Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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An old friend came in the other day and told me he was thinking of converting. “To what?” I asked. “Judaism,” he said. I remembered the strange conversation we had three or four years earlier: he had called one night to apologize for having described me once to a friend of his as “a dirty Jew”; it had been weighing on his conscience; he wanted to let me know he was sorry.
I didn’t know what to say then, nor how to respond to his latest news. “The people I like and respect the most,” he said, “except when I’m hating them, are all Jewish.”
That didn’t seem like much of a reason to convert, I suggested.
“The main thing,” he went on, “is that I want to belong to something.”
I knew what he meant. I belong. But to what? My Judaism is a distant window, glimpsed at night, behind which the Sabbath candles flicker and dance. It’s the smell of my grandmother’s cookies and my grandfather’s breath, voices long gone, whispering in a language I barely understand. It’s everything I couldn’t eat and couldn’t do, the rules I disregarded as soon as I was old enough, the religion I denied as its mystical heart was denied to me, in favor of rules and more rules. It’s my ignorance of thousands of years of history, of human grandeur and suffering, of wandering and deliverance, rendered to me with all the epic sweep of a Superman comic book left in the rain. It’s the desert we crossed; it’s the desert wind which sings and cries like the old ones praying; it’s the wind that whips past like the young ones leaving, to become Hindus and Sufis, or just bad Jews like me.
Or worse. My father used to say “some of the biggest anti-Semites are Jews.” I thought he was describing some hideous personality disorder, a mirror cracked beyond repair — until, a few years later, I saw my own breath on the glass, my distaste for everything Jewish: from nice Jewish girls who wouldn’t “do it” to tough Israelis who did it, mercilessly, to any Arab, from hypocrites who in public scorned racism and at parties ridiculed blacks to the folksy camaraderie and cloying sentimentality of Jewish songs (I specifically instructed the band leader at my first wedding — a big Jewish affair — not to play anything from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical I despised simply because my relatives went around humming its tunes all the time).
Oh yes, my fierce Jewish scowl turned on everything fiercely Jewish; an unbending Jehovah, I did not easily forgive my people their pain or their passion or their conceit. Chosen . . . for what? Miami Beach? Chosen by history to suffer so appallingly and now to have become such appalling caricatures? I’d become a caricature, too — of a Jewish wise guy with an answer for everything, intolerant, unloving. I had become what I hated — a bigot who happened to be a Jew.
But my prejudice went beyond this — to Christians and Moslems, to all organized religions, to anyone who believed in God. I knelt at the altar of disbelief and thumbed my nose at the Lord our God on high. What — other than the dismal world He’d already created — was there to fear from this so-called God? War, poverty, pollution, injustice — every hell worth imagining was already here. To make the world a better place — that was all I knew of heaven, and hard enough to conceive, without religion getting in the way.
Through high school, college, marriage, the beginning of a career, I reached for heights, I dreamed dark dreams, but I neither thanked God nor blamed Him for the way things turned out. To pray to the sky — where everyone’s God seemed to dwell — seemed as pointless as writing to the White House and waiting at the mailbox for a personal reply. Life didn’t work that way. How it worked I couldn’t tell you, but who could? You moved around the pieces, angling for something better: fame or sex or social justice. There were lots of answers; why dwell on fruitless questions?
In 1970, on a beach in Spain, all that changed. A few months earlier, a German hippie had slipped something in my hand, saying, “It will make everything beautiful.” I was afraid it would also make me lose my mind. I put the tab in my pocket, not my mouth; my intuition was right — on the day I finally took it, I did lose my mind: the world’s familiar face disappeared; something shook me so hard my eyes opened, and so did my heart. This wasn’t the terror I had feared; this was ecstasy. I saw the earth breathe. I realized, not intellectually but right down to the gnarled roots of my skeptical soul, that everything was alive and seamlessly joined, animated from within by something so joyous, impossibly, purely, speechlessly loving that none of the thousands of words in my vocabulary could describe it, so I reached for the one word I’d discarded.
I turned to God. Not to the God of Abraham and Isaac — why go down that dead end? — but to Buddhism, Hinduism; I memorized Sanskrit mantras that were as strange to my ear as the Hebrew prayers I recited as a child; I studied yoga; I went to lectures; I read books. True, I knew little about the East — the heat and stink of neighborhood life, temple politics, whether children there understood their prayers — but it wasn’t the religions that interested me as much as the spark that had inspired them, the light they bowed before in praise.
Fourteen years later, I still praise the light. I talk less about God, and write less “spiritually” than I used to; this is good, I think — worshipful words, our own especially, end up being worshipped for themselves, which is the worst kind of idolatry. I ask different questions now, trusting my heart more than someone else’s authority, trusting silence more than books. But I still appreciate the books and the teachers; “my” voice is many voices and what they say is the same. Gandhi said he was Hindu and Moslem and Christian and Jew, that to reach the heart of truth is to reach the heart of all religion. Can I say that, too? Why is it still hard for me to say I’m a Jew?
I started thinking about this a few months ago, when I read Howard Jay Rubin’s interview (printed in this issue) with Rabbi Dovid Din. It was, for me, revelatory. Maybe Dovid Din is my first rabbi; certainly, he’s the first from my exalted tradition to explain to me why it’s so exalted. Reading his words I wondered how a teaching so soulful and proud had come down to me so lifeless and pale. Rabbi Din describes a feast as metaphysically sumptuous as anything from the East; but I dined on scraps. I was taught to read Hebrew, but not what the words meant. I was taught the rules, but not the original intent: that every event is sacred, that all our daily acts are, in Dovid Din’s words, “the hinges of holiness,” and must be blessed. Holidays, I was taught, were observed if convenient; otherwise, religion was something to conveniently forget: my grandmother lit the candles Friday night, signalling the start of the Sabbath and, in our home, its quiet death; to set aside a whole Saturday for God was impractical. But Passover was the biggest joke yet: my grandfather, dutifully observant, began the service solemnly, slowly intoning the opening prayer; soon, the pace quickened; impatient to eat, he’d skip pages, his voice, like an auctioneer’s, lurching ahead.
Judaism for me was my family; for children, the world is mostly what they see at home. What I saw was counterfeit; no wonder I turned from it. If this was Judaism, I wanted none.
So I never embraced Judaism but I never denied it, either. If asked what I was, I’d say I was “born Jewish,” as if I’d been born crippled, or crazy — my life a roll of the dice, a quirk of biology: I belonged to my family; what could I do?
I could stay angry with them, at their hypocrisy — but really, weren’t they in the same predicament as I? Had anyone revealed to them the great secrets? How could they pass on to me what they never knew? What sense was there in pointing my finger, ignorant Jew accusing ignorant Jew?
Was I stuck with Judaism, then, no matter what I did or didn’t do? Was I Jewish if I observed none of the rituals? If I married out of my faith? If I taught my children nothing about “our” race?
Was I Jewish because I’d been circumcised? Because I had a Jewish name? Because in the eyes of many, I’m set apart, fair game?
“Hitler should have burned you with the rest of the Jews,” someone told a friend of mine recently. Then she asked him, “That Safransky, is he a Jew, too?”
To a question like that, there’s only one answer. Suddenly I’m a tribesman; I’m a soldier; push and I’ll push back. There are too many stories written in blood for blood to fail the test.
But the anger passes and I’m back where I began — with memories and contradictions and more questions than answers for who I am.
Even now, with Dovid Din’s words filling me, seeing myself as a Jew does and doesn’t make sense. To honor who I am is important — so is not pretending; so is getting off the fence. Gandhi I’m not — merely another seeker, taking it step by step.
Maybe good Jews like Dovid will pray for me, that I become the Jew I am. I pray, too — if not as a Jew, just as a man.