Monday, January 29, 2018

Jew By Choice

I am a Jew by choice.

And before you ask-- both my parents are Jewish. One of my earliest memories is of being with my grandfather, sheltered by his tallit, as he gave the priestly benediction to his congregation on Rosh Hashana. We celebrated the major Jewish holidays (the really, really major ones) (of course, to my parents, there were only four holidays anyway: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach; anything else was either altogether unknown by them or counted as merely an esoteric holdover of a bygone age), mainly acknowledged and celebrated with a festive family meal. Occasionally, we even made it to synagogue.  

I was educated as a Jew, the full complement: Sunday, and Hebrew school twice a week, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation class when their time came. I was dropped off and sent inside, while my parents had a quiet Sunday morning, or a free hour or two on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late afternoon. I sat, every Saturday morning for almost a year, reciting ancient Hebrew and what seemed like even more ancient English, littered with "thees" and "thous" and flowery beyond belief, alone among a handful of old men, as required by the dictates of my synagogue and my upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Alone, because my parents had other things to do.

I devoured religious school. It felt as if I had found the place where I belonged (had always belonged), a familiar and sheltering home, as we navigated through Jewish history and holidays. I ran through all the primers for Hebrew our Rabbi could throw at me, so that by the time my family switched synagogues when I was in fifth grade, I was a year ahead of the rest of the kids in my (secular school) grade.  And it wasn't just schooling.  There was youth group and music.  Debbie Friedman's (z"l) songs were fresh and new and grabbed something inside us, got our hands clapping and hearts soaring. We sang a new song to God, and did it with joy. 

When I became a Bat Mitzvah (although, when I became a Bat Mitzvah, we still had  a Bat Mitzvah; there was none of this "becoming" stuff), from the bima (think: pulpit), as I gave my Bat Mitzvah speech - I declared my parents to be Lox and Bagel Jews - people who ate their way through Jewish culture, but who, when push came to shove, really felt more comfortable on the golf course than the sanctuary floor on a Saturday morning. I further declared that I would never be like them (remember, I was a teenager).  Most important, I declared my intention, my desire, to become a rabbi.

All of my fervent declarations were met with a hearty chuckle, most especially from my parents. Although they were willing to play along with my more participatory adventures in Judaism, they drew the line at the rabbinate.  "That's really not a job for a nice Jewish girl," they told me.  Funny thing: their protestation had nothing to do with the fact that I was a girl - after all, we were living in the modern world of 1974, and women could do anything (so they told us).  No, they didn't think the calling appropriate because they figured I'd never make enough money by praying professionally.

Like most teenagers, I was adamant, intractable, supercilious and superior. At thirteen, I knew all the answers to life, the universe and everything.

By fifteen, the one thing I knew for absolutely certain was that there was no God and religion - specifically Judaism - was nonsense. I refused to participate, so I told my parents, because I refused to be a hypocrite. My soapbox of self-righteousness felt firm below my feet. Of course, I still took off from school, and later, work, for all the major Jewish holidays, and ate all the major Jewish meals at their appointed times, each in its season. I mean, really - a girl has to eat, right?

From then unitl my early forties, I was a Jew by birth, and that's about it. I did not disavow my Judaism, did not seek other religious options (though I flirted with alcohol as an emergency spiritual plan, then a kind of universal just-be-a-good-person, kind of peace-and-love amorphous spirituality that had no form, and certainly no God). It was easier for me to be disconnected and contemptuous, and so I was.

Somewhere along my way, something happened, something changed. Getting sober helped. Getting married certainly didn't hurt. Having a child pushed me over the edge, turning my contempt into something quite like hope.  Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon a grace note of faith. And while my faith doesn't actually "get" anything, and while it certainly doesn't guarantee a life that includes no hurt or pain or grief, it does give me just enough strength to put one foot in front of the other, whatever I am facing or feeling.

And now?  Now I am a Jew by choice.  Every day - let me repeat that - every day I choose to be a Jew.  Choose to engage and connect and participate and act and worship and pray as a Jew.  It is a conscious act, like the King who says to Scheherazade: "Good story.  I guess I won't kill you today. Maybe tomorrow."  Some days, I am the King; some days Scheherazade.  I must both act and choose.  

And so I choose - to not stand idly by, to do justly and love mercy, to walk with as much humility as I can muster, every day. Every day, there's a little God stuff, a little prayer stuff, a little faith stuff. With that, I find a measure of peace, a sense of wonder, the joy of obligation and the freedom of service.

I still like the riotous, raucous, chaotic family meals to celebrate the holidays. I am sad that those family meals are missing a few too many faces now, but I treasure the family who are still able to come, and celebrate the additions to the family that have been made over the years. But there is so much more, for me, to being Jewish. It is family tradition and ritual, faith and intent. It is cultural and religious and social. It is how I live my life as an individual and as a member of a community. It is family meals and silent prayer. It is difficult and simple and resonates within me and fills me with light.

I am a Jew because I act. I am a Jew because I choose.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Idle Feet Moved

There was no voice,
or perhaps a voiceless voice -
so soft, small,
it could only be heard
just beyond the edges
of hearing.

It sang anyway,
that voiceless voice.
It ran through my body
and burned my hands
that lay idle at my side.

It drummed a beat
that moved my heart,
that moved my feet
in surprising syncopation.
Not a waltz,
nor a tango,
but my idle feet,
idle as my hands -
my idle feet

They danced with the
voice that was no voice
that had no sound,
but it sang in my heart
and burned my hands
and beat in steady rhythm
and so I danced.

and sang the song
of the voiceless,
and stumbled on broken bits
of shattered tablets.

For Isaiah 1:17

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Name Hides Me - a poem for parashat Shmot

My name hides me;
That's why there are so many.

I hear them, crying out
every one of my infinite names,

though some say there are only 72.
Perhaps; I've not bothered to count.

Still, names are binding,
and have power.

I spoke my name once;
not the ones you have given me.

You think them a benediction,
and do not see that they are merely parts,

adjectives of my glory.
They are not Me.

You call me justice, and sometimes mercy,
as if they are not inextricably twined,

as if they could be
made separate from me.

I hear their cries, and
all my names,

they hide me.
Still, I will answer..

I will make the ground holy
I will cause the bush to burn

I will be.
I am.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Sum of all my Baggage

Welcome 2018. Happy new year!

That said. I've already had my New Year, filled with all the pomp and circumstance that Rosh Hashanah can hold. Except this year, I was a little too preoccupied to notice much of anything, except that too-sharp focus of hospital sounds and silences. There was grief to be felt, and family to be held close. There was a miracle of healing, even within that circle of dying. 

Even missing that new year, we Jews do it right and manage to celebrate four new years throughout the course of asingle  365 days plus a smidge cycle. In addition to the hoopla of Rosh Hashanah and the birthday of the world, we celebrate the new year of trees, the reign of kings, and the tithing of cattle. We have a full service concept of years, old and new and everything in between.

Time is less a linear function, and more something with rounded edges. Today may be a beginning, and yesterday an ending, but those concepts tend to be muteable. The line between them is less engraved in stone and much more drawn in pencil. Or eraseable ink.

Never one to waste an opportunity, I will use any excuse for demarcation to, well, mark the journey. I will gladly use these perhaps arbitrary, possibly holy  and certainly randomly awesome moments to do a little diving, a little reflecting. I declare this day, this arbitrary day of firsts, to bend the light a little more, and so enter this new year a little more solidly. A bit more knowingly.

So to begin, at this beginning (at every beginning) I pause, and take a moment or three to ask my favorite question: what do I carry withme , and what do I  leave behind? I am the sum of all my baggage - carried, dragged, dropped. left behind and taken back.

Sometimes the weight of it all is crushing. And sometimes, when the wind is just right, and the scent of green is in the air, and I am feeling brave and grateful daring and fierce and bold (or any combination thereof; you get the point), there's no weight at all. I freely offer much of my baggage, all the weighted measures of stuff and ideas and hurts and pains; lost loves and lost jobs, missed opportunities and failed connections - all of the stuff that binds me, tethers me to a present I can only see through the funhouse mirror of my past (so not really a present at all) - and I let it all go, leaving it lie in a muddled heap.

This is my altar. I'm pretty sure, when I drop it all in that heap, and I set it on fire, it makes a pleasing odor to God. I'm just as sure, when it's time to move on, every single thing that went up in smoke, that released me from the bondage of my self, and my past, it's all there, ready for me to pick up again, just as bright and shiny and unscathed as it was before my metaphorical sacrifice.

It's mine, to carry it all again until the next holy bonfire.

Of course, there's a whole bunch of other stuff I can choose to pick up and carry away - things like faith, or courage, or joy. And yes, there are infinite variations of despair and anger and sundry slings and arrows of cruel misfortune that can be distracting and enticing. And yes, I have gone that route more often than I care to admit. There are times I swear I didn't do the picking, that these nasty little packages leaped up and stuck themselves to me of their own accord, really they did.

If I'm honest - and now's a good time to cop to honesty - I did the picking and the plucking and the sticking, all by myself. Ugh.

Still, there are times I go against type, and I choose the weightlessness of joy!

Things is - all this carrying and leaving and taking away - it's a thing I can do every single day. It's unbounded and knows no season. It's not tied to any new year - or maybe, it's tied to every new year, every new day that dawns begins the cycle of a new year. In every moment, I can choose, again and again and again. I can leave it all, burn it up, dip it in amber, take it with me every single, any single day. These days, this journey is a mindful trudge, and so I make a careful inspection and collection of the junk I lug around with me. I am grateful for the mindfulness. Messy as I am, I like frames, and this is a particularly good one.

So. What is it that I carry with me? What will I leave behind? What will I carry with me as I walk to the next altar, the next mountain? Today - just for this moment, this breath, I will sit for a moment, my treasures laid out before me, a sky of pewter and pearl above me, casting dull shadows on the lot. I will sit, and rest, and hope - hope that when I move on from here, I remember to let slip the boxes of pain and fear, so that I have room for a bit of joy, a bit of beauty, a bit of grace.

Happy new year to all I love and hold so very dear. To beginnings and endings and all this lovely, messy, beautiful middle.