilling and exhilarating as they are at those “big league” events.

The first event was a “kugel-off” at my synagogue. Well, that’s how it started off, but then planners downgraded it to a friendly Shabbat dinner.

I showed up early to help set up (these things you must do when your wife is on the temple board), and silently agreed when I overheard some people lamenting that the contest idea had been scrapped.

But the evening wasn’t doomed. Before too long, eight kugel-toting congregants had walked into the dining hall, and — after a carb-loading joke by the rabbi and a few blessings — well, the carb-loading was on!

One crunchy kugel took me back to my youth, others were thick and heavy and tasted a lot like latkes. There was a veggie kugel with defining notes of zucchini, a kugel festooned with maraschino cherries and a kugel with a certain terroir that no one could put a finger on. “I know, it’s A1 Sauce!” I practically shouted to my tablemates, who rolled their eyes and laughed at my taste buds. Later, I found out it was cumin and apricot brandy.

Bottom line: Who needed a competition? Eight great kugels, a few salads, a lot of kugel conversation (I now know a lukschen from a potato kugel) — and, yes, I did partake in seconds. OK, OK, thirds and fourths, too. I wound up having 13 small squares.

The next morning, still crammed with kugel, I went back to the synagogue for a bar mitzvah. Never for an instant did I think I’d be crying at some point in the next few hours.

But this turned out to be the most emotional bar mitzvah I ever attended.

The father of the bar mitzvah had lost his wife to cancer seven years ago. So on the day of his oldest son’s bar mitzvah, the emotions came pouring out.

The reading of the torah portion went perfectly. But then it came time for the father to offer congratulations, and many thoughts seemed to hit him at once. Seven years of raising three young children on his own, seven years of good times and sad, and what about the jarring reality of not having his wife there to be part of the joyous occasion?

He struggled to continue, and then the tears came, and then congregants were crying, and then tissues were being passed through the pews. It was like a tear-jerker jumping off the big screen and landing right there on the bimah.

And while it was sad and wrenched my insides, in the end, the wrenching felt good; it somehow cleansed me, made me feel more human.

Things took a happier turn a week later, when my wife and I attended a fabulously uplifting production of “Grease!” by middle-school students at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.

We went to support our 12-year-old friend Erin, and sit with her family. Quite frankly, however, I wasn’t expecting much.

But the play was just stellar — the acting and singing much better than I had anticipated. There was funny bonus dialogue, such as “I can eat anything. That’s the nice thing about being Reform.”

But it was seeing the cast of mostly Jewish kids — a Jewish Sandy! a Jewish Kenickie! — pull off such an amazing production that made me feel warm inside.

And Jewish.

Andy Altman-Ohr lives in Oakland. Reach him at [email protected].

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.