Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Quiet and Holy Current

Black tights.

Black knit dress.

Careful makeup, a touch of jewelry and heels. A hooded raincoat, to stave off the gusty downpour of rain and sleet. I grabbed my kippah (tastefully black, like everything else I wore) just before I shut the car door. One more funeral, after a handful of funerals in tha last month or two.

As I put the clips on, to keep it from slipping off, I heard Nate laughing in my head. Of course he would be laughing. At me. "What are you doing?" he would rasp. "Girls aren't supposed to wear yarmulkes (the Yiddish word for kippah)!" Then he would throw up his arms - dismissively, I think, when we first met, and then later, more in gentle resignation, while a proverbial "Bah!" slipped out under his breath. Or not so under. He wasn't shy about anything, especially in letting you know exactly what he thought about something.

I had no illusions about what he thought of me. I met him in my mid-forties. I was a girl to him-- not because he was thirty-some odd years my senior, but because I was, well-- a girl. My gender, the two Xs of my chromosomes declared me to be a girl forever. Not a woman. Not an equal. A mere girl.

And yet, there I was, every Saturday morning, talking Torah with the guys. And praying with them. 

And more-- I argued (in the best, most philosophical sense of the word) with them, and with the rabbi,  too. Sometimes I argued with myself. I disagreed as easily and as often as I agreed. But I was an uppity girl, who had the temerity to talk Torah with the guys, and then stay to pray with them. Every Saturday morning, for years.

It was the best part of my week, every week, for years. Me, and my guys.

They had been coming together for Shabbat morning services for almost as long as I'd been alive. Maybe more. These men, these remnants of a different world and another time-- they were the captains of industry, the craftsmen and the doctors, the scientist and industrialists, shop owners and salesmen. They were the symbol of the American landscape writ large, across the small backdrop of our synagogue: mainly second generation Americans who were taught that the rhythm of Jewish life was the undercurrent of everything else. It held them and sustained them and became the bedrock upon which they created and lived their lives.

After a while, when it looked like I wasn't going anywhere, that I was maybe perhaps a regular, they would tell me stories of what it used to be like, when the synagogue was in a different place, a grand old building on another side of town, a growing and thriving and tightly-knit community. Over lunch, they would talk of births and deaths and weddings that arced through the steady stream of b'nai mitzvah-- boys (with the occasional girl on a Thursday or Friday night) who would make their way to the bimah and stand so stiffly in a suit and tie, waiting with a butterfly stomach before leaning over the Torah, with its yellowed parchment and hand-scribed letters, while they, the fathers simply kvelled. It was a life they were making, for themselves and their families, bordered on every side by this holy place.

I don't know that they would have defined it as holy. Not then, when they were young and ambitious and feeling their way in the footprints of their fathers. Then it was brick and mortar and salaries and schools. There were rabbis to hire and committees to fill and teachers to find. There were leaks to plug and money to be raised. Lots of money-- a never-ending stream of money to fund a never-ending stream of fixing and hiring and need. They would get quiet, my guys, my Saturday morning minyan guys, and let slip the stories of the time (those many, many singularly repeated times of compassion and humanity and righteousness) when one of their group-- nameless, because that's how it worked -- who made sure that this one or that one, that kid with the patched clothes or the rumbling stomach, had tuition, or a bar mitzvah or a book. Or that his parents could pay dues. Or a car note.

They were a community. They were a family, forged by shared ties and shared faith.

For all of that, time moved and landscapes shifted. While faith might be constant, the synagogue -- and the community -- morphed, and then morphed again. From Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, moving farther west into different, newer, more modern buildings, this once large and thriving community was changing, growing smaller, more diverse. Faces changed more frequently, custom was lost, traditions changed.

But these men, this Saturday morning minyan of men, gathered together, every Shabbat morning, to study and pray and connect. And slowly, like the drift of planets and time, they let me in.

Every week, we would study some, and pray some and eat some. They taught me their rhythms, their quiet. If Friday night services were a joyous, raucous dance with God, Saturday with my guys was an inward journey, a solitary yet shared walk. It was no less joyous, but we seemed to find God in the stillness, in the gentle stream of light that came in through the windows, and the dancing of the dust motes as we moved in a slow and steady cadence through the service. They taught me to listen for God, that listening and quiet and service to others were their own kinds of prayer, and that every prayer was holy.

I was an uppity girl, but they made a place for me, right next to them. I am infinitely blessed to have been able to stand with them, these captains of industry, these men of quiet faith. Every Saturday morning,  for years, we stood together, and prayed some and learned some. We celebrated and grieved some, too. We were a family. A community. 

I don't know if I ever mentioned how much I loved them. Love them still. They brought a depth and richness and a thousand points of brilliance that had been missing into my life. I was changed because I knew them and loved them. My guys, my Saturday guys. They are fewer now. I am shocked, when confronted once more with the reality of their absence, just how much smaller the group is now.  I have had to say good  bye far too many times of late. But we come together, to grieve and remember, to tell stories of our lives and the lives of those for whom we gather. We are carried by the rhythms of faith and love, a quiet and holy current. 

Zichronam liv'rachah -- may their memories be for a blessing. I carry you with me always, and remember you in the quiet stillness of a Saturday morning, as I listen for the voice of God and find community and benediction there. Thank you for the gift of your lives, the song of your prayers and silence.

And so let us say: Amen

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Love Song (To Nate, on his fifteenth birthday)

First off, Nate-- let me say that the Lego Grand Emporium building set, with its 2,200 little Lego pieces and little Lego people and its great big Lego price has been ordered and -- so the the online store assures me -- is on it's little Lego way. Please note that, this year, I am totally on top of it: it's still weeks before your birthday.

This essay is something completely different. Call it my love song to you, my beloved boy, a pre-birthday present and my Valentine's day gift to you, all rolled into one.

I know, I know-- stop rolling your eyes. It's a mom thing. After fifteen years - fifteen! - you shouldn't be surprised. My guess is, you're already halfway expecting it, and please (consider it your gift back to me) let me persist in the belief that deep down (maybe really, really deep down) (I'm a sappy mom, not a complete fool) you are secretly pleased that I am writing you this love song. Or at least, will be, in some distant future when weird mom things like this seem much less weird, and much more, well, loving.

Fifteen years ago, I was cranky and bloated and out-of-sorts-uncomfortable. I couldn't sleep. Not enough, anyway. One thought kept twisting through the hazy fog, of my pregnancy-cursed forgetfulness: "I don't know about this whole motherhood thing, but I do know that I don't want to be pregnant anymore."

Not much has changed in the last decade and a half. I'm still cranky and bloated and out-of-sorts-uncomfortable. I still can't sleep much; I fall asleep ok; it's the staying asleep that proves to be problematic. I still don't want to be pregnant. I still have absolutely no clue about the Motherhood thing. At all.

Frankly, I don't care much about the maternal instinct that I swear I still don't have. I much prefer looking at babies to actually, you know, having them. Or holding them. Or playing with them. Certainly not changing them. Toddlers? They're cute, mostly, but they're also generally covered in fluids I'm not particularly fond of. They also get caught in that endless loop of repetition - "Again, mommy!" times infinity, until you just want to pound spikes through your forehead. It may bring comfort to a toddler; it is an endless, trackless void of madness for me.

The elementary years are somewhat better. If personality development and such are not quite on the right track, at least we're in the car in the parking lot looking at the right track (sometimes only looking at track, which, let's face it, will do in a pinch for those desperate enough, and there were more times than I care to count that a track was close enough and better than no track at all).

I tried. I tried really, really hard. You asked questions. Sometimes incessantly. Your voracious curiosity demanded to know why, or what or when. Problem was, when I told you, your immediate response to my answers was always "No. That's not it. That's wrong." For a while, when you were very young, I could get away with "Because that's the way God made it," which was a close cousin to "oh dear--the gumball/sticker/fake tattoo/cheap plastic toy machine at the grocery store is broken..." but you are a smart child and those answers didn't hold for long.

I despaired that you would never make the leap from linear thought to abstract reasoning. Metaphors? Ha! Don't get me started. You lived in a world of straight lines and unbending rules (never mind the monsters under the bed that were apparently (mostly) vanquished by the glow of a 25 watt bulb that seeped from the six inch crack left by your open closet door). You seemed to demand that I live in the straight and narrow with you.

There were times, my darling child, that I wanted to run away. Or hide. Or beg "Five minutes, baby. Please-- just give me five minutes." But that proved to be nearly impossible for you to give. What saved me  were these occasional flashes of incandescent brilliance-- leaps of fancy and abstraction that dazzled me and startled me and fairly took my breath away. You so clearly "got it."

At six, you declared that when you grew up, you would "build houses for all the poor people, and make sure that they had enough to eat." At ten, you burst into tears - not because Representative Gabby Giffords had been shot, and not that there were a handful of others (including a young child) caught in the wake of those senseless bullets -- but because there was no outcry for the young boy who'd been murdered (also by senseless bullets) on the south side of Chicago only a few days before. You cried out: Where was the justice, the attention, the president's speech for the poor black child lost to urban warfare? Why just the richer, white people in Arizona? At twelve, you chose your the Torah portion for your Bar Mitzvah to be Sh'lach Lecha; the one about the giants and the spies, yes-- but you chose to talk about the commandments we were given on how to treat "the stranger"-- the outside-of, the kept-apart one, the Other.

Oh, may darling boy-- you so clearly get it. You have no shyness in telling me you don't believe in God. But you believe in kindness; I'm good with that. You so clearly have a sense of righteousness and compassion that I swear will heal the world. I have no doubt that you will build the houses, fight for justice, demand that we treat one another kindly and with love. You are that boy, and I am so amazed at the grace and the gift I have been given in being your mom.

Don't get me wrong, beloved-- you will have your struggles. You know that already. And I won't be able to heal your hurt every time. Or even any time. You know that, too. I will not always have words of wisdom, sage advice, or answers (easy or cryptic, take your pick). There will be moments of speechlessness and hurt, and a heaping pile of seething anger. On your side. And mine. We are who we are, right? 

But given all our faults and humanity, I can promise you forgiveness. I can promise that nothing you do or say will ever make me love you less. I promise open arms and comfort. And love. Ever and always-- love. What you taught me-- that there is love, unconditional, infinite and filled with grace. 

A decade and a half later, I still have no clue about a maternal instinct. Frankly, at this point, I could not care less about maternal instinct. I'm your mom. For good, forever, learned or innate, messed up and glorious and neurotically anxious and trying to keep up -- I am your mom. It's the most important truth of the universe. I can't imagine a life, a world, a minute, a day where I am not your mother.

And for that, I am forever grateful, and will be forever blessed.