Returning to roots in Rosh Hashana Holidays: Tamara and Steve Cibor were raised as Christians, but the married couple's heritage rests in Judaism. As the Jewish New Year begins tonight, they move toward a new life.

September 13, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Tamara Cibor was raised Baptist and her husband, Steve, came up Catholic, and this year -- number 5757 by the Hebrew calendar -- the Mount Washington couple will celebrate Rosh Hashana for the first time in their lives.

The Jewish New Year begins at sundown tonight, a time when the children of Israel are asked to look back on where they've been and forward to the road ahead, to take stock of their lives as God is said to do on Rosh Hashana.

As they observe the start of High Holidays, which end 10 days from now on the Day of Atonement known as Yom Kippur, the Cibors move a step closer to what they discern as their true heritage, trusting that God wants them to be Jews.

"Steve and I are Jewish from birth, but neither one of us was raised in a Jewish community or knew anything about Judaism," says Tamara, 28, whose Jewish mother gave her up for adoption as an infant.

Although aware of her Jewish ancestry from an early age -- indeed, her adoptive parents gave her a Hebrew name to honor the past -- Tamara was brought up Baptist near Charlottesville, Va.

She enjoyed her faith, believed that Jesus was the Messiah and "felt really good when I was in church."

Steve Cibor grew up just outside Detroit and attended Catholic school through the ninth grade. He'd made his First Communion and confirmation but carried vague knowledge that there were Jews on the Hungarian side of the family -- his mother's side, the side from which Judaism is passed down.

His mother's maiden name is Zsido -- Hungarian for Jew -- yet this piece of the family story was never acknowledged or explained. His grandmother, who has practiced no religion for as long as Steve has known her, refused to answer his questions with a fierceness he didn't know she was capable of.

But three years ago, during an around-the-world honeymoon, he "knew I was home" during a long stay in Israel.

A short time later, he felt certain of his history after arriving in the Hungarian village he'd heard his grandmother talk about as the family's home in the old country.

Located outside the Romanian town of Cluj, the village was formerly part of Hungary and had been home to hundreds of Jews before World War II, nearly all of them wiped out by the Nazis.

Now employed as a fund-raiser for the Wilderness Society in Washington, Tamara's yearning for a life she'd never known began to vex her in college when she helped cater Jewish weddings and found herself watching "with a longing to belong."

Although she and Steve were wed before he'd come to his religious conclusions, Tamara was quietly relieved when he embraced the faith. She'd married Steve simply because he was Steve; yet, she says, it was comforting to learn her husband was a Jew.

"It's been a long road for us and a little confusing at times," says Steve, 30. "But in my heart of hearts, I'm Jewish."

During two extended stays in Jerusalem, Steve and Tamara met Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall who invited them to Sabbath meals and steered them to beginners classes in Hebrew and Judaism.

When it was time to move on, their new friends in Jerusalem said that Baltimore was an especially good place in the United States to continue their study of Jewish law and customs.

Which is how they came to live near the heart of Baltimore's Orthodox community, even though they haven't learned enough to know how observant they will be.

"No one has said we have to be Orthodox, but they're the best teachers," says Steve, a dealer in Nepalese carpets who has studied religions at their sources around the world. "We're just coming into our faith."

The Cibors' teacher is Rabbi Yisroel Fuchs, director of the Etz Chaim learning center in Owings Mills. At 7 tonight, Fuchs will preside over a Rosh Hashana "learners service" at the center.

"Holidays are a good way for beginners to learn, a joyous time, and we'll be explaining the prayers as we go through them," says the rabbi.

"Steve and Tamara are experiencing everything new, like walking through a palace for the first time."

The Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies has operated here for 20 years and has headquarters in the city at 3702 Fords Lane. Its Owings Mills center opened in January to reach a Jewish migration that continues to move northwest from the community's origins more than 100 years ago in East Baltimore.

Schlomo Porter is Etz Chaim's overall director and one of the center's original teachers.

"On Rosh Hashana, God is saying: 'What you do, you might not think is significant but is significant in my eyes,' " says Porter. "Rosh Hashana is a holiday where we feel two things at the same time -- the joy of a relationship with God and the responsibilities of it. The Talmud calls it rejoicing while trembling."

And it is the holiday on which God is said to open the Book of Life and run his finger down the ledger for a peek at the spiritual credits and debits we accumulate from year to year.

When asked to venture what the book might say about her, Tamara says: "I feel that in his eyes I'm doing what I've been put on this Earth to do. It's not my fault I'm in the situation I'm in -- being Jewish by birth but not being raised that way. But I'm doing my part to find out about it, and I feel that this would be pleasing to God."

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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