Tevet-Sh’vat 5769 ~ January-February 2009

I was on my own on the weekend of January 23rd while Brian was away at a conference, and something happened that, if I’m to be honest about it, scared me more than a little.

It was Saturday night. I’d spent half of Friday and most of Saturday immersed in Torah study, reading, and services at CRC. I’d watched a young woman receive the Torah scroll in her arms — one rescued, against all odds, from the ashes of Holocaust — after it was passed from her grandparents to her parents to her.

Here I go, I’m crying again! Thinking about how sweet, how enveloping the love was that day, and I didn’t even know the family or their hordes of well-wishers.

But at the heart of it all was an ancient text I didn’t know much about even a few months ago, one that has knocked down all my expectations and dumb hangups like bowling pins.

We are at some of the deepest moments in Exodus as I write this, so if there was ever a time to be bowled over, it’s now.

On the Topic of Being Bowled Over…

That night, I went out for drinks with Rob. We went to a very posh, very lively gay bar. I sat there, drinking fruity martinis, making small talk, and all I could think about was Torah. The soundtrack in my head was nothing but CRC songs and Hebrew prayers.

I had one or two more drinks than would have been ideal. Once I got home, I took Lizzie out for her pre-bedtime walk, and outside it was very cold, clear, and utterly silent. It was the last day of Tevet, I think. Smooth, razor-edged clouds slid soundlessly across black sky, like whales almost, their bellies lit by the city.

Under that cold sky, the feeling in my chest that I’ve come to know by its Hebrew name, shechinah, seized me, laid me bare as always. I felt G-d’s presence, and I wept. I shook. I cried out over and over, looking up at that silent sky, Adonai.

What a sight I must have made. Lizzie tugged at her leash, eager to get on with her own priorities, and I let her pull me as I stumbled and sobbed, and cried over and over, Adonai. My limbs took me up the steps, into the house, to bed. I woke up with a monstrous hangover.

This Scares Me a Little

Granted, I’d had too much to drink, so I shouldn’t be too surprised that my feelings ran away with me. I was like a new lover, blurting out inappropriate things after a few martinis. But what hit me that night has been there since the beginning of this journey; it just didn’t have as much of my brainy inhibitions to bottle it up.

Here’s the thing. I guess I didn’t realize it fully until now, but it seems I went into this journey not expecting to have wild, ecstatic moments like this. I saw them coming, I suppose, in those first moments during the High Holy Days, but let’s face it, someone approaching the tradition from the outside, not familiar the thread of ecstatic worship in Jewish observance, could be forgiven for thinking that Judaism is one of those calm and reserved religions. Like Lutheranism in Hebrew.

Understand this as well. I had charismatic worshippers on all sides of me when I was growing up, nothing but evangelical Christians for miles in every direction. I perceived them as deeply, deeply threatening. I saw their way of worship as a kind of voodoo. Weird, a little sick even, but powerful enough that it could overwhelm a rational person if they let their guard down for too long. They put out the claim that they could turn gay people straight, and as I kid I was afraid that if I got within a mile of one of their services, they’d try just that.

I remember my revulsion as I watched them on television. Weeping, trembling, casting their eyes upwards towards some imagined being. Just like me. That very night.

My fear of these kinds of extremes was planted so early, so deeply, that there’s no point in trying to silence it. And in truth, the experience spooked me enough that I kept it to myself until now.

Oh Wait. There’s More …

With that night on my mind, and after four months of immersion, I feel like I’m in a strange place. I’ve been here before, as an exchange student in Germany in the late eighties. After four months of speaking only German, I found myself on the phone with my parents back home, trying to tell them about everything I had been up to. I was already thinking in German at that point, and between the English words I’d forgotten and the German words I knew but hadn’t learned how to translate, I stumbled a lot. Off the phone, I stumbled a lot in German as well, but if you had seen me or listened to me from a distance, you would I would have thought I fit right in.

That’s right where I think I am right now. Immersed enough that I now have a hard time translating for the people I left behind, starting I feel like I’m blending in, but not enough by a long shot to feel like a settled immigrant. Amphibious, you might say. Not a creature of the land, not a fish in the sea. Something inbetween.

One minute I’m weirded out by some tradition or reference I haven’t even heard of yet — Pesach seems to be coming my way with lots of those — or aghast at another act of divine sadism in Exodus. The next minute I’m grinning from ear to ear, belting out Adonai yim’loch l’olam va’ed.

But at the other end of the story twenty years ago, I became so fiercely identified with my new German self that for the next several years, even after I returned to the States, all of my close friends were German or German speakers like me. I put German at the center of my life as a student and then as a professional. And then, about ten years ago now, I just stopped. I woke up, and all I felt was ambivalence, which was an awkward situation for someone whose title was “Professor of German.” I quit my job, which I would have done eventually for lots of other reasons, but I also turned my back on almost everything German, and I haven’t looked back since. I feel no German-shaped absence at all.

So I guess that’s another thing that spooked me about that moonless Tevet night. What if these past four months are just another staging of the same play? Another cycle of my tendency toward extremes? What if I wake up some day — days or months or years from now — and walk away from this journey the way I walked away from my rich German identity? What would that say about what has really been going on these past months?

I’m grown up enough now to recognize what-if’s for what they are and to leave tomorrow for tomorrow. And if I’m truthful with myself, it’s easy to see the difference between the misfit kid I was then — grasping for an identity, or maybe just an academic major — and the thirty-eight-year-old man who found himself trembling in G-d’s presence. I had almost no sense back then of what was genuine and authentic to me, didn’t even know to ask the right questions. All of that is different now, and I understand a lot more about how to keep fear — especially of the hypothetical sort — in its place. It’s a small place, but one that can nevertheless not be wished away.

Two Worlds, One Foot in Each

Whatever misgivings I’ve been having, which you’ll notice are all about me and my various semi-neuroses, I feel like I’ve struck a good balance these past months between deep immersion and a take-it-slow-and-steady approach.

Even so, some things have changed in just the past few weeks. Shabbat has worked very well for us this month. Weekend before last, I let go of my preoccupation with food prep and just loaded up on semi-gross stuff from the deli at Schnuck’s. The other weekend it was leftovers. Our jobs are more intense than usual these days, and we have lots of other obligations screaming for our attention. But both weekends, we let all that go and spent lots of time at CRC, then afternoons at home napping and reading.

I remember one languid moment when I woke up long enough to see a bright column of lazy afternoon sunlight slanting through the window. Brian was napping in his chair, a book on his chest. Lizzie was sprawled on her bed. Everything that matters to me was in that room. It was a moment of true sweetness, and a moment when I felt like I totally got Shabbat.

I think it even became clear to Brian. We were driving to work the following Monday, already stressing out about what awaited us. I took a long breath. “I miss Shabbat,” I said to Brian. “I miss it, too,” he replied.

Even just a month ago maybe, the thought of an oncoming Shabbat made me a little tense, like a test I hadn’t studied for enough. Then at some point, my week turned into a countdown to Friday, to Torah study and turning the damn computer off, to Shacharit prayers and languid Saturday reading and napping.

Getting Serious

I feel like I get Shabbat now at some crucial, basic level. I feel like I’ve tasted the kind of sweetness I had read about but never understood in my own way when we started observing at home. Going forward is a matter of deepening and exploring. The next thing I want to tackle is prayer.

I feel like I only get what prayer is about when I’m at services. When I’m alone, it comes only in fleeting, accidental moments. Folding it into daily life is going to be a big challenge, and for someone who tends towards extremes of focus, it is more difficult than it might sound.

I started out a few months ago by trying to say modeh ani every day, and my best effort has put me at about four days out of seven, maybe five, and only rarely do I say it until I’ve eaten, had my coffee, and bathed. I can’t say with sincerity that I’m grateful to have my soul back until then, which sounds awful when I admit to it. Must work on sense of perspective.

But it makes so much sense to me in other settings. Without even thinking about it, I find myself singing modeh ani when I’m cooking or settling in at work or walking with Lizzie on a beautiful day. If this is about sincerity, I’d also have to say that the ritualized inventory of prayers in the tradition doesn’t yet speak to me.

But in my scattered way, I suppose I’ve been davening quite a lot, experimenting and using what works, even if it doesn’t fit into the tradition at all. I haven’t started thinking about learning all the b’rachot for this and that remarkable occurrence, so whenever something remarkable does happen, I just repeat the first six words of the b’racha to myself. Like seeing the full moon of Tu BiSh’vat behind streaking, silent clouds: Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam. Or the night after that, that same moon minus a tiny sliver, hanging plump and lazy orange on the horizon. Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam.

When I’m stuck in a moment that I’d rather not be in, which happens with some regularity at work, I say Shehechiyanu, dwelling on v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh. Thank you for bringing us to this moment. I even change it to v’higi’ati when I’m in a Hebrew mindset, but either way, it centers me in where I am, not where I’d rather be.

When I’m among people, especially if something about them is bothering me, I repeat to myself b’tselem elohim, b’tselem elohim. In the image of G-d. The first time I did this in a concerted way, on my way to UMSL via Metrolink, it was ecstatic. I couldn’t stop smiling, which is no small wonder for me. Nothing focusses the mind on the beauty of human diversity quite like the thought of all those very different faces reflecting the same infinite Being.

I’m still memorizing V’ahavta, and I love saying it over and over. I love its rhythm and its repetitions, it consonant clusters and its sweet intimacy. It’s all the more remarkable in the grave context of the Exodus, a prayer about about imprinting mitzvot into the heart, the home, the hands in the middle of a sweeping national epic.

To Close, Some Miscellaneous Thoughts

In the midst of all of this month’s Sturm und Drang, we had a sublimely comical moment at a Shabbat dinner with two new friends we met at services just a few weeks ago. It was a few days before Tu BiSh’vat, and one of the CRC staff had asked me on the Thursday before whether we were coming to CRC’s seder.

I told him about our dinner invitation and he said, “Oh, just be sure to eat a fruit you haven’t eaten in the previous year.”

So I went to Whole Foods and got a starfruit, since I was reasonably sure none of the four of us would have eaten one recently. I brought it wrapped up in a fine napkin and unveiled it after we walked in the door, announcing that I’d brought it in honor of Tu BiSh’vat.

Then we all stood around and looked at it. “Are we supposed to eat it now?” Mark asked me. “I have no idea,” I answered. “I thought you would know.”

We chuckled. Our hosts took the poor little fruit and served it up with honey cake for desert. It tasted like apple-flavored dishwater.

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