April 2, 2011

Revisiting my Jewish identity

This past week has provided another doorway into my Jewish upbringing. Jeanne and I have been going to a few films that are part of the local Jewish Film Festival.


It's the first time since 1986 or 1987--when I left that faith tradition--that I've been surrounded by so many Jewish people.

I was nearly overwhelmed. In the few hours I spent at the community center one evening, I began to wonder--again--how my life would have been different had I been exposed to a different kind of Judaism when I was growing up.

...Or how my life would have been different had I actually followed the kind of Judaism that my family practiced!

At the first film we went to, it was hard to stay present: the crowd that gathered could have been the same people from the New Jersey synagogue I grew up in. Most people were in their 50s, 60s, and 70s; a number of women were rather dressed up for just a movie; some were even wearing furs (!).

And the women and men were LOUD. They greeted each other loudly, they interrupted loudly, they took their seats in the theater loudly, they whispered loudly, as if every utterance of theirs had an exclamation point at its end. ("Are you saving that seat?! Are there enough seats for all of us to sit there?! I don't like sitting so close, can't we move back another few rows...?!")

That's when it hit me:

    Jews were extroverts.
And as if to affirm my observation, within two minutes of my mentioning that to Jeanne, a stranger sat down and struck up a conversation with her. Amazing!

In one of the venues, at a suburban Jewish community center, there was a small art gallery off the lobby. We had about 40 minutes of wait time before the film and so I went into the gallery, giving myself some space away from the throng of the enthusiastically loud extroverts.

The exhibit was about the mystical part of Judaism known as Kabbalah. As the explanatory material in the exhibit pointed out, the Kabbalah traditionally is/was studied only by men, and only after decades of study of the Torah and of the Talmud. But for this exhibit, these art pieces were all done by women, and their expression of this deep, forbidden part of Judaism that had long been cut off from me and my Jewish sisters, moved me deeply.

A week later, reflecting on what I saw and what I read, something still stirs in my soul...

Was it a wonder that my twenty-some years of experience of Judaism was so empty, if as a child or young adult I didn't have access to the mystical part of the Living Presence that speaks to my condition?

Is it a wonder that Quakerism--a mystical faith tradition that is accessible even to children and youth--is it a wonder that Quakerism continues to speak to me, thirty years after I was exposed to its manner of worship?

Having just had that opening and wondering, I entered the theater with Jeanne--and watched a film that was focused on true events from the Holocaust.

Raw would be an apt word to describe how I felt after that experience.

Seeing La Rafle with a Jewish audience--the persecution, the horror, the hope-against-hope even though we know how it ends--definitely has a visceral power that binds the nonobservant Jew with the devout one; the cultural American Jew with the practicing Israeli Jew, the Reformed Jew with the Orthodox.

With the Jews depicted in the film, their story was our story; their pain was our pain. This I had been taught religiously while growing up, not by words but by everything but words.

It seems that in Judaism, the Holocaust is one of those topics where it's whispered about within earshot of Jewish children, making them curious about what the grown-ups are talking about and never spoken of directly until the kids are older. Then, when we do find out, we are horrified and we don't have the skills or the mentors to help us learn what to do with our pain. We turn into adults who whisper within earshot of Jewish children about the atrocities that no one ought to have lived through, and the cycle and the connection-through-pain continues.

So it was hard for me to come up out of that shared event of the film. I had a familiar but awful feeling about the experience. It took me about ten minutes of silence and of averting Jeanne's concerned gaze before I could say anything:
    The thing is, growing up and learning about the Holocaust, it's all about an identity that's sustained through pain and suffering. This is what happened to so many Jewish people, even though both sides of my family had been safely in the U.S. long before World War II, and yet I was taught verbally and nonverbally to accept this as part of who I am. And if I don't connect with the suffering, if I don't stay connected with the Jewish community, than who am I?
    In Sunday school, I have no memory of ever having been taught about the joy of being Jewish. I had no models of that until I was in graduate school when I connected with one Jewish family who had showed me a different way to be Jewish. But I wasn't surrounded or immersed by that sort of community and so it never took.
    And now I realize and remember that Quakers were also persecuted. Yet even while they were imprisoned and starving, they apparently still experienced such joy in the Spirit. A joy that I myself have experienced directly! And I see how much modern Quakers talk about the joy that comes with being faithful! It's such a different message, a different experience...

Somehow I feel I was denied a Jewish experience that could have been mine, which I suppose is exactly what happened, even if no one set out to make it like that.

And while I was having my real-time flashbacks to my life as a Jew, I was also getting reconnected a bit with my Quaker blogging friends, and my experience of worship has been having a new quality of depth to it...

Where God is taking me I cannot know. I do seem to be drawn into the community that is available to me at the time, provided there is authenticity, mystical experience, reflection, and joy.

Thanks for reading me.