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.



Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Liz,

Thanks for sharing this about the film and about your own experiences with being Jewish, and Judaism, and how all that relates to Quakerism.

It brings to mind Eli Wiesel's spiritual struggles in his memoir Night, and the PBS movie God on Trial set in a Nazi Concentration Camp.
Have you seen the PBS movie? Very powerful, especially in its spiritual depth.

Also, all of this takes me back to when I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. At first people thought I was Jewish because they saw me reading the Jewish Bible often, and because I seemed "Jewish" while my friend, who was Jewish didn't and wasn't religious.

Aren't our spiritual journeys--besides being difficult--wondrous in their uniqueness?

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox

Robin M. said...

I have all these cliches I want to respond with:

It never rains but it pours.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
If it ain't one thing, it's another.

Sometimes I think it's the fact of the juxtaposition of so many things so close together that gives them all more meaning than they would have if they were more spread out.

Holding you in the Light as you sort it out. And I'm glad that you have Jeanne to go to movies with you.

Liz Opp said...

Daniel -

Thanks for mentioning Eli Weisel (he spoke at my college commencement, as I recall), and the PBS film, which I haven't seen.

I'm curious about the "Jewish Bible." Do you mean it had Hebrew on the cover? Or you were reading it from right to left? Of that the Hebrew text/Old Testament was distinctive somehow from the Christian text/New Testament?

Good to hear from you!

Robin -

"...the juxtaposition of so many things so close together..."

Yes, this is part of why the experience of the Jewish Film Festival was so powerful: the people (Jews), the place (a Jewish community center), the things (the films and the art exhibit, focused on Jewish mysticism)--all in one place at one time, over a period of time, even if it was less than a week long.


Anonymous said...

Liz, I've been enjoying your blog. I hope you don't mind an unrelated question: could you(or anyone here) direct me to a good beginner's Quaker reading list? (I've read George Fox's autobiography and made it through a bit of Barclay's, and a few more modern books, Chuck Fager and others.) I would love some basics of Quaker spirituality that are accessible...this may fly in the face of Quakerism, I realize. We are joining a meeting in a nearby town soon...

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Liz,

Not Hebrew on the cover or inside! Our leader at the Kibbutz Sde Nahum started teaching us volunteers Hebrew but became discouraged. Well, I can say 'Hallelujah';-)

I was raised to call the first part of the Bible, the 'Old Testament.' However, Jewish people often dislike that name, so at some point I started referring to the Jewish part of the Bible as the Jewish Bible. Or the Hebrew Bible.

My 'two quaker sense' on the best book about Quakerism is
--Friends for 300 Years by Howard Brinton.

In the Light,

Anonymous said...

And....ordered. Thank you, Daniel!

James Riemermann said...

I should point out, Daniel, that's it's not quite to the point that Jewish people "dislike" the name "Old Testament," though that may be true for some. It is more to the point to say that what Christians call the "Old Testament" is not the scripture of the Jews. The Old Testament and the Tanakh (Torah ("Teaching"), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings") have a great deal in common but are not the same. The order of the books is greatly different and so is some of the content. Most significantly, the Tanakh has no sequel within Jewish tradition. Although I guess there's a sense in which you could call Talmud (later commentary on the Tanakh) a "sequel."

Liz Opp said...

Daniel and James -

Thanks for chiming in...

Y'know, it might be a bit of Christian privilege that Christians can "rename" the Torah as they see fit. (I have to raise this question because of a conference I just participated in that looks at privilege from many different perspectives, including Christian privilege in the U.S.)...

Anonymous -

My entree into Quaker literature was Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith & Practice.

You can find more "introductory" reading at QuakerBooks of Friends General Conference (click "By Subject" on the left; then either "Welcome to Quakerism" or "Quaker Foundations."


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Liz!