on Friday, 14 October 2016.
Posted in Rabbi
I got kicked out of my first yoga class. I had taken many gym classes prior to being excommunicated from yoga, so when someone proposed to me that I try the class, I had no hesitation. I was about ten minutes in when, while lying on my back with knees bent, I was asked in that semi-sultry yoga instructor whisper to “pay attention to your breath and imagine a teacup resting on your pelvis. As you raise your pelvis to the sky, concentrate on your breath so that you don’t spill the tea.”
It was at that moment that I broke into hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. The kind that bellows and makes your eyes water and snot pour out your nostrils. Not only did I spill my imaginary tea, I was asked by sultry-voiced yoga lady to leave the class.
I’m reminded of that moment just now because Rosh Hashanah begins a time of reflection. The story of the Binding of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael highlights concepts of Faith. For me, focusing on these concepts is like asking me to focus on my breath. It’s silly, and difficult and a little disorientating. I’m the kind of kid that in second grade of my Evangelical Christian School questioned the lyrics of a popular children’s Christian song by asking, “But how do you know Jesus loves you?” I was told I had to work on my Faith.
Faith. It has been the bane of my existence since my existence began. I either didn’t have it, or had too much of it. Whatever it was, in the world of Evangelical schooling, I was doing Faith wrong.
I greatly believed in God, but didn’t quite understand Him (it was him at the time). I read the Bible but kept finding what appeared to be flaws or textual inconsistencies that no adult would really explain. My father, ever the joker, would pose more questions like, “the bigger question is did Adam and Eve have bellybuttons?” My mother would tell him to stop being foolish and tell to me all I could do was have Faith because I couldn’t know God’s thoughts. I found that answer horribly unfair. God gets to know us but we don’t get to know God? Hmpf. I found a bookmark with Einstein’s quote, “I want to know God’s thoughts the rest are just details” and carried it with me everywhere in silent protest.
Ironically, in high school I got an award at our Junior/Senior banquet as the person in my grade who “most exemplifies Christ”. Yes. That was an award I got. So in case you are wondering, Christ is a smart-aleck Jew-esque lesbian with the luck of Charlie Brown and the sarcasm of Tina Fey. It goes without saying that an award for History, or English would have served me better down the road.
The older I got the more I began to read “The Old Testament” aka Torah. I found the books utterly fascinating, dreadfully gory and absolutely wonderful. As Christians, we didn’t read much from Torah because it’s “what Jesus freed us from”. Sure, we reviewed snippets of stories but even those were not read directly from the Bible. Rather a casual synopsis followed by a simple lesson: Abraham was going to sacrifice his son. God stopped him. What does this tell us? Have Faith. Believe in God and it would all be ok.
It wasn’t ok. The more I saw contradictions in Bible stories the more I also found contradictions in the way people lived their belief. My family was dirt poor as my dad still didn’t have a job after 6 years of being laid off from work despite how much faith we had or how much we prayed. People at church would say things like “I don’t have the money to pay for this car, but I am going to buy it anyway and have faith that God will provide.” Faith became the Patronus Charm that conjured benefit with sheer good intent. That concept never fit into my worldview even as a child. Surely engaging in the world is something that God intended? Surely giving my friend food at lunch because I knew she didn’t have any was more valuable than just praying for food?
Aside from reading more Torah I secretly purchased The Kabbalah Deck: Pathway to the Soul by Edward Hoffman and I began studying Hebrew letters and used them like tarot cards. I would pick one every day and carry it with me trying to understand God via osmosis. I often slept with the card Ayin under my pillow. I couldn’t really pronounce the other letters, but with the Ayin I just had to make a slight breath, which I did, and meditated on nothingness.
I became obsessed with the Ten Sefirot and studied them at home in secret whenever I could. The concept that the Ten Sefirot made up the Divine seemed a wonderfully tangible way to understand God, or at least how God worked.
I soon went to and graduated from the Christian liberal arts school, Gordon College. I knew prior to going into Gordon that I was not Christian, but I didn’t have any guidance about any other schools, or the process of college itself since no one in my family went to college. So I went to Gordon like everyone else.
It was Dr. Marvin Wilson, my ‘Old Testament’ professor who said it. “Reading the Old Testament in English is like kissing your bride with her veil still down. You lose something in between.” Despite the sexist comparison, I began to wonder, is it possible that the Bible doesn’t say what I was taught it said? The possibility caused me to exhale a great sigh of relief.
I spent my remaining years at Gordon being a closeted lesbian unknowingly fumbling my way toward Judaism.
After graduation, I planned on attending graduate school to get my Psy.D so I could counsel children. However, my 16 year old sister got pregnant and my mother asked me to come home to help. For me it was an easy decision. I did not want the hypocrisy of spending 4 years learning to help kids, when there was a kid in my own family who needed help now. I returned home to Laconia New Hampshire, which had even fewer lesbians and less Jews.
I spent my 20’s raising my beautiful niece Megan. I only planned on being with her for 6 years. As Freud points out, that is when a personality is developed. “Great” I thought, “six years to shield her from evangelicalism and thwart any potential underlying debilitating psychosis and I’m back to school!” That was before I met Megan. Before I cut the cord after she was born. Before I fell in love with her. I stayed with Megan, living with her at my parent’s house until she was 13 years old.
Megan taught me how to love. When you love a child, it is complete vulnerability. There is no guarantee that they will love you back, or even like you. In the case with Megan, I wasn’t even her parent, so there was no guarantee how long she might be in my life, and how long I would have the opportunity to love her in a tangible way. Vulnerability it turns out, is scary, and not something you can learn in books. You have to do vulnerability; and you cannot do it casually.
Megan taught me about the wonder of the universe and value of being in the moment. All of her actions and thoughts became a metaphor for living a more interconnected life. When Megan was very little we would take rides up to the White Mountains and take the trolley to the top of Cannon Mountain. One day when we were almost to the top of the mountain she exclaimed, “I see it! I see it!” as she pointed into the mist. “What?” I asked, “What do you see?” “God!” she replied.
We spent the next two hours pointing out the places God was, in the trees, in the clouds, with the birds, in the dirt. By lunchtime Megan had her first Sinai moment when she paused and said, “and me aunt P. God is with me.”
On another occasion I had taken to wearing a dorje around my neck. A dorje is a Buddhist symbol that’s a bit pointy and on the occasions that you feel it, it is meant to wake you up and remind you to center yourself. While leaning over Megan at bedtime to kiss her goodnight, the dorje fell forward and Megan grabbed it. “What is this? She inquired. “It’s a dorje. I wear it on my neck because it reminds me who I really am.” Megan considered it for a moment, “That’s just faith P, That’s all it is really.”
With a full time job and helping to care for Megan, I had no time to pursue other studies. I was reminded that the ability to contemplate and pursue spiritual or existential matters is a luxury in a world of poverty. Since I could not chase those ideals cerebrally, I tried to live those concepts more consciously.
I was 30 when I had a heart attack. I’m fine. It was minor and there is nothing structurally wrong with my heart, but the even caused existential and spiritual questions to come flooding back into my conscious in a more intellectual manner. I began to make conscious choices in my life after my heart attack. I stopped smoking, ate better, and exercised a lot. I began reading and writing again. As Megan got older and was now living with her mother and her new step-dad, I had more time to explore issues that were important to me. I read God Is A Verb by Rabbi David A Cooper. It validated my thoughts that we are co-creators with God and we co-create by actually doing deeds and not with a faith based Patronus Charms. I tried to notice Holy Sparks in others, and in myself.
I came out to my parents, which went disastrously. Shortly thereafter I moved out and into a living arrangement with my girlfriend at the time. It was a stereotypical long lesbian story that fell apart after two years leaving me both alone and bankrupt. I moved into to my studio apartment with a bed, a papasan chair, one mug, a coffee pot and a TV.
It was during this time that a colleague of mine asked me if I had “been to that temple in Concord. The one with the Lesbian Rabbi?” I very quickly shot back at him that there was no such thing as a Lesbian Rabbi. He insisted it was a real thing. He was also a little scatterbrained. Being a universal distruster, I decided to check it out myself.
I went to my first Friday night Shabbat service at Temple Beth Jacob and never looked back. I flooded Rabbi Robin’s email inbox with questions and thoughts. I made more coffee dates with her than my whole dating pool combined. I read all the books she gave me at least twice, and I challenged her with intellectual questions and she challenged me with vulnerability questions. She still does. Thank God for Lesbian Rabbis.
I met the “Saturday Morning Crew” a hodgepodge of delightful nonconformists who had nothing in common but their desire to study Torah. We sat in a circle. It was my own little island of misfit toys and I felt I belonged there. I still feel that way.
I began to eat Kosher. I didn’t know how. After 3 hours at the grocery store and 386 dollars later, I decided to ask for some clarification from Rabbi Robin. I ate Kosher because I wasn’t Jewish, and I didn’t have a family. It was just me. Eating Kosher was the best way I knew how to consciously connect to Judaism and to God in a way that was tangible.
The tangibility of Judaism was a breath of fresh air to me. Evangelicals do what they want, but Jews do things with purpose. I wanted to be connected to that purpose.
For the first year or two I was concerned I was doing Judaism wrong. For example I accidently brought a dessert that looked like breasts to my first Kol Nidre meal with Rabbi Robin and company. Thanks to Nadav and Avihu I was petrified to go near the Torah because I was afraid of bursting into flames. The first time I celebrated Hanukkah I couldn’t have candles in my apartment, so I arranged shot glasses with tea lights in them. I reluctantly told Rabbi Robin thinking this would be the act in which I had gone too far in my in my irreverent reverence. But no, instead Rabbi told me that she believes God values my ingenuity. Despite my lack of knowledge Rabbi Robin and Cantor Shira continued to invite me to share Rosh Hashanah and Seder meals with them. Never treating me like I wasn’t Jewish and always embracing me as though I belonged there. They still do.
Three years after my first steps into Temple Beth Jacob it soon became apparent that I was living a Jewish life. Not merely by going to temple but by the way I conducted myself in public and thought about the world. I had deep issues with being worthy of being included in the Jewish community. Who did I think I was, taking my white Western privilege and inserting myself into a culture whose people have struggled, and continue to struggle over generation after generation? “We were all at Sinai Pam,” Rabbi Robin would say. Even though I viewed myself more as tailgating at Sinai than participating in the show, I still heard the words. Was the fact that I could choose the obligation any different than those who could not?
I never considered converting to Judaism. I didn’t need to. I was a single person doing my own thing, I could be Jewish in my home and I could be Jewish in Temple and it suited me. I was happy living the life as a Jew without any commitment. That was until I met Maddie.
Maddie is my girlfriend. She’s a Unitarian Universalist atheist among other things. She’s 16 years younger and 25 years smarter than me. She’s funny and creative and, but for Rabbi Robin, has encouraged more toward embracing my Judaism that any other person I know.
Having a life with Maddie, who is not Jewish, has in a strange way cultivated my need both practically and internally identify myself as Jewish. My Jewishness became not something that I could just do alone, in the privacy of my one bedroom apartment, but was now something I had to share with another human being.
And not just one human being. Maddie comes with a long list of friends and family. As our relationship grew, I began to overhear Maddie on the phone say things like, “I’m not sure if we can go out Friday night because Pam and I usually have a Shabbat dinner together.” Maddie was exposing my Jewish living to the outside world and that was terrifying. By this time, I knew there was already a conversion plot afoot by members of the Temple Beth Jacob congregation to kidnap me and throw me into the mikveh, but now constant questions from the outside world about whether I was Jewish became difficult to answer, and I always felt sad that I didn’t get to say “yes I am a Jew”.
In a typical Pam style scenario, a friend invited Maddie, myself and two additional friends over for dinner on a Friday night. Maddie and I brought wine and challah. Our other friends brought Camp Wannamango beer. Before reciting the blessing, I realized I had forgotten the candles. Maddie immediately activated her flashlight AP on her cellphone. Our friend followed suit. “There you go. Two lights” Maddie said with a smile. I said the blessing. I lifted my wine and clinked their Camp Wannamango (which we decided, since it’s mango flavored it counts as fruit of the vine) beer cans and ripped apart the challah.
Now, though, this New Year, I am happy and proud to say, I am fumbling my way officially as a Jew. I will no longer live Judaism cautiously. Whether I’m tailgating at Sinai, panting my way through a perpetual exodus, or following my heaving heart, even if it’s into the wilderness, I will no longer live Judaism casually. I will have faith in who I truly am, a silly, difficult and often disorientated Jew. Paying attention, being present and trying not to spill the tea.
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