Let us bless the source of life, source of the fullness of our knowing.
May we learn with humility and pleasure
may we teach what we know with love,
and may we honor wisdom in all its embodiments.
Shema, yisrael, Adonai, elohanu, Adonai echad. This is the most basic Hebrew prayer of the Jews. I hope it won’t offend anyone reading my blog that I write about this today. But I have another little story for you, Dear Readers.
When I was young, I was raised in a Jewish family. My parents and grandparents are (and were, my father and all my grandparents are dead) New York Jews. Well, okay my dad was really from New Jersey as a child, but then lived in NYC for many years, and you could say it’s more or less the same thing. As I was saying. When I was a little girl, we went to synagogue every Friday night for Shabbat. We called it Shabbas, in my family. We always celebrated the Shabbat, (or Sabbath to those non-Jewish readers out there) with the traditional Friday night meal, preceded by prayers. My father would put on his yarmulke, stand up at the table with his special silver wine cup in one hand, his prayer book in the other, and sing the prayers in Hebrew. There were three prayers, the main one for the sabbath, then one for the wine, and one for the bread. Then we would all say Amen, and commence eating, usually chicken of course. This ritual occurred each and every Friday evening of my childhood. The memory of my father singing these prayers is ingrained forever on my heart and brain.
At a certain point, our family moved away from New York and then the east coast altogether, to Colorado. Then I finished elementary school and went to middle school. My mother didn’t care for their new synagogue, and stopped going with my father on Friday nights. I never really knew what happened. But because of that, I too stopped going, and so when it came time for girls my age to go to Hebrew school and get ready for their Bat Mitzvah when they turned 13, I was not among them. Nearly all my friends were non-Jews, and I told myself that it didn’t much matter to me. And so, from then on, I grew up without much formal religion in my daily life. During high school I, along with my classmates, learned the basics about the Holocaust, which horrified and frightened me to the depths of my Jewish soul. Once I was grown up and had moved away from home, I basically washed my hands of Judaism, or so I thought. I explored other spiritual traditions, read many books, dabbled in this and that. At one point in my twenties, I even bought a beautiful lapis lazuli cross pendant and wore it around my neck, in a kind of statement of defiance. One time I met a young Jewish man out in California where I was staying and we talked. He asked me why I wore the cross since I was Jewish, what did it mean to me? I think I mumbled something about it being a powerful symbol of peace and redemption, but I know now that I actually had no idea what it really meant, only that it meant that I was not identified with being a Jew, and that was what I wanted. I had broken most all the ties I had had with my past at that point in my life, but I remained a Jew in spite of myself, and a wandering one at that. For years.
It was only many years later, when I had three small daughters, that Judaism returned to my life. It was the year that my father died. I was 38. His death affected me so deeply, brought back many memories of my childhood. So I decided to honor him by taking the girls and going to the synagogue in the city where we lived. For one year, we would go to synagogue on Friday nights, sing songs with the rabbi leading and playing his guitar. It was such a joyful thing, to again be among familiar kind of people, singing songs and reciting prayers which I vaguely remembered from childhood, and to feel welcomed into their community. My girls were all young enough that they didn’t mind coming with me, and my oldest daughter even liked it quite a lot, was inspired by the singing and the prayers. After that year, however, the wonderful rabbi left that congregation, and with him left my motivation to continue on the Jewish path. By then I had attended various Christian churches at times, spent time with Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies, and learned about Goddess religions and in doing so had developed my spiritual worldview to a place where practicing Judaism seemed like a constricting box. And there was a really derisive attitude from some of the Jews in that community towards Christianity in general. Once I heard a couple of the oh-so-hip women there making a joke about Jesus that annoyed me to the point of feeling like punching one of them right in the face. It was obvious that I had outgrown their religious perspective and there was no use in continuing to be there once the rabbi I loved had gone.
Fast forward several years. As Irony would have it, the Danish man whom I fell in love with is a Jewophile, which basically means that he is fascinated with the Jews. I suppose that is one reason he became fascinated with me. Because of him, I have had to face my genetics and heritage again, in a deeper way than before. I have had to look at my fears and absolute dread concerning the Holocaust and try to express them. I have had to try to come to grips with my hatred of the political entangling of Israel and the United States. And I have also been able to fully acknowledge the beauty, creativity and wonderful art and music which Jews have given to the world.
Today I attended a Bat Mitzvah for a beautiful girl I have known the past few years. Though most of it was spoken in English, and was a rather untraditional service for several reasons, the underlying Jewishness was unmistakable. When something flows through your very blood, something you were born from and raised in, no matter how long you have ignored or buried it, it is still there, quietly waiting for any opportunity to rise into consciousness again. For better or worse, those people with the yarmulke and tallisses, reciting Jewish prayers and singing in Hebrew, are my distant relatives. The kinship I feel with them is on such a deep soul level, and full of emotion.
The past two years of living in Denmark has exposed me to humans from all around the world. I walk down the streets alongside Muslims who are living in my city every day. We come from different worlds, but we are united in our status as foreigners. I have met beautiful people at the language school from Iran and Iraq and have become friends with some of them. I admit, I do not talk about my heritage, thinking that just admitting I am an American may be injurious enough. They are very gracious people.
Some chant, ‘One World, One People.’ Although I think I know the core belief at the bottom of this and agree with it, on another level it is an untruth. There are so many mini-worlds within our bigger world, and such a variety of cultures and people upon the earth, in a way it is almost disingenuous to lump everybody together like that. I believe that the world’s diverse cultures are wonderful and beautiful and deserve to be preserved rather than homogenized into a “one world” mentality, at least in the capitalistic model. Just as my friends in Denmark are Danish, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Iraqi, just to name a few, I am Jewish. American, obviously. But when the musicians played some klezmer music tonight, and I watched a group of girls and women dancing together in a big circle, it just made me feel so glad. What lives in the blood and the heart never really dies. It only takes a nudge to awaken it again, to make the heart beat quicker, a smile come to one’s lips, the feet start tapping and I just wanted to dance again like a …. like a Jew.