On Yom Kippur, Tea Instead of Bread

[This post appeared originally on PolicyMic.]

Today is Yom Kippur, and I just did tashlich with tea.

Let’s not talk about why I’m drinking tea on a day of fasting (I happen to be coming down with a cough), or why I’m doing tashlich at the last possible minute (because I’m forgetful and lazy), or why I’m doing tashlich with tea instead of bread (again, forgetful, and I happened to be walking along the river drinking tea).

The point is, I finally did tashlich.

Tashlich is a beautiful tradition in which we tear up pieces of bread, throw them into flowing water, and repent our sins; one torn piece of bread, one sin. It is supposed to be performed during the Days of Awe, the just-over-a-week nestled between the High Holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As a kid, I would tear my bread into a few pieces to appease the Hebrew School teachers, throw most into the Raritan River (sorry, little sister), and shove the rest in my mouth. As I got older and stopped going to synagogue every week, which bizarrely coincided with my Bat Mitzvah, I haven’t stopped performing tashlich, no matter the inconvenience.

When studying abroad in Jordan I waited an extra week out of both necessity, it being a desert and all, and profundity, as we were going on a trip to the Jordan River. In college I would tuck a prayer book into my bag and wake up early to go down to the Schuylkill before class. I’ve even left synagogue early during High Holiday services in order to make it back home in time for high tide. Today I used tea instead of bread, determined to perform this ritual before sundown and time ran out.

Tashlich is one of the only traditions in Judaism that I feel is of critical importance for my own Jewish identity. In the Judaism I grew up with, there are communal rules or traditions, but in the end, each person’s learned interpretation of these is correct. I am religious in my own way, observant in my own way, spiritual in my own way, and I practice in my own way, vaguely guided by the lessons of my youth. Religion might have become obsolete for many of us in our twenties, but it doesn’t have to be: the way I practice and identify with Judaism has morphed to complement my secular life choices, not the other way around.

I usually forget religion exists at all. I don’t feel or think about being Jewish, really, until the holidays when I look around and realize I am the only one, all alone, so far outside my home planet where everyone does tashlich and whines and (mostly) fasts. It is this need to be a part of some amorphous far-away community that makes me so desperate to repent for my sins I perform this sacred rite with Earl Grey on my way home from the coffee shop (next to a pizza parlor, insult to injury, I tell you) where I was drinking the tea and writing the next few installments of my Abortion Watch series and dreaming about the seriously un-Kosher Break Fast I intend to have in a few hours.

I almost passed the creek on the walk home, actually, but generations of Jewish guilt instantaneously clouded over my head and I stopped. I can’t not do it. The water’s right here. Tea, bread, what’s the difference? I have to do it.

Do I believe throwing pieces of bread (or drops of tea), symbolically endowed with my sins, into flowing water are going to earn me any points come Judgement Day? Do I even believe in Judgement Day? Do I believe I’ll be washed clean, inscribed in the Book of Life? Do I think God is listening, that he/she is going to forgive me, or that those whom I’ve wronged are going to magically forgive my multitudinous, egregious sins against them and society?

Probably not, but that’s not the point. Asking forgiveness, however it is done, is fundamentally self-reflection and encourages us, on our own terms and held accountable only to ourselves (or God, I guess), to be better next year. In the end, being a better person is the whole point, whether the endgame is to be written in the Book of Life, to reach heaven, to experience salvation, or to attain Enlightenment.

As I was dribbling my lukewarm tea into a creek in the mountains of Colorado, I asked forgiveness for sins against my community: for not speaking up for what’s right, for being apathetic, for believing in futility. I asked forgiveness for sins against myself: for not living up to potential or expectations, for being dishonest with myself, for being afraid of failure. Maybe next year.

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I went to Church, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

I realized recently that, despite having inter-married parents, I knew pretty much nothing about Protestantism. Don’t tell my mom: she’ll be sad she didn’t teach us more about her own religious upbringing. My ignorance is also ironic considering almost the entirety of the US is Protestant. (Of course, there’s an argument to be made that because America is a Protestant country, our culture is innately Protestant itself and my understanding of Protestantism is vast because by being American I am pretty much a Protestant anyway.)

Up until a couple of years ago, I thought all versions of Protestantism were pretty much created equal. Southern Baptists were into fire-and-brimstone, mega-churches liked to proselytize, and the Unitarians loved everyone, but other than that, I thought all non-Catholic churches had one steeple (open the doors and see all the people), their attendees were repressed (like Bree on Desperate Housewives), and they scorned idolatry and decoration. I had visions of preachers who wore black and were stern and preached from a podium overhung by a gruesome wood carving of Christ bleeding on the cross, the agony on his dying face reflected in the faces of the congregation for their self-imposed constant suffering in the name of faith because somehow, someone has them convinced that God wants you to be miserable and forsake all earthly delights because that is how to get into heaven, and heaven obviously exists and the devil is everywhere. Protestantism was a religion of fear, misery, repression, and self-denial. My vision of Protestantism was obviously drawn by The Scarlet Letter and the Salem Witch Trials.

Inasmuch as I understood modern versions of Protestantism existed, I sort of thought for the most part they were bland, boring, dry versions of Catholicism. Not that Catholicism is so thrilling, but at least they have incense and candles and decorations. Catholic priests had collars and wore robes, and there were lots of candles and gold and stained glass adorning every cathedral I had ever seen. Catholics had beautiful architecture and saints. Catholics got to do things like take communion and get confirmed and go to confession. As far as I knew, Protestants didn’t do these things. Protestants went to their plain-looking churches and just prayed really really hard. Of course, Jews aren’t much into idolatry or decoration either, but in my mind Protestant churches were full of uncomfortable wooden pews, blank walls, gruesome renditions of Jesus, and threats of hellfire. Protestants didn’t have any of the pretty things Catholicism or Orthodoxy did; I thought of them as the ascetics of Christianity.

In a nutshell, I thought if Catholicism was gaudy and ostentatious, then Protestantism was depressing and ascetic. Every church I had seen confirmed this suspicion. Cathedrals are tourist destinations, exotic and beautiful and full of lovely, devotional artifacts. I never really went to Protestant churches. I pass by them all the time, but they don’t look as fascinating as the Catholic churches. There aren’t domes or apses or gargoyles. I went to church once when I was little, my cousins were in a Christmas pageant or something, but I don’t remember it being interesting; it probably looked like synagogue, so I thought it was boring and ugly. Once, in Jerusalem, I went into a German Presbyterian (I think) church in the old city. I mean, if you’re going to do church tourism, Jerusalem is a great place to do it. Though there was a lot of white, it was still full of right angles and austerity and German efficiency and plain-ness.

German church, Jerusalem. October 2010.

All of these notions about Christianity in general and Protestantism and Catholicism in particular are thanks to a lifetime of having mostly Jewish, lots of Catholic, but very few Protestant friends. Once I was older and had Protestant friends, I silently pitied them for their god-fearing, fun-less lives without actually asking them what Protestantism was about. Also, they weren’t really very religious, so it never came up. (Sorry, mom, I guess I could have asked you, too.) We learned the history in school, about the Reformation and Luther and Calvin, and about Henry VIII and his creation of the Anglican church, but honestly, that’s sort of where I thought significant deviation in Protestantism stopped, and I still thought they were the same except in name. Also Anglicanism doesn’t really count. So I continued along my path believing Protestantism to be uniform, stark, solemn, and intimidating.

But stereotypes are made to be broken. I’ve recently learned not all Protestants are WASPs and Protestantism is not a modern version of Puritanism. I’ve also learned not all Protestants believe the same thing. Realizing there might be a whole mysterious world out there which I knew nothing about, when presented with the opportunity and realizing I had never actually been to a real church service in my adult life (I went to an afternoon mass in high school once), I jumped.

Let me fill your head with a few more stereotypes: this is the upper Midwest. It is known for passive aggression and repressive niceness. Also, everyone is northern European, tall and blond, and Lutheran. Knowing this, I naturally expected Lutheran church to be filled with a bunch of depressed, repressed, yet painfully nice Germanic Barbie dolls. And free mayonnaise. I thought it would be serious, uncomfortable (because discomfort is the way to God and all that), and bleak.

Well, it wasn’t. First, I have never seen anything so big. I mean, Notre Dame is huge, but it doesn’t have a parking lot, and certainly not a parking lot like this. They must have hired urban planners to build it. I didn’t even know this many people went to church. Heck, I didn’t even know this many people lived in the northeast suburbs of St. Paul. And this isn’t even a mega-church like they have in other places which I am literally scared out of my mind to ever go to. (Watch Jesus Camp and Saved! and you’ll see why.)

We walked inside, and shook hands and said good morning to the ushers at the front door. (What is this, meditation class or church? What’s with the lovey-dovey thy neighbor thing?) The first thing that struck me inside was the people walking around in white gilded robes. They were like members of a Vatican gospel choir. Does. Not. Compute. I thought they were Protestant! I thought they hated ornamentation! I thought they were all supposed to be dressed in dark clothes and be dour and sour and morbidly meditative on God and prayer, all the time, and especially at church! Isn’t church a place you go to be remorseful and feel threatened by God’s wrath?

As we entered the sanctuary, an organist was playing Bach. It was lovely. The room was huge; not just in square footage but the ceiling was unfathomably high and the room was filled with light. There were decorations and ornamentation and light colors and all sorts of things. At the beginning of the service, the congregation sang a hymn about saints, a pastor invoked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it struck me that Protestantism really was a) not all the same and b) not entirely about self-deprivation. I had always thought that the fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism was belief versus non-belief in the Trinity. This is obviously wrong and I am very confused: Lutheranism, right, was invented by Martin Luther, who started the Reformation. Obviously Lutheranism is Protestant. So why do they have all these Catholic things, like saints and decorations and belief in the Trinity?*

Sanctuary of Lutheran Church.

Anyway, the (Vatican gospel) choir sang a religious-ified version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and I couldn’t help but sing along with the non-religious words. I sang quietly, though. Don’t worry. Watching the choir was hilarious: half of the women were gossiping, the men looked bored, and a skinny young man was fervently singing while next to him a heavy-set older man half-squishing the skinny one out of his chair was nodding off to sleep. Someone should make a sitcom about church choirs. The pastors (and there were at least four in attendance) read some things from the Bible—a psalm, some gospel—and then the congregation recited the Apostles’ Creed. This creed outlines some definition of the faith and the practice, as if that was supposed to help me understand what was going on.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.* On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Holy Spirit? Catholic Church? Saints? What?

Then we sang Amazing Grace, which I actually know and like, so I sang along, and that was fun, although I had to look at the words for three out of the four verses (who knew there were four verses to Amazing Grace?). Participatory religion is always interesting, even when it’s not yours. The sermon was short (thankfully), the pastor told a nice story, but I felt the “Jesus loves you” message was a little heavy-handed. Well, we all know Jesus doesn’t love me and this doesn’t particularly bother me, but still I don’t particularly care to be preached to about the universality of his love and all that.

Sunday was first communion for the little kids, who were all very adorable, but I was still very confused about why Protestants take communion. When I was growing up and my Catholic friends were going to CCD and I was going to Hebrew School, I remember them talking about their first communions and their white dresses and how this was a big deal in Catholicism. So I was surprised to find that not only do these protestant Lutherans take communion, but they don’t wear white dresses. I mean, if you’re going to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, you should at least wear white, don’t you think?

An additional weird thing about communion at this church, and I think this is because it’s a big church with lots of money, but during communion they had a handbell ensemble playing hymns. HANDBELLS. They were very good, but I felt like I was watching a Jesus-loving Blue Man Group dressed in black. It seemed sort of excessive. But that must just be my Puritanical Jewish upbringing talking. They also had white grape juice and gluten-free communion wafers for people who preferred. Anyway, communion took forever because there were hundreds of people who lined up to be hand-fed little pieces of bread and minuscule cups of wine and be told Jesus died for their sins. I just watched.

After communion, the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, which I only know from Boondock Saints, feeding some stereotype that only Catholics say this and it is usually associated with killing bad guys. Then there were some more prayers and hymns and then we left, and I’ve decided I now needed to go to a church of every kind because I obviously know nothing about Christianity whatsoever.

What was most interesting to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about, was the amount of income this church must have. They have six pastors on staff, a huge, beautiful, modern facility, can afford choir robes with gold stitching and an orchestra of bells, a freshly paved parking lot, an organ, and enough bread to give communion to an army. I wonder if other communities support their religious institutions in this way, and why synagogues, at least the ones I go to, seem to be struggling to make ends meet. In that sense, the success of this church’s fundraising and the willingness of the community to give was kind of shocking. There is nothing wrong, of course, with giving to the community, and churches, including this one, often do good work. It’s just not something I’d seen before, and the amount of money people are evidently willing to give in order to be told how to live and about sinners and saints and heaven and hell seemed kind of scary.

In particular, when they passed the collection plate exactly at the end of the sermon, I was reminded of what churches must have been like historically, particularly during the Roman-Catholic-Church-as-a-government phase of European history: by preaching, you are soliciting money to enable the effective spread of your word and keep your church in a position of power. It was, and seems still to be to some extent, political fundraising. The concurrence of revenue-generating with sermons seems subversive of their moral, religious, or spiritual relevance. The pastor or priest or whoever, some religious figure, speaks, and if you like what is said, you pay up. It is, at its most fundamental, a sales pitch, only they’re selling the power and relevance of church to people who, probably, are already buying into it.

Other than making me question religious fundraising, church inspired me to go to synagogue for the first time since high holidays last year. (This still means I have to find one to go to.) Also, despite feeling like an outcast because I’m a brunette, I’m going to go to a different Lutheran church this weekend. I just can’t get enough: once you pop, the fun don’t stop.

*I have since read on Wikipedia that Lutheranism retained many of the practices of Catholicism, and further splits (like with Calvin) engendered the depressed repressed Protestantism with which we WASPs are so familiar.

Things you learn from guys at bars

About secret, hidden underground subway tunnels.

According to bar-guy, they exist in the Twin Cities. Further research: the only “subway” tunnels that exist are tunnels holding the electric wires for streetcars. Well, that’s almost the same. Wikipedia unverifiably confirms the existence of streetcars in the cities. In this historical document (an automotive industry trade publication) we learn that the streetcars certainly did exist; they even extended to a proposed speedway. This is in the 1910s. They had automotive speedways back then? This website of unclear provenance tells us more about the history of streetcars in the area (they ended service in the 1950s). Here’s the sad story of what happened to the cars. Newark? Wikipedia’s history of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company is quite comprehensive, as is to be expected. It confirms this guy’s story, which blames the demise of the streetcar on a Cloverleaf-style takeover of public transportation. Privatization and all that.

In its heyday, the streetcar system was huge:

Of course, the out-of-state takeover by a Wall Street speculator in the 40s was preceded by a 1917 worker’s strike and the rise of the automobile. Street cars were dying everywhere.

The Minnesota Historical Society confirms:

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company (a New Jersey corporation) was incorporated in 1891 as a holding company, with the MSR and the SPCR as wholly-owned operating subsidiaries. The TCRT was succeeded in 1939 by a new Minnesota corporation of the same name. A management change in 1949 brought New York financier Charles Green to the presidency of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. Green and his associates decided to abandon the streetcar lines and convert to buses as quickly as possible, apparently in order to maximize their short-term profit. The company’s entire streetcar fleet was scrapped and replaced by buses in an aggressive conversion plan completed in 1954 under TCRT president Fred A. Ossanna, a former associate of Green’s who managed to oust him in 1951.

(And a simple chronological history of the streetcar in the Twin Cities. 1949 and 1954 in particular are quite interesting.)

Anyway, the point of this story was that I wanted to find underground streetcar tunnels. Since they were streetcars, though, obviously they won’t be underground (unless, apparently, they were crossing railways, in which case they were to be built underground as subways). Simply etymology. However, the tunnels holding the electric wires are obviously accessible (scroll all the way down) somehow, so maybe not all hope is lost.

The adventure might continue…

(h/t guy at bar)

Waking up in Wisconsin

Every small town in Wisconsin has:
1. A lutheran church
2. A funeral home
3. A chiropractor

It seems a prudent collection of institutions: life is hard, so you pray. Life is still hard, so you get your back rubbed. Then, you die.

Nothing is certain but death and back pain.

(Also in Wisconsin, I saw a large banner appended to the side of a barn that read: “Pray and vote to stop abortion.” I don’t like Wisconsin, despite the large number of cows who call it home.)

Vendettas.

My intention was to head to Boston today to Occupy our fair city of tea parties and revolution, but it is dreary and raining and I know, I know, I am lame and so not hardcore. I’ll embrace my role as an armchair activist.

Until I get off my tuchas (sp?), look what’s lacking at Occupies Maine and Baltimore.

Philadelphia, Mon., Oct. 10, 2011
Zuccotti Park, New York, Wed., Oct 5, 2011
M St. & 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C., Sun., Oct. 9, 2011
I guess Occupiers really like V for Vendetta.

And I just have to throw this out there:

Philadelphia, Mon., Oct. 10, 2011

Cheers.

It could be worse.

Leaving the Twins game (in the middle of the eighth), we saw a pregnant homeless woman with a sign reading “it could be worse.” The Twins were and ended up embarrassingly losing 8-1. I felt like I was an Indians fan in the beginning of Major League. Dan is still uniquely disturbed by the Twins’ loss. I am more concerned with the pregnant homeless woman. It could always be worse.

On a brighter note, the Mets beat the Braves and there’s a hurricane a-comin’.

Why are women dying?

This article on Mother Jones, juxtaposed with the article in Rabble (CA) I had just read, piqued my interest. Is the female life expectancy going down in correlation with other factors? Initially I thought it might be related to institutional neglect of reservations, though my side-by-side comparison has proved that to be at least on its face inaccurate, with the possible exception of in South Dakota. (What does make for an interesting point, however, is then the either normalization or increase of female life expectancy on the reservations.) Then I compared to a map of the poorest counties in the US. There were a few more alignments here, but it didn’t seem the overall geographic trend could be attributed to either of these factors (inferior healthcare either in poverty-ridden areas or on the reservation or both).

Female Life Expectancy
Reservation Map
Low Income Map