as lighting the menorah if I draw it on a piece of paper?
as lighting the menorah if I draw it on a piece of paper?
[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.
Tom Robbins apparently has the knack to succinctly and colorfully describe everything I find distasteful about controlling, patriarchal organized religions. Today’s quote:
“For those who would pray but not dance, fast but not feast, baptize but not splash, flog but not fuck, for those who would buy spirit but sell soul, crown Father but deceive Mother, those men found Herod’s Temple a threatening place at vernal equinox and under a harvest moon.”
(Skinny Legs and All, h/t Leah)
Punishment without celebration, male without female, obedience without thought. This phenomenon is a sad truth not unique to a specific time or place, painfully relevant both to ancient history and modern politics. Though the story here is lighthearted, the message is, undoubtedly, not.
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.
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?*
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.
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.
This holiday is already bad enough, what with the drunkards out in full force and not even pizza shops open to save them from their own inanity.
Why I felt the need to indulge in my bitter, self-righteous loneliness and complete unfeelingness twoards this day of eminent pointlessness (my uncaring is so strong I even had to hover over the Goog-icon until my Homer Simpson “doh” moment hit) is beyond me. Maybe sometimes you really just need that tiny push, that extra excuse, to grab a six of mediocre belgian-style wheat beer and two-day-old strawberry shortcake. Well, the strawberries were already macerated so it’s not as if I put any effort into this fandango.
What are we celebrating, anyway? The day a bunch of old (now dead) white guys signed a crinkling piece of parchment, announcing their grand intentions to cease, and I mean absolutely desist, paying any more representation-free taxes to the oppressive colonial powers that be? What, so we’re celebrating some version of our libertarian roots? Hallelujah.
Besides, it seems terribly ironic to celebrate what is ostensibly a holiday about America and freedom and independence and over-indulgence when ships full of people are being detained (for example) in Greek ports (yet another irony, o bastion, motherland of democracy) en route to protest against the inhuman suffering of one group of people at the hands of another, far more powerful group of people.
O, the humanity.
Woe, the humanity.
Independence from nothing but our own moral compasses and human responsibility. I’ll drink to that.
The amount of media discourse involving the words “Muslim,” “Islam,” “jihad,” “Arab-Israeli,” “sharia law,” “caliphate,” and the number of questions suggesting Bin Laden has a mass (as in measurable and significant, politically) following in the Middle East and North Africa, show that we are in the exact same place in our ignorance of the Middle East as we were ten years ago.
Whether or not this infuriates and empowers or disheartens and emasculates Al Qaeda cells around the world will not change constant American military presence in the region. In other words, nothing will change.
(Now I have to work. More later, hopefully.)
When I was younger, the Haggadah we used at Passover had a farcical play in the back, jocularly re-enacting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We used to perform it every year around the Seder table as our version of telling the story of Passover. There is one line from the play that has stuck with me through all these years, a line my sister and I quote to each other throughout the year, and one that seems particularly relevant as I look back at what I’ve just written:
“Woe to us, we are in trouble.”
Tonight marks the beginning of 192 hours of abstention from bread, leavening (except eggs), inflation (except beans), and alcohol (except wine, rum, tequila…oh hell, get me a beer). Why? So we can remember when we were slaves in Egypt. So we can pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. So we can make our lives marginally uncomfortable for a while, to remember our history and to prevent us from experiencing it again.
Though noble enough in origin – as my father says, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – this holiday feels in a way self-righteous. Most haggadot (the Passover dinner-service guidebook) will, at least now, mention the hardships facing minority groups in other areas of the world. I’ve seen mention of Southeast Asia and the USSR, and in the 90s we were into the African dictators and Eastern Europe. Feminist haggadot often mention inequality for women in different parts of the world, and I think we have one in our house discussing sex slaves. These days particularly leftist haggadot will even mention Palestine.
But the buck stops here. We acknowledge the suffering of others; we hope and we pray that these people will experience freedom, justice, and liberty, just as we were freed from Egypt and wandered around the desert (independently!, mind you) for forty years. Hooray for us, now go find your own Moses.
We are so focused on preventing our own history from repeating itself, though, that we cannot see when we are inflicting terrible collective damage on other people. We – and all minorities – are and must be survivalist. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if we don’t protect our clan, surely we will meet our demise. Thus we may only in good faith marry among ourselves, live in homogeneous communities, pray only for the health and welfare of our own kind, and while we wish well upon others, there is always the unspoken addendum to “may you be free”: “but not as free as we.”
Perhaps it is time for us to stop worrying about ourselves to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps it is time for us to give money to a charitable yet non-Jewish organization (like a Catholic or even secular hospital, for instance). Perhaps we ought to recognize that behaving with the clear and direct intention of simply preventing our own history from repeating itself will inevitably mean we, or others, will inflict the same hardships on other minorities, and we have set ourselves up only to be complicit spectators or active perpetrators of similar crimes.
Why do we, as people who have suffered, not hear the same cries for help, not recognize new histories moving down the same paths as ours once did, not step in and speak out? Half-drunk around the dinner table two nights a year is not enough.
With its spiritual and ideological focus on freedom, Passover is a time not to talk about our hopes for others, these fluid fragments of ideas, but to act on them. To actually believe in what we say, without addenda, and to put our idle words – all people will be free – into action.
I believe in “next year in Jerusalem,” but I also believe in next year in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Amman, in Jeddah, in Cairo, in Manama, in Gaza City, in Tunis, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Paris, in Havana, in Augusta and Madison, in Tokyo, in Naypyidaw, Burma, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and throughout the world. We deserve freedom no more and no less than anyone else, and if we are going to spend 8 days a year saying it, we’d best start spending 365 days a year believing it.