A couple of weeks ago on my way to yoga class, I passed an elderly couple walking on the street. Because of the embankment of snow and ice from the latest onslaught of the weather gods left them no sidewalk, they were practically in the middle of the road. From the way that they were walking, I sensed that they were on a mission of some sort, but had to wonder what would bring an elderly couple out on a Saturday morning to pick their way over snow and ice? Then, it suddenly occurred to me: Oh!!--Today is Saturday!! The couple was on their way to morning shabbat (sabbath) services, and upholding the rules of their faith by not driving a car.
A part of me wanted to pull over, leave my car and walk with them, but my friend would be waiting for me at the yoga studio, and I could just see the look on her face when I told her that the reason I didn't show up for our weekly appointment was to walk with two elderly Jews down the street. Of course, I dare say that she would not be surprised if I did this, but since we have a pact that only fatal illness will stop us from practicing yoga together on Saturdays, I had to keep going. I could fantasize as much as I wanted about making friends with my observant Jewish neighbors, but I could not stop. At least, not this time.
A couple of years ago, when I first announced to friends and family that I had been accepted to a prestigious Arabic language program for the summer, a few people in my life expressed their fear and worry that I would somehow "turn Muslim". As usual, my mother was the biggest, oppositional voice in the crowd. She's in a constant state of panic that I identify too much with people around me, and that this could possibly put me in harm's way. What she doesn't realize is that this is a survival tool more than anything, but I digress. However, the Moms wasn't the only one with the concern that I could be sucked into my adopted environment. My Jewish-Only-When-It-Suits-Him friend, Grasshopper, also freely expressed his reservations. "You're totally going to let "them" turn you Arab," he said one night after too many drinks. Half-joking, half-serious, he said that the study of Arabic was like using marijuana--it would be a gateway into harder, more addictive things like cocaine, heroine, and god forbid, Islam.
Truth be told, I did study a little about Islam, and it just wasn't for me. In high school, because of a very cute guy I liked, I experimented with Buddhist meditation, too, but really struggled with it. Although I still meditate often, I have a particularly hard time being a good Buddhist. Since I began practicing yoga a few years ago, I find that I do have a spiritual place in my practice, but even still, I am not a purist of anything. And, if I am going to identify with any sort of faith at all, it's going to have to rational and secular. Very much so. Extremism is for fruit loops...
If the Moms is right about one thing, it's true that I am especially sensitive to things. Secretly, in my travels of old cities, I have always gravitated to the designated Jewish quarters of yesteryear. Stone walls have a way of retaining the energy of those who once dwelled within them. I love running my hand along them as I walk by, feeling the preciousness of their stories. I especially felt this in Spain. In Poland, however, I found that I didn't want to touch a thing. I was so agitated that I couldn't sleep at night. Everything in Warsaw made me want to run down the street. This feeling grew much worse in Krakow, where I found that I was in a slow boil of disgust without words. Certainly, this wasn't helped by the terrible, cancerous anti-semitism that still exists there. My host family had a highly illicit first edition of Mein Kamph on their book shelf, which I routinely fantasized about taking and burning. (Apparently it was their most prized possession.) Adding to this, never before had I been given so many dirty looks and asked if I was Jewish. At one point, a friend of mine in Bratislava told me that his grandmother would ask me if I was Jewish or "a gypsy" when I arrived on their doorstep. He even gave me a cross to wear---"for safety reasons only". Dark hair, olive skin and being a hearty genetic blend of Jewish and all sorts of European ancestry doesn't apparently blend so well in this ethnically "clean" part of the world...
And speaking of this, like all good traveling social scientists, I ventured over to Auschwitz and Birkenau during my eastern European stint. Just being there gave me so much angst that I ended up tossing my breakfast on the steps of building 21 in the Auschwitz camp. The place was magnificently horrifying. Fortunately, this was my first and only anxiety attack, but it was very real. I couldn't get out of Poland fast enough.
Most recently, when I told the Moms and Grasshopper that I've been reading and rediscovering a Jewish awareness with me. Both of them had the same response:
"Why would you want to be a part of a group of people who continue to be persecuted? Why are you willingly affiliating yourself with something that could seriously get you into trouble?"
For me, the answer is quite clear: "Why not?"
Judaism has a texture and vibrancy that I am yet to find anywhere else. It's the spiritual tradition that encourages an individual to ask hard questions, debate various viewpoints, and ask hard questions again. It's literary without being literal. It's spiritual without proselytizing. It's social...and, while it definitely has it's more extremist versions, I particularly like the way that women and family are held in it. I like that sex on the sabbath is considered a double mitzvah. I also like that love, marriage and family are central to this tradition, both spiritually and socially. I'm partial to the idea that reading something in its original Hebrew (or even Aramaic) is closer to the original intent and meaning than reading something in translated into Greek or Latin and then withheld from the illiterate masses for centuries to come. Unlike Christianity, I feel that Judaism hasn't been so utterly bastardized by politics. Judaism was never used as a divine excuse for an expanding, genocidal empire. Constantine never altered it. And on this note, I'm yet to hear of a rabbi sexual predator. The fact that the Jewish tradition was never wiped off the map despite so many egregious attempts by political leaders tells me that there is something more there. There's a certain, tenacity to these people and a vivaciousness to their traditions. I would consider it an honor to be a part of this tribe. I think the decision is clear.
The wonderful thing about ultimately saying that I am Jewish is that I don't feel like I am pressured to leave anything behind. That is, unless you want to count the Baby Jesus that hangs all over my grandmother's house. I believe that he was a really fantastic guy, but I was never all that hyped up on what happened to the poor Mary virgin who suddenly found herself pregnant without giving consent. It always bothered me that Mary wasn't allowed to make up her own mind about becoming a teenage mother, even if she was giving birth to the Son of G-d. I found that part, along with a few other dogmatic things, relatively uncool. But to the degree that I'm giving up the Jesus, I'm adding another layer to myself by deepening my spiritual connection to the world around me. My spiritualism is nothing new, and I fail to think that it will ever be pigeonholed. The wonderful thing about it is that I'm walking down this path by choice and on my own. Because I already feel like I've found my spiritual destination, I'm in no real rush to go through the motions of being more "officially" Jewish. Like all life journeys, it will come over time. So, yes, I'm a Jew in Progress. And, in the spirit of all good things, the officially lovely news is that this Jew in Progress will be heading back Jerusalem for more research and study in May.